This article offers a fresh reading of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and of the Common Implementation Strategy guidance document number 8 on public participation (PP) aimed at identifying the conditions required for successful implementation. We propose that a central barrier to implementing Article 14 is that Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) problems are complex in character and that participation is a wicked process in practice. This article highlights some ambiguous interpretations of the WFD comparing and contrasting the ‘letter of the law’ and its ‘spirit’, based on a critical review of the nature of PP, who it concerns and when it takes place. First we articulate a complex system interpretation of IWRM in the context of the WFD. Second, we explain the difficulty to define blueprint for PP in IWRM. Finally, we present five interpretative challenging readings in order to highlight tensions between the ‘spirit’ and the ‘letter’ of the WFD.