Published on November 10, 2011

It takes two to engage

By Tim Hughes

Tim is Open Government Programme Manager at Involve and coordinator of the UK Open Government Network - a coalition of active citizens and civil society organisations committed to making government work better for people through increased transparency, participation and accountability.

Motivations are critical to whether citizens engage, but we need a much better understanding of how individuals’ motivations are affected by their participation experiences.

A strong case has been developed in recent decades for the benefits of public participation to public organisations, and a good understanding has been established of the ingredients needed for successful engagement. There is still much work to be done on embedding a participatory culture within our institutions, but we can at least answer the why and how questions of engagement for decision-makers and budget holders.

But it takes two to engage – decision-makers and budget holders cannot do it alone, and we need to spend some time thinking about citizens. Embedding opportunities and processes for engagement within organisations is pointless unless citizens are motivated (and able) to get involved. Stella Creasy MP summed this up at the launch of the Pathways through Participation briefing paper, Local engagement in democracy. In her reflections on the research, she criticised the common presumption that the only barrier to greater public participation is the lack of institutional infrastructure:

‘When I was at Involve I used to call it the ‘field of dreams’ approach: “if we build it, they will come.” What this research does so clearly is point out to all of us who are involved in political engagement that if we want more people to be involved then it’s not about us, it’s about the people we want to involve, their motivations, their participation, what they’re interested in, and how we work on that.’

As Stella commented, our Pathways through Participation research highlighted the importance of personal motivations to whether people engage. But here lies a conundrum: it also suggests that policy-makers and practitioners cannot and should not attempt to directly affect individuals’ motivations. Imposing external agendas on people and/or trying to channel them into narrowly defined areas of participation is unlikely to result in more active citizens, and may in fact have the opposite effect.

This raises some issues and tensions for public participation that need to be acknowledged and worked through if the value of participation is to be proved to both government and citizens. Here are a couple of them:

First, there are a significant proportion of people who say they do not wish to be more involved in decision-making. In 2008 the Hansard Society, in its annual Audit of Political Engagement, found that 18% of people didn’t want to be involved at all in decision-making in their local area, and 32% only wanted to be ‘not very involved’. Should we accept this, and focus on the 5% who want to be ‘very involved’ and the 43% who want to be ‘fairly involved’?

Second, the Pathways through Participation research also found that ‘in general, our interviewees seemed more ready to become involved in local level public participation in order to preserve the features of their locality rather than to change them.’ Does this suggest that we should be seeking to offer people more opportunities to air their grievances, and that it’s a waste of time to try to develop more positive and collaborative relationships between citizens and government?

How you approach the two issues set out above must depend on the degree to which you think peoples’ motivations are influenced/determined by the system, context or paradigm in which they exist. I tend to agree with Tessy Britton, who spoke at the same event as Stella Creasy, who commented:

‘[The research] made me feel quite radical after I read it. It is a very good snapshot of the status quo but I think […] that it’s a very unsatisfactory state of affairs the way things are at the moment. My own thoughts are that we need to […] be quite radical in the way we look about changing systems, and not just saying that this is how it is and we need to just work along with it. So I think this is a good platform to build on that thinking about how we take change forward.’

The current system too often does not match up to the needs and expectations of citizens. Data from the 2008/09 Place Survey, presented here by Ipsos MORI, shows that of the 15% of people involved in decision-making bodies on local issues, 60% felt they could not influence decisions. Pathways through Participation uncovered some extremely negative perceptions and experiences of public participation, and showed the negative impact that this can have on people’s willingness to be involved. With this in mind, it is perhaps more surprising that, despite such poor perceptions and experiences of the political system, some citizens still want to be involved.

That said, as far as I can find, there is very little research specifically into how people’s experiences of public participation can affect their motivations, and the knock-on effects this has in their social networks and communities.

While Pathways pointed towards the damaging effects of bad engagement, as I stated in our recent newsletter, we do not know if the contrary is true – that a good experience will necessarily lead to more involvement. There is some evidence from evaluations of dialogue and engagement exercises that people say they want to become involved again if they’ve had a good experience, but we do not know conclusively:

  • How long this effect lasts; does it wear off and do people convert it into action?
  • How broad the effect is; does it just apply to a specific issue and/or organisation?
  • How multiple good experiences affect motivation; does it create a larger or longer lasting effect, and what happens to an individual’s motivation if they have a subsequent bad experience?
  • How people define a good experience; what ingredients need to be present for them to see the benefits and want to come back again?
  • If people share the experience with others; does the old adage that “a customer who gets good service will tell one person yet a customer who gets bad service will tell 10 people” apply to public engagement as well?

So in short, we need a much better understanding of whether and how the current system affects people’s motivations and in turn what this means for policy makers and practitioners. Is it possible to stimulate or shift citizens’ motivations through the opportunities and experience public institutions provide?

Image by OneEighteen

6 Responses to “It takes two to engage”

  1. November 11, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Really interesting research Tim!

    A slightly off beam question perhaps, but in quantitative terms, most people will interact much less with their local council or community activities than they do at school if they’re children, university/workplace if they’re adults, care homes if they’re older.
    And shops at the weekend.

    Admittedly people’s lives aren’t as one-dimensional as that! But I was wondering if the research had showed if there’s an impact on how the “participation experiences” of these institutions affect people’s motivations to engage in community participation?

  2. Tim Hughes
    Tim Hughes
    November 11, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Interesting question Noel. I’m not aware of any research on how those experiences affect people’s motivations to engage either, but Pathways found that they’re important for other reasons (e.g. developing skills, confidence and social networks). Would be interesting (but perhaps quite difficult?) to explore what the links are.

    A similar, but narrower, question that interests me is what the links are between participation as service users (e.g. co-production) and participation as citizens (e.g. participatory democracy). By empowering people as service users, will/can they become empowered as citizens?

  3. November 11, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    From what I’ve seen is that the experience of interacting with the service shapes the user’s motivation to want to co-produce. Certainly not a given that everyone wants to. High levels of trust with people working in the service and/or informal connections with other service users help.

    When we aim to empower service users, we should be thinking of them as citizens first, then service users rather than other way round. More inclusive way to then enable non-service users to feel ownership of problem service is trying to tackle (unemployment good example of issue that would benefit from this approach). In that sense, co-production needs to be more than just service-user relationship, but involve wider community.

  4. Tim Hughes
    Tim Hughes
    November 11, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    That sounds like an important shift in perspective to begin to tackle problems, but it doesn’t sound like one that public opinion will easily accept in many cases.

    Again, there seems to be a real tension between our (public institutions, politicians, policy makers, practitioners, etc.) reasons for engaging and the motivations and values of many citizens. Charlie Mansell (Campaign’s Company) directed me towards this – http://thecampaigncompany.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/the-values-gap/ – which suggests there is a mismatch in the value sets of public sector practitioners and the general public.

    Leads to many more questions than answers though.

  5. November 11, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Agree and as human beings, we don’t always practice what we preach. There are a variety of customer insight techniques that help understand different types of groups and how to target them.

    An area that’s really difficult is where behaviour change by citizens and communities (even more so by powerful institutions but that’s a different debate!) is required…to balance out competing desires by citizens (“Swedish level of public services on US level of tax rates” argument by Ben Page at MORI). Helping people understand the issues really important, which then leads to the question of how people’s literacy & social environment affects their understanding of the issues. As you say more questions than answers!

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