The overall objective of any public engagement exercise is to get effective public engagement that makes a difference to policy. You may want ideas, commitment, validation, legitimacy, enthusiasm … but the crucial element is that these things can make a difference to the content of the policy.
It can be useful to involve the evaluator in formally defining the objectives of the public engagement exercise, for two reasons:
- to make sure the objectives are realistic, achievable and measurable, and that data can be collected so that success in achieving the objectives can be relatively easily measured and reported (internally and/or externally)
- to help ensure there are no hidden objectives / unstated hopes for the exercise that need to be made explicit to avoid them affecting the ‘sense’ of whether the exercise has been successful. It is part of the job of the evaluator to ‘surface assumptions’ about what it is expected that the exercise should or could achieve, and make sure these assumptions are taken into account in the detailed planning process by making them explicit in the stated objectives.
Generally speaking, there are four basic reasons why government might want to get the public engaged in a particular policy process:
- improved governance: to do with democratic legitimacy, accountability, trust, citizens’ rights, empowerment etc
- social capital and social justice: to do with tackling exclusion and increasing equity, and building relationships, networks and ownership
- improved quality of services, projects and programmes: more efficient and better services that meet needs and reflect broad social values
- capacity building and learning: to build confidence, skills, understanding, awareness, knowledge.
Any single engagement exercise can achieve more than one of these purposes, although it helps in measuring success to be as specific as possible about the exact objectives of the particular exercise.
It may be that the engagement exercise runs for some time, or there are different elements to the whole policy process with different types of engagement exercise for each.
It may therefore make sense to identify different objectives for the different stages or parts of the process.
In setting objectives, it helps to establish the nature of the engagement very early on. The usual approach is to think about the depth of influence the public will have.
The International Association of Public Participation has developed a spectrum of levels of engagement, as below.
The level of influence will affect the way the objectives for the exercise are formulated, and thus the method used.