Establishing a clear purpose and getting agreement on it within the commissioning body is the single most important stage of any engagement process. Indeed, no participatory process should proceed without it.

There are, however, good and bad purposes. A good purpose will be highly focused with clear outputs (see Section 3.4) and outcomes (see Section 3.5), which are easy for all to understand. A bad purpose will be poorly defined, with unclear outcomes and open to many different interpretations. A measure of a good purpose is its ability to create a commonly shared understanding of the potential impact of the project.

This does not mean that a good purpose must be narrow in its scope. Indeed, many of the best purposes are very broad. The point is that a purpose must be easy to understand and an accurate reflection of what is going to happen. Much of the best participation depends on the participants coming up with their own agenda for change, which is fine, as long as the agenda can then be implemented satisfactorily and everyone understands what they are part of.

It is essential that all those with an interest or influence over the process in a commissioning organisation are aligned to its purpose. Too often, different purposes exist within the same organisation, sometimes unspoken or assumed, and this only comes to light when the process is underway, which can be both damaging and embarrassing.

Purpose as reference point

Once established, the agreed purpose can provide a reference point throughout the process. This is especially useful if participants are likely to introduce new subjects during the process, as their relevance to the purpose will determine whether they should be included.

A clear purpose enables the commissioning body to ensure that the right mechanisms are in place to transform the process outputs into outcomes. Many processes fail because commissioning institutions do not live up to the expectations placed on them  (see Section 3.8). Clarifying the purpose of a process ensures that any commissioning body knows what it is getting into and can then check whether participation is appropriate.

A purpose also gives participants the opportunity to make an informed choice about getting involved. Too often we hear complaints of people feeling misled or manipulated. This is often because of mis-communication between the commissioner and participants as to what the process can change. Section 3.3 shows in detail how the purpose will influence who can and should be involved.

Defining the purpose

Defining a clear purpose is not as easy as it sounds. For an organisation to reach a shared understanding requires time, which is almost always in short supply, especially at the start of a process. External circumstances can also affect the purpose and this possibility should be anticipated. For example, the results of forthcoming research or a decision taken by others can both influence the context and the purpose of a participation process.  This is a particular risk if the process is not recognised or valued by people more senior than those involved in the detailed design and delivery.

It is important that defining the purpose includes clarity about the desired outputs and outcomes. Outcomes are about what you ultimately want to achieve (for example, consensus on building incinerators); outputs are how you will achieve the outcomes (for example, by providing information in leaflets or holding meetings). Making the distinction clear will contribute to defining a robust and useful purpose.

Creativity and experience

Good participation can have both tangible (for example, policy changes) and intangible (people feel more empowered) impacts. The Institute for Cultural Affairs make this distinction usefully by what they call the ‘Rational Aims’ and the ‘Experiential Aims’ of a process.  Rational Aims are what the group needs to produce (what we  describe as outcomes and outputs); Experiential Aims are what the group needs to experience or feel as a result. This distinction is useful to help people think through the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ results that are sought. Both are usually required.

Another type of output is innovation, which may be tangible, intangible, or both. Some processes are excellent at generating new ideas and solutions to challenging issues.  If innovation is important this must be made clear, as certain methods are better at creating new ideas than others (see Section 4).

In summary, there are many possible purposes for participation, including to:

  • Involve and engage;
  • Explore issues and come up with new ideas;
  • Network and share ideas and practice;
  • Make a decision;
  • Inform;
  • Achieve any of the core purposes for participation already mentioned (governance, social cohesion and social justice, improved quality of services, capacity building and learning).

Identifying such purposes will involve:

  • Liaising internally to clarify what can be changed as a result of the process and what outputs and outcomes are sought;
  • Liaising externally with those affected by a process to identify people’s interests and concerns.

The key questions to help clarify the purposes of the exercise will be:

  • What do you want to have achieved at the end of this process (outcomes)?
  • What tangible products do you want to have produced during and after the process (outputs)?

And a checking question:

  • What will you have to do with the outputs to ensure you achieve the desired outcomes?