Public services

What can the public contribute to the water, postal and energy sectors?

Public participation in the regulated industries
Ipsos MORI Scotland
June 2016 – December 2016

Despite a growing recognition that public input can enhance policy and decision making (particularly when the public is given the opportunity to spend time learning and deliberating about the issue), some industries remain uncertain about whether the general public can effectively contribute to their sector. This is particularly the case when there are complex and/or technical decisions that have to be made.

To explore whether this was a valid concern the Consumer Futures Unit (CFU, part of Citizens Advice Scotland) commissioned Involve, in partnership with Ipsos MORI Scotland, to conduct a research review addressing the question:

What deliberative research has been done in the UK and internationally within the regulated industries (water, energy and post), and what can we learn from this?

What we did

We began the research with a scoping exercise which identified 50 examples of deliberative engagement with consumers, or the wider public, which were relevant to the needs and demands of the regulated industries:

  • 17 of these examples were broadly linked to the energy sector (including energy generation, carbon mitigation and energy futures);
  • 20 related to water (covering topics that included ‘What should be priorities for industry?’, environmental management and flood risks);
  • Only 1 example, despite an extensive search, came from the postal sector.

The 12 other examples came from different industry contexts, including public works, health, public safety, local planning and telecommunications. They were selected because of the insight they offered regarding how differing deliberative methodologies have been used to address challenging policy questions in complex, technical and infrastructure-heavy sectors.

31 of these projects were then selected for further focus and developed into case studies. The CFU had explicitly asked for the research to ensure coverage across a range of different methods that they were particularly interested in understanding further:

  1. Consumer Reference Groups / Customer Forums
  2. Citizens Advisory Forums
  3. Deliberative Focus Groups
  4. General Deliberative Workshops
  5. Repeated Structured Dialogues
  6. Distributed Dialogues
  7. Citizens Juries
  8. Citizens Assemblies
  9. Deliberative Mapping
  10. Participatory Strategic Planning
  11. Online Deliberations

What were the outcomes

The research demonstrated that, across these sectors, a wide range of techniques and methods have been used to great effect to influence policy and decision making at national, regional and local levels. This effectiveness, however, was demonstrated to be less dependent on the specific method used than on the context in which it was deployed: vision setting, negotiating options, identifying preferences and/or balancing priorities.

What also became abundantly clear throughout this research was that, while there is a growing array of deliberative engagement activity taking place across the regulated industries, innovation has been taking place in isolation. This means that policy and decision makers within these sectors (alongside those who wish to influence them) do not readily have the opportunity to learn from the experiences of others in different sectors, different countries and those using different methods.

Overall, therefore, while the CFU’s initial intent may have been to develop their own understanding of deliberative approaches in order to expand the range of research models they use to understand consumer attitudes, the resulting report has relevance and application far beyond policy-making and service planning in the regulated industries in Scotland.


The Public Participation in the Regulated Industries Report has now been published by the CFU.


Photo by Fré Sonneveld on Unsplash