On Saturday I ran a workshop at the #notwestminster conference and was so blown away by the feedback from participants that I decided to turn the workshop into a blog post to make it more widely accessible.

Called ‘The power of design’, my aim on Saturday was to share Involve’s expertise and approach around designing public engagement strategies and events. I’ve found Involve’s methodology immensely valuable since I started working here; I wanted to see if attendees from the local government sector felt the same.

The key contention of Involve’s approach is not to start with a method. No more, ‘ooo, I’ve come across this cool looking technique called a citizens’ jury – let’s run one.’

Instead, the approach lists nine key areas to work through before choosing a method:

1. Scope: There are at least two important questions here:

  • Which (parts of) policies or decisions are open to change and which aren’t? There is no point in conducting engagement if, in reality, it can’t change anything. It’s also important to think about this question from the public’s point of view. For an official, it might be clear what is and isn’t within a council’s or particular department’s control, for example. But do the pubic know that?
  • What level of engagement are you looking for? All the levels outlined in the picture below are valid. But it’s important to be clear with yourself and participants about which you want.

levels of eng amended

2. Purpose: Why is the engagement happening? A useful way to think about this is to consider what information the public or other participants hold that you can’t access in any other way. This might be, for example, about their experience of using a service or their views or aspirations around a particular issue.

3. Outcomes: What, specifically, should the engagement process seek to achieve? As well as outcomes directly linked to the purpose, it is important to consider if you have any desired secondary outcomes (for example, around increasing mutual understanding, developing a network of people you can go back to etc.)

4. Outputs: What should the engagement process produce (e.g. a report)?

5. Participants: Who needs to take part for the above to be achieved?

6. Budget: What budget is available for the project?

7. Timescales: When do you need the results by? Are there any other time constraints for the project as a whole or any of its stages?

8. Institutional response: When and how will the relevant decision-maker(s) review the results of the engagement process and respond?

9. Monitoring and evaluation: What information would it be useful to collect about the project (e.g. performance against desired outcomes, successes, learnings etc.)? How are you going to do it?

(You can find more detail on all these stages in Section Three of Involve’s report People and Participation).

Involve uses the above approach in all its work. And I’ve personally used it for designing events with purposes ranging from getting multi-stakeholder input into a Clinical Commissioning Group’s new Patient and Public Engagement strategy, to assisting young people to feed in their thoughts to a select committee enquiry on the purpose of education. What I didn’t know was whether participants on Saturday would find it useful.

Saturday’s workshop asked participants to run through the nine areas either for a real engagement situation they were facing at work, or for one of several pre-prepared scenarios – all taken from recent tenders Involve’s seen or enquiries we’ve had, such as children’s services, devolution, contracting out meals on wheels provision, increasing rates of recycling and prioritising budget cuts. Groups then used their answers to pick an appropriate method(s) for their project from amongst the examples provided.

Did participants find the process useful? The answer was a resounding yes. In their feedback, participants said:

  • The process of running through the questions as a discussion was useful in and of itself, for example to achieve a shared sense of purpose and clarity about aims;
  • The step by step approach made designing the engagement feel manageable instead of overwhelming;
  • Thinking about secondary outcomes was a new idea and a very helpful one;
  • It was useful to think about the strengths of different methods and, relatedly, the possibility of using different methods for different elements of the engagement;
  • It really got them to think about the situation in which the engagement was taking place.

The workshop finished with a discussion about how the nine-step approach could be made more accessible and available to local decision-makers. That’s something I need to give some thought to, building on the valuable ideas participants put forward. As a start, if you could share this post that would be great. You can also sign up to our newsletter (at the bottom of the page) or follow us on twitter to receive whatever videos, infographics or leaflets I eventually create. I am also more than happy to run this workshop again for interested parties and/or to answer questions about the methodology. If it’s useful then we want to share it. You can reach me using sarah@involve.org.uk / 020 7336 9462.

(Note: If you’re interested in finding about more about specific methods or case studies, try this toolkit, this website and/or this report).


Picture credit (design image): David Salafia