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