Can anyone spare £6bn? As this period of frugality creeps up on us, budgets for public engagement will be more vulnerable than ever before. Yet paradoxically, in a time of compromises, meaningful government citizen conversations are all the more valuable.

During the past couple of months we have been working with Consumer Focus England to develop a tool to help make the business case for public engagement exercises. We are not the only ones embarking on this; there is growing demand for such work. Organisations as diverse as the Department of Health, Improvement and Development Agency and Sciencewise are all exploring the ways in which we might assign a value to public engagement.

It is not surprising that we have all recognised the need for such a tool. Public engagement is a conspicuous area of a public budget, and projects which are poorly conceived and expensive have the potential to tarnish the reputation of the whole family of activities. Despite this, those of us who work in this field are all too aware of the value of well run public engagement processes. Indeed, in a time of cutbacks public involvement in decision making is more vital than ever before. People will need to see that their opinion counts if they are to accept these cuts, and what better way for government to communicate the laborious and tough decisions ahead than through involving the public in that decision making.

The challenge is in demonstrating this value. In order for more people to recognise the significance of public engagement in an age of spending cuts, we need to get better at communicating the impact of our work. In doing so we should refresh our approach to evaluating and scrutinising the strengths and weaknesses of our projects. For this reason, Involve, Consumer Focus England and the other organisations previously mentioned have been delving into the subjects of evaluation, cost benefit analysis and social return on investment to begin to fathom what a business case for public engagement might look like.

In our research we spoke to project managers who told us about their varied public engagement processes, the types of costs that went into them and the types of outcomes that came out. We know from speaking to these project managers that it is possible to demonstrate tangible outcomes as a result of engagement.

One of our case studies was a Collaborative project which takes place every year in North East Lincolnshire. In this programme community members come together alongside civil society and PCT staff. They spend time over a few months developing an approach to a public health matter. The community members bring really valuable insight around local needs and priorities. Not only does this programme result in quantifiably improved health outcomes but also greater confidence and empowerment of the people who take part. Through looking at this example and others we were able to refine the categories for the types of information a project manager would need to collect. We explored how this information could be inputted into an equation in order to make a business case. The end result is something that, although a little rough around the edges, allows us to demonstrate value more confidently than ever before.

Some people are sceptical about whether we can/ should quantify the outcomes. Many of the reasons why we do public engagement are seemingly unquantifiable. Conversation between the public and decision makers should happen not just because we believe it leads to better decisions and improved services, which of course it can do. It should also happen because it has the potential to instil greater ownership of the decisions taken, greater community cohesion, a more confident and informed public or simply because we believe it is the ‘right thing to do’.

Clearly we do not want a tool which reduces all of benefits, or indeed the costs, of public engagement to those which can be assigned a monetary value. But we do need to get better and louder about expressing the impact of our activities. Better measurement will lead to greater confidence, louder voices and ultimately the continued recognition that good quality public participation is vital to tackling some of the biggest challenges we face.

“It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong” – John Maynard Keyes

Emily Fennell

For more information about this project see Valuing Public Engagement