It can be tempting to dive straight into thinking about specific methods and tools for engaging people. However, good quality engagement needs to be carefully designed from the ground up. 

There are a wide range of considerations in planning public engagement. These can be boiled down into four key sets of questions:

  1. Why? – What is your purpose for involving people?

  2. Where? – What is the context in which you are engaging? What are the internal and external factors that you need to consider?

  3. Who? – What is your target audience? How will you ensure that they (can) take part? 

  4. How? – What is the process, methods and tools you will use? How will you ensure that it has impact?

Below we outline some of the key considerations under each of these questions. Check out the next chapter for links to more detailed guidance on how to design public participation.

Why? – Defining your purpose

As with any project or programme, it is important to start by establishing your purpose. What is your reason for wanting to involve residents? What impact are you looking to achieve? Your answers to these questions should shape everything else that you decide, from who you seek to involve, to how you try to engage them. 

One way to think about your purpose is to consider what you need people to help you to do. For example, you might be looking to the public to help propose ideas for tackling an issue; weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of different courses of action; review and improve your plans; take action or something else entirely.

The flipside of this, of course, is considering what you can help them to do. Particularly when considering community mobilisation and mutual-aid groups, it will be important to consider how your purposes overlap and what opportunities there are for collaboration. 

Find out more about defining your purpose.

Once you’ve defined your purpose, the next step is to break this down into the specific outcomes that you are looking to achieve. It can be useful to differentiate between primary (essential) and secondary (nice-to-have) outcomes when you do this to ensure focus on what really matters. 

Find out more about defining your outcomes.

Where? – Considering your context 

Once you’ve established your purpose, you will need to consider how your context impacts it. Off-the-shelf or copy-and-paste processes rarely work, and can risk being damaging. Any good participatory process needs to be well embedded within its context – and designed with this in mind.

Your context will consist of a combination of internal factors – that concern your organisation – and external factors – that concern the local place, community and beyond. 

Important internal factors to consider include your:

  • Decision-making environment, including the interest, commitment and/or involvement of key decision-makers in the process, and how this process fits into the relevant decision-making systems;

  • Capacity, capabilities and budgets to resource the process;

  • History of engagement with the community and current relationship.

External factors to consider include:

  • What engagement and mobilisation is already taking place in the local community;

  • What other partners in the public, private and community sectors are doing or have planned, and opportunities for partnership or risks of conflict;

  • Networks and assets that you can draw on to support the process;

  • Barriers that might prevent residents from engaging.

One significant factor to consider currently is the impact of Covid on the operation and feasibility of different participatory methods. Social distancing and lockdown measures will likely mean that many face-to-face participation methods are not viable. Fortunately, there are lots of alternatives that can be employed instead. 

Find out more about considering your context.

Who? – Identifying your participants

It is important to consider who you need to involve in a participation process. This should be guided, to a large extent, by your purpose. For example, your specific purposes might dictate that you need to engage a specific group or community, a representative cross-section of society, or anyone who’s interested and/or has something to offer. As part of this process, it is also important to consider who you need to involve from within your own or partner organisations in order to ensure that the process has maximum chance of success.

Specific questions can help to make sure no important sectors are forgotten if the purpose is to be achieved. For example:

  • Who is directly responsible for the decisions on the issues?

  • Who is influential in the area, community and/or organisation?

  • Who will be affected by any decisions on the issue (individuals and organisations)?

  • Who runs organisations with relevant interests?

  • Who is influential on this issue?

  • Who can obstruct a decision if not involved?

  • Who has been involved in this issue in the past?

  • Who has not been involved, but should have been?

Once you have identified who you need to participate, the next step is to consider how best to reach them and facilitate their engagement. In order to do this, you will need to consider:

  • What’s-In-It-For-Them – what will participants get out of taking part and how does it connect with what they care about?

  • Barriers – what will get in the way of people engaging and how can these factors be lessened and removed?

  • Networks – what connections can you draw on to reach specific communities? 

  • Power – how will societal power imbalances and inequalities impact on if/how people can engage?

Find out more about identifying your participants.

How? – Designing your process

Once you have considered all of the above, the final step is to design your process. This includes selecting the most appropriate methods and tools to achieve your purpose, in your context, with your participants. 

It can often be advantageous to involve other people in designing your process. This may include other key stakeholders in your or partner organisations, and/or members of the local community themselves. This can have a dual benefit of contributing more ideas and perspectives to the design process, and building in ownership with key people.

As part of this design process, you will want to consider how you break down the process to deliver the specific outputs that contribute towards your purpose, and how these activities are phased (particularly if there are dependencies between them). One way to consider this is by the policy making cycle, where different participatory methods may contribute at different stages. For example, you may have a process that involves people in each or a selection of these steps: 

  • Agenda setting – setting a vision and/or agreeing shared objectives;

  • Policy development – developing and/or evaluating ideas and options;

  • Decision-making – deciding on a course of action;

  • Implementation – putting into practice projects and programmes;

  • Evaluation – monitoring and evaluating what’s been delivered.

Find out more about designing your process.

There are many tried-and-tested participatory methods and tools, as well as new innovations that are being experimented with, that can be used to involve people in a range of different ways.

No single method provides a silver bullet. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses and are therefore more or less suited to different purposes, contexts and participants. It is therefore important to select them carefully with these things in mind.

Find out more about different participatory methods.

With social distancing measures in place, it is likely that you will need to particularly consider online methods and tools. Fortunately, the web is filled with tools to enable participation, collaboration and discussion. They come in many shapes and sizes and fulfil a range of functions, but – as with methods – no tool can do everything.

Find out more about different digital tools for participation.