A good participatory process must be well embedded within its context. A useful way to consider the context is as the landscape you are operating within. It may not be necessary to know all the details of a particular area, but you must know where you are going (the purpose), where there may be obstacles or easy access (the context) and have the equipment that will get you there (planning, methods etc.).

Understanding the wider context is important to ensure that it:

  • Links with other relevant activities going on at the same time;
  • Is responsive to participant needs / sensitivities by appreciating their wider role;
  • Builds on previous experience and learns lessons from the past;
  • Does not duplicate other activities;
  • Progresses quickly and is relevant.

The factors that are likely to affect the success of any participatory process, and the choice of method, are likely to include:

Decision-making environment

You will want to know about:

  • The interest, commitment and/or involvement of key decision-makers in the process;
  • How this current participatory process fits into the relevant decision-making systems (e.g. timing, required documents, etc.).


You will want to know about:

  • Past participatory exercises on the same project / programme, including how they went (e.g. conflict, agreement), and what happened as a result;
  • Other relevant past activities which may affect planned discussions.

Characteristics and capabilities of participants

You will want to know about:

  • Sectors of society which are unlikely to participate (e.g. from disadvantaged neighbourhoods) but which would add value to the process if they did and how best to reach and support their involvement;
  • Existing relationships between key participants (e.g. antagonism, close alliances, etc), including relationships with facilitators, relevant decision-makers etc;
  • The diversity of experience of participation among participants. Those with most experience may have the most skills and confidence and could dominate proceedings. The process may need to be designed to deal with these differences if they are significant (e.g. different sessions for different interests, with all brought together at the end). Alternatively, the process could be designed to suit the most – or least – experienced;
  • The cultural diversity of participants which may affect, for example, people’s willingness to meet all together (e.g. men and women together), and/or affect the way different participants are used to debating in public with others (e.g. those with formal committee experience may expect a chair and formal debating procedures);
  • Language – do you need to provide interpreters to ensure you get the people you need there, and whether it needs to be made clear on any promotional literature that a translator will be used;
  • Any barriers to people working together e.g. gender barriers and whether men will be able to work with all women groups.

Other relevant activities

You will want to know which other relevant current, recent or planned activities are going on so that information can be shared, any duplication reduced and any outputs are disseminated and dovetailed (if that is appropriate). This could include other activities that are:

  • Covering the same subject area (e.g. the same programme, or issue);
  • Covering the same geographical area;
  • Involving the same participants.

Once you have a good understanding of the context it is important to realise that all participants will have their own interpretation of the context within which they are operating. Time will probably be needed to allow participants to develop a shared understanding of the context for the specific participatory process.

Context checklist

Ask yourself…

Are you aware of how committed, involved or interested the key decision makers are with regard to the engagement process? ❏

Do you have an idea as to how your process will fit into any decision-making mechanisms in terms of timing and documentation required?  ❏

Are you aware of any previous participatory initiatives and their outcomes? It is important to be informed by previous experience rather than beginning from scratch.  ❏

Have you found out if there is a history relevant to the process that you need to take into account when planning? ❏

Have you considered which participants are considered less likely to participate and how to reach out and support their involvement?  ❏

Are you aware of any pre-existing relationships between participants and facilitators? There may be friendships or strained relationships that you need to be aware of.  ❏

Personality of the group – are you aware of individuals who may need extra encouragement to participate in group discussions, or of those who may dominate? Approaches to managing these differences should be prepared beforehand.  ❏

Diversity of the group – is it appropriate for the whole group to meet together ( i.e. men and women, young and old, senior and junior) or will this affect participants’ ability to join in a frank and open discussion?  ❏

Formality of communication – what tone is appropriate for the group? This will affect the type of place you may meet, whether online methods are used and the type of language spoken and written.  ❏

Do interpreters need to be used and if so do you have a strategy for publicising the presence of interpreters to potential participants? ❏

Are you aware of any informally discussed hopes or aspiration that have not been formally acknowledged in the process aims? ❏