​The purpose of defining the scope of a participatory exercise is to clarify exactly what the boundaries to the exercise are – what can really be achieved in practice – and thus define an appropriate and achievable purpose.

There are some basic questions to answer in defining scope:

How much can really change?

Establishing what can actually change as a result of participation – what is ‘up for grabs’ – is critical. Defining this will require liaison with the decision maker(s) and should result in a clear statement from them as to what the participation can change. The International Association of Public Participation calls this the ‘Promise to the Public’.

Is participation appropriate at all?

There is no point in going any further with participation if, for example:

  • nothing can change, no matter what the results of the participation;
  • there is no demand or interest from potential participants in getting involved;
  • there are insufficient resources to make the process work properly.

What are the risks?

Every activity carries risks and working with the public is by its very nature unpredictable. This is partly why participation is being done – to reach something new, something not already known. Good risk management requires that the potential risks are considered from the start. The main risks in participation are to:

  • Reputations. Everyone involved in participation is risking their reputation, whether in the design and delivery of the participatory exercise, the willingness to participate at all and the willingness to abide by the results (if that is appropriate to the technique used);
  • Resources. Participation costs money and takes time, including that of skilled personnel;
  • Failure to deliver on promised outcomes. Even where the desired outcomes seem clearly defined from the start, decision-makers may refuse to accept the outcomes.;
  • Relationships. A poorly run process can damage relationships between all those involved. Although participation can increase social capital and build capacity if designed to do so, bad participation can damage relationships and undermine confidence.

What level of participation is being sought?

Will the exercise focus on:

  • Informing those affected (inform);
  • Informing those making the decision (consult);
  • Change the decision (involve);
  • Jointly make the decision (partnership / collaboration);
  • Enable others to make decisions and/or take action (empower).

Scope checklist

Before you begin…​

Ask your self…YesIf the answer is no
Can anything change as a result of participation?A participatory process may not be right for you. Consider using traditional communication methods instead.
Do you have enough resources both time and money to run the process?It may not be wise to undertake a process which may fail due to lack of resources. Both time and money are needed to secure success.
Is the decision maker supportive of your participation process?Consider how to gain their support – if this is not an option then reconsider the process objectives.
Is the issue one which is of interest to your intended participants? Consider what your proposed participants could get out of engaging in the process
Have you considered which participants you aim to engage? Take time to work out who you want to involve and why. Sketch out ideas on the mix of people you would like in the group and the numbers involved.
Do you have shared clarity on the general type of outputs you are seeking? Work with the key decision maker in order to establish how best to use the information gathered.
Have previous attempts at involving the public been successful? Speak to those involved in organising previous processes and find out what could be improved.
Is your process the only current attempt to involve these participants around this issue? Consider partnering with other organisations or groups working in a similar area.