Why we need to engage real people in policy development


Working in a research agency gave me the opportunity to deliver a range of projects for different government departments and third sector organisations that directly involved the public in identifying issues and developing solutions to address them. Now I work client-side I have an even greater opportunity to see how ordinary consumers can inform and shape the policy development process. In this blog post, I look at the different forms of citizen engagement and participation, its importance for the policy development process and how high-quality citizen engagement and participation can be delivered. I finish by sign-posting some SRA training which might be useful for those wishing to develop skills in citizen engagement and participation. 

What is citizen engagement and participation? 

From the bitterly opposed eco-town Weston Otmoor, to the more recently announced citizen's assembly on climate change, citizen participation means many things. Citizen engagement and participation is a slippery term but in general it is where citizens voluntarily take part in an activity which will help influence their community (either at a local, national or issue-based level). 

However, it extends beyond one-directional polling or ad hoc focus groups. At the heart of citizen engagement and participation is the idea that people are actively engaged in conversations about issues that affect them and that this provides the opportunity for a “tangible response to citizens’ feedback”. It is two-way and reciprocal. 

There is an ongoing conversation around what constitutes ‘meaningful’ citizen engagement and participation.

Multiple citizen engagement and participation typologies and frameworks have been developed that differentiate between lower-order, tokenistic engagement and higher-order, more meaningful engagement.

Sherry Arnstein’s seminal 1969 work ‘The Ladder of Citizen Participation’ provides an early typology of citizen engagement and participation. In this work, Arnstein distinguishes between ‘the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome’ by identifying eight ‘levels’ of participation. These levels run from manipulation and therapy (non-participation), through informing, consulting and placating (degrees of tokenism) and up to partnership, delegated power and citizen control (degrees of citizen power). 

Over half a century later, WPP’s Government and Public Sector Practice laid out a similar model setting out the graduation of engagement levels ranging from lower-order activities where authorities do not relinquish decision-making power to citizens, through to higher-order activities where the citizen shapes the policy process and the narrative.

What can citizen engagement and participation bring to the policy development process? 

Effectively engaging with citizens can bring a number of benefits to the policy development process.

1. Citizen engagement and participation makes for stronger policy 

Engaging citizens in the policy development process enables policy makers to get a fuller understanding of issues that are important to people but which may not surface in a meaningful way without active conversations being had with those affected. Ultimately, understanding the different issues at play, and the needs underlying certain positions, can enable policy makers to develop interventions which are more targeted, more effective and also legitimate. 

2. Citizen Engagement helps ensure that all voices are heard
Speaking with a broad cross-section of the community can help to prevent groupthink and help ensure all voices are heard. Although it is important not to downplay the role of experts who will likely have a broader view on what is feasible in the policy context and given available budgets, academics Julie Simon and Anna Davies argue “a group of experts with similar perspectives who apply the same heuristics will tend to get stuck in the same places as one another, whereas a diverse group of solvers will not.”


3. Citizen engagement and participation builds trust and improves accountability between stakeholders

Engaging citizens directly can make the policy development process more transparent, which in turn can help build trust in the policy making process. While authorities often still hold the ultimate decision making power over whether or not to act on citizens input, being clear about why a certain position was reached can build the legitimacy of certain policy decisions as citizens have been directly involved in shaping the policy. Citizens are also more able to hold policy makers to account if their views have not been respected, or decisions made counter to participants views have not been fully justified. 


4. Citizen engagement and participation is ethical 

Engaging participants directly in the policy process is, arguably, more ethical. It requires “solutions that are created ‘with’ and ‘by’ people rather than ‘for’ or ‘at’ them”  - it is both more consultative and citizen-centred. 

How can social research methods be used in citizen engagement and participation? 

Almost all forms of social research can be seen as types of citizen engagement and participation. Surveys and consultations can be effective ways for organisations to identify issues among their stakeholders, while town-halls and citizen juries can help understand wider views on complex issues. 

However, keeping different citizen engagement and participation typologies in mind, and with an eye on higher-order engagement, qualitative approaches appear to lend themselves particularly well to getting an in depth insight into how citizens perceive and experience particular issues and what solutions may gain particular traction. 

While citizen engagement and participation can take place at various points in the policy development cycle, the Design Council’s framework for innovation - the double diamond - is a useful reference for when engaging with citizens may be beneficial. It breaks down the innovation process into four stages at which citizens can contribute. These are:

- Discover: engaging with citizens to understand what the problem or issues are.
- Define: based on the discovery stage, consolidate issues into clear questions or challenges. 
- Develop: having defined the questions or challenges, co-design potential solutions or interventions with your target audience 
- Deliver: test the solutions or interventions with the public at a small scale and refine. 

Design Council’s evolved Double Diamond for Innovation 


The Design Council emphasise that this is not a linear process. Stages may be repeated and the cycle as a whole may be gone through multiple times to gain new insights on issues and refine solutions. 

What are the limits or risks of citizen engagement and participation? 

While citizen engagement and participation does have a number of benefits, there are also risks which need to be considered and mitigated against. 

1. Policy issues are complex 

As such, researchers and policy partners will need to invest considerable amounts of time and resource developing research tools that convey complexities, trade-offs or mutual dependencies. It is necessary to consider whether this is feasible given the time available and the topic at hand. 

2.  Appropriate sampling is important 

To avoid the research process being co-opted by “vested interests and elite groups and over-representation of the most affluent, articulate and educated members of the community.” If your sample does not reflect your target audience then the degree to which you can fully surface the latent needs of your community and develop appropriate interventions will be limited. Actions may also be perceived as illegitimate. 
3. Can Citizen Engagement lead to poorer outcomes? 
Julie Simon and Anna Davies argue that while engagement activities can lead to a greater sense of empowerment and agency, this is not equally experienced by all participants - some may feel disempowered or that they lack agency and an ability to influence the policy process. The issue of disempowerment is interlinked with that of the research instrument development process and sampling mentioned above: if done badly, citizen engagement and participation may “reinforce social hierarchies and the exclusion of particular groups or individuals.

How can the SRA help me learn more? 

The SRA runs a number of courses which may be useful to you if you’re planning on engaging with citizens directly. The SRA’s new course ‘public involvement in social research and evaluation’ focuses specifically on how to engage members of the public in delivering social research projects and evaluations and what the benefits and challenges of doing so can bring. Likewise, courses such as ‘designing a qualitative study’, ‘designing and moderating focus groups’ and ‘interpreting and writing up your qualitative findings’  should give you a grounding in the skills you need to engage people in the research process. 

AUTHOR: Anna Cordes is a Senior Policy Researcher at Which? where she works across quantitative and qualitative research projects. Before joining Which?, Anna worked as a Research Manager for Kantar Public in their qualitative team delivering projects for clients such as HMRC, the Health and Safety Executive and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. 

CONTACT: Anna.Cordes@which.co.uk / @AVCordes