On best practice engagement and participation

I thought it might be of value to share the key points arising from a recent literature review into what makes effective citizen participation, engagement and co-production. In this short piece I summarise core principles behind good engagement; the barriers to and enablers of good participation; as well as factors that make a difference to engagement from both organisational and citizen perspectives. 


Core principles of what makes good engagement and participation:

  • Citizens are key in addressing the challenges we face in the context of complex challenges and increasingly networked forms of governance
  • Public and ‘third sector’ agencies with higher levels of autonomy tend to be more open to public input than those that are more centralised and managerial
  • This needs to be a two-way process that is about more than just ‘informing’ the public
  • Engagement strategy should integrate with communications and corporate strategies 
  • A sense of personal efficacy is essential to effectively engaging citizens – perhaps even more so than demographic factors
  • The extent to which services are embedded within their local communities is a factor in whether or not families engage with services, e.g. children’s centres
  • There doesn’t have to be a trade-off between citizen involvement and efficiency
  • The idea of scaling up and replicating co-production initiatives can be overly mechanistic and a by-product of the traditional focus on ‘mass production of services’ – smaller and more defined groups co-producing together is actually a more effective facilitator of sustainable co-production  
  • The sense of community (eg high social capital) is associated with effective community and citizen participation, although culture may play a key mediating role


Barriers to effective engagement:  

  • Citizens are less likely to co-produce where they expect the state to deliver collective services; this is the view that their civic duty ends when taxes are paid
  • Dismissive attitudes to the capabilities of citizens from public servants, and a lack of trust in their abilities, combined with an unwillingness to give up power
  • Public servants’ lack of skills in co-production and lack of awareness of the resources of citizens and co-productive activities already taking place
  • Lack of representativeness and diversity in engagement / participation initiatives
  • Services and professionals being disconnected from the communities they serve – ‘poverty industry professionals’ that lack a connection with their communities
  • Organisations/services having a ‘procedural orientation’ (e.g. highly bureaucratised and managerial) has a significant negative impact on trust in citizens and implementation of citizen participation – organisations need to be more ‘humane’ and ‘trustful’


Enablers of effective engagement:

  • Importance of a supportive, enabling role from the state    
  • More positive attitudes to citizen involvement & trust – trust is a significant predictor of proactive implementation of citizen participation
  • Citizens more likely to participate when they are personally affected, and more likely to be energised around specific actions rather than generic participative activity
  • Citizens and professionals working in complementary ways, rather than citizens simply substituting for professionals
  • Services being embedded within communities

Organisational factors

Dominant influential factors on the organisational side that support or hinder effective co-production/engagement include:

  • compatibility of public organisations with citizen participation;
  • open attitudes towards citizen participation
  • risk-averse administrative culture;
  • presence of clear incentives for co-production/creation

Actions from the organisational side to overcome these barriers include top-down measures/directions to support co-production; policy entrepreneurs that can nurture and promote initiatives; enhancing discretionary autonomy of professionals.

Citizen factors

Dominant influential factors on the citizen-side that support or hinder effective co-production/engagement include:

  • citizen characteristics, e.g. skills, intrinsic values, demographic factors, etc.
  • citizen awareness/feeling of ownership;
  • presence of social capital;
  • risk aversion by citizens/service users

Actions on the citizen side to overcome these barriers include lowering thresholds for citizens to participate; lowering participation costs, providing incentives (inc. financial); developing inviting policies that generate a sense of ownership. 

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