The world has changed rapidly since we first set out last year to develop a deeper understanding of the innovative approaches that local governments across the UK are using to enable meaningful citizen engagement. As the spread of COVID-19 poses unprecedented challenges to society, the legitimacy of government, at a central but especially local level, will be built upon both its response to the immediate crisis but also importantly on the quality of engagement with communities, especially those most in need, going forward. 

As we look to rebuild and engage with each other on the next steps after we emerge from the coronavirus lock-down, it will remain important for governments to explore new ways of interacting with their constituents – both digitally and in-person. As our research confirms, citizen engagement initiatives should not be seen as one-off, isolated endeavours – instead, they are part of an on-going process and a process we are learning from all the time. 

With that in mind, there is no “one size fits all” solution to citizen engagement.

Building trust is a slow, collaborative process that requires trial and error and open communication between government and people. As we’ve explored what this looks like across the UK, we’ve developed both a lexicon for talking and thinking about engagement (which you can read more about in our last blog) and distilled a set of common principles that localities can draw on when designing and implementing engagement strategies. These principles provide insights into how experiments in public engagement play out and the impact it has on decision-making.

1. A Sense of Ownership & Power

Meaningful engagement that devolves decision making power to citizens improves feelings of internal efficacy and general trust in government, particularly when effects are clearly communicated and relevant digital tools are tailored to the environment and co-designed with citizens.

One example is the Cardiff Citizens Panel, which puts people in the driver’s seat and allows them to plan engagement campaigns themselves, ensuring that conversations between people and government are shaped from the bottom up, rather than the top down.

2. Government Buy-in

Political will, financial resources, and human capital are imperative in making engagement sustainable.

However, these investments tend to be accompanied by increased government control of processes—imposing a trade-off if this involvement is perceived as constraining participants’ autonomy.

A program by the Scottish government to assess local attitudes toward wind farms through “citizen juries” provided citizens with a voice to express their opinions, but was rendered less meaningful when recommendations were not adopted by the government.

3. The Right Issues

Engagement efforts should carefully select and scope topics, ideally with participants’ input, that substantively affect citizens’ lives and provide meaningful choices.

We find that successful campaigns ask specific questions, but welcome a broad range of perspectives and answers — like the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s Citizen Assembly, which targeted the issue of public transportation.

Public transportation is a relevant daily concern to many residents, and the GCP tapped into this relevance to drive participation by promising citizens a real opportunity to change local transport policy.

4. Deliberate Inclusion

Achieving inclusion and representativeness of minority communities requires actively collecting data on participants to determine whether these voices are appropriately included in engagement, and adjusting engagement approaches to the social context accordingly.

While some localities, like Fife and Newcastle Councils, are bridging potential gaps in access by working closely with trusted community partners, many others have yet to build support for marginalized communities into their planning and implementation processes.

Across many cases, local governments displayed a lack of awareness about the inclusivity of their engagement approaches because of a failure to collect relevant demographic data on participants. Instead, governments should constantly be questioning:

Does everyone have equal ability and opportunity to engage with us?

5. Complementary Digital Tools

Though digital tools can expand the reach of engagement efforts, traditional engagement provides opportunities for high-quality conversations and audiences reached by digital and traditional methods are distinct—pointing to the importance of using digital tools to complement traditional engagement, not replace it. Innovative councils are pairing online consultation portals with community meetings, and blending the digital and physical in synchronous ways.

In Bristol, for example, facilitators host in-person workshops where citizens design strategies for using data to reduce air pollution, and plant air quality sensors across communities to gather data based on lived experiences. The physical and digital aspects of working together to solve problems are two equally important sides of the same coin.

This learning also applies in these tough times of social distancing, in the sense that real-time interactions, even if they have to right now take place via online video-conferencing, add an important quality to citizen interactions that purely text-based digital platforms cannot provide.

6. External Expertise and Guidance

Expert knowledge from community groups and civil society organisations should be leveraged throughout the planning, implementation, and evaluation stages of programmes to ensure the appropriate use of digital engagement platforms.

Locally and nationally, organizations like the Democratic Society, the Local Government Association, and Involve are providing invaluable knowledge-based and logistical support, boosting the limited capacity of local leaders and building interconnectedness between people and governments across the country.

7. Two-way Transparency

In order to experience empowerment and an improved sense of internal efficacy, participants and observers must be able to see that governments’ commitment to democratic and citizen-led decision-making is genuine, and that engagement has observable impact on policy making outcomes.

Transparency may most often serve informational engagement goals, educating citizens about the inner workings of government, but a need for transparency in planning and evaluation both before and during engagement pervades all four approaches.

Transparency can also entail the collection and publication of data about communities, allowing government to better understand citizens and service-users and raising citizens’ awareness of their neighbours’ issues and opinions to build a broad, solidaristic sense of citizenship.

8. Perpetual Evaluation & Improvement

All the above aspects build toward engagement processes that incorporate learning and knowledge-sharing—activities undertaken collaboratively by governments, third-party organisations, and citizens. Governments should incorporate dedicated, planned, well-resourced, evaluation stages that carefully select and assess qualitative and quantitative metrics that are relevant to citizens and communicate to participants that their personal perceptions and experiences matter.

When robust evaluative processes are neglected by governments, an opportunity for greater transparency, trust-building, and citizen involvement in the work of engagement is lost.

Evaluation can also be a mechanism to improve sustainability by justifying financial commitment, building the capacity and knowledge of local authorities and third-party organisations, and allowing citizens and government stakeholders to revise and reform—and thus take ownership of—engagement processes and digital tools. 

Conclusion

These eight principles of meaningful engagement put forth by this report provide guidance, but do not guarantee success. An overarching theme of meaningful, legitimacy-enhancing engagement is its context-dependent nature—hence the need for governments to communicate with citizens throughout planning, implementation, and evaluation stages.

Building up local governments’ relationships with citizens cannot begin and end with one single initiative, policy or programme. Much depends on the behaviours and actions of organisations and leaders – such as empathy and authentic connections – something citizens expressed strongly in CPI’s Finding Legitimacy listening project.

To improve legitimacy, especially post-covid engagement requires an ongoing, evolving, and reflective process that should be approached as a conversation with shared purpose and shared ownership, not a checklist.