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Engaging Participants


Participation as a powerful enhancer of democratic government is certainly very much on the increase, but it behoves us to question the nature and quality of the participation unfolding in any particular policy formulation. This can be done at the level of the form of participation taking place, that is, is it nominal, instrumental, representative or transformative? What is its objective? Is it for display purposes only? Is it a means to achieving cost effectiveness or local facilities? Is it aiming to give people a voice in determining policies that affect them, or is it both a means and an end to a continuing dynamic empowering people, communities and groups to participate in governance?

The definitions of participation vary considerably and one can Early on, that is in the late- 1970’s, the UN Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) defined the power of participation in transformative terms, where it involved increasing control by the excluded over resources and institutions. Increasing participation of the excluded in the institutions of power is a potentially radical agenda, but this has been since replaced since the turn of the century by definitions which describe participation as citizens ‘playing a role in the exchange on policy making’, where citizens are ‘partners’ but government holds responsibility and final decision-making powers [1]. The term ‘participation’ with its ‘feel good’ appeal is a term widely and imprecisely used in Ireland, North and South, for a wide range of citizen involvements in consensual governance. While participation is seen as a catch-all descriptor for arrangements made for citizen, business and non-governmental organisation involvement in the formulation of public policy, ‘consultation’ is seen as the central component of the processes put in place to achieve consensus in public affairs between the government and those outside government. Within this context we now turn to consultation processes themselves, to examine how and why they are constituted, and how we are to measure and evaluate their significance.

Will more people take part than in conventional consultations?

Not surprisingly, the issue of 'participation' is central to public consultation processes. From the point of view of consulters, the key feature here is recruitment of participants. Getting the public or stakeholders to actually engage in consultation can be extremely problematic and a strategy for recruitment must be carefully planned in advance. Using E-consultation is no guarantee of increasing participation.

Does it help me reach groups who normally don't take part?

Potentially at least, E-consultation allows the consulter to engage with groups and individuals who normally do not take part in consultation. This is particularly relevant for groups/ individuals who have difficulty in attending public meetings because of location or simply do not have the time to do so. However, this is only the potential and in order for this to be realised, a number of issues have to be considered -

  • Do the groups I want to consult have proper access to technology?
  • Do they have the technical knowledge necessary for engaging in the E-consultation? *

Does the necessary IT infrastructure exist in order to support the software I am using (for instance, is BroadBand available in the area)?

  • Does participant required special skill and knowledge to use technology setup for running consultation activity?

On the basis of our research, we have found that special skills and knowledge are important for running an E-consultation. What?

  • Is there any guide available for technology usage from participant point of view?
  • Who is preparing instruction on how to use technology?
  • How much cost is to participation in consultation?
  • Who/How/When will access technology in consultation process?
  • What are the different ways in which I can get people to participate & how are they different to traditional methods.

There are a number of different strategies for recruitment, some of which are unique to E-consultation. Our research has shown that an approach that incorporates both tradtional and E-techniques is the most effective. Obviously these strategies depend largley on the resources you have at your disposal for publicising and administering the consultation. For instance, after carefully selecting your target audience (those groups, people you wish to consult with)an initial 'wave' could be contact through emailing, advertising in the national/local press, advertising the consultation on appropriate websites such as ACTIVE-LINK and through 'umbrella' organisations such as NICVA or the Wheel.

[ Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action]
At the same time, groups/ individuals could be contacted by post, reaching those that do not have access to E-Technology. After a short time if number need to be increased a second wave could involve emailing/posting/ advertising 'reminders' to groups, etc. Lastly, a third wave could mean literally phoning people to remind them to complete the consultation or even offering the option of completing the consultation over the phone. If possible, a 'help-line' should be available for participants in order to answer any queries or help with technical difficulties.
  • Is there a target audience?
  • What is the appropriate number of particpants in terms of process/ tech?
  • What is the critical mass for effective participation?
  • Is it possible to identify the degree or type of participation that I will have when I'm engaging in consultation?

This depends on a number of factors including - your experience in running consultations, how well you know your target audience, the amount of resources available for running the consultation (in terms of financial, technical, personnel).

Should I expect to directly influence outcomes from the process?

This is the central consideration in consultation. Throughout the research we have conducted, we have found widespread frustration and even anger amongst participants of cosnsultation processes on this issue. Routinely, they feel that their input in consultation rarely, if ever, has any influence on final outcomes. In short, they feel that government or local authorities ask for their opinion because of statutory requirements only. It is essentially a 'rubber-stamping' exercise, a bid to give legitimacy to decisions that have already been made prior to the consultation. Many participants we talked to felt that their views are simply not listened to. Consulters that we have talked to believe that the value of consulting with groups/ public come in the policy-making process and not necessarily the outcomes. Consultation helps to shape policy and target services, it is rarely about influencing decisions. Clearly, there is a strong divergence of opinion on the issue of 'participation'. Expectations of participants may not be met - or from the point of view of the consulters - might be unrealistic. This can lead to feelings of mistrust, frustration and apathy for participants and critically impact on recruitment for any future consultations.

  • Does e-Technology make the process more accountable and transparent for me?
  • Can e-Technology make access to participation easier?
  • Can I use both e-consultation & traditional methods?
  • How will the nature of my participation change in terms of time, cost, travel?


  1. OECD (2001) Citizens as partners: Information, Consultation and Public Participation in Policy-making. Paris: OECD,