Involving civil society in government policy development and decision-making processes has enormous benefits.
But all too often it is used to legitimise decisions that have already been made or it doesn’t happen at all.
There are simple things that people in government and civil society can do to make engagement more effective for everyone. A new guide published by Bond seeks to provide civil society organisations (CSOs) and government officials with practical tips on how to improve engagement.
What is engagement?
Engagement concerns the involvement of civil society and the wider public in government policy development and decision-making processes. This could be through a standalone meeting or consultation, or an ongoing dialogue that lasts over many months.
Why does engagement matter?
Involving civil society in government decision-making processes results in better designed policies and programmes that have greater impact. They provide civil servants and ministers with access to valuable information, diverse expertise and new ideas.
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CSOs can amplify voices from different groups across society, especially people with lived experience of the issues under discussion. Engaging with civil society also opens up decision-making processes and addsan essential layer of checks and balances.
Principles of effective engagement
How can we improve engagement so that it delivers on its promise of better inclusion and impact for all? We believe that engagement results in the greatest benefits if it is meaningful, inclusive and deliberative.
- Meaningful: Engagement is meaningful when it’s relevant and purposeful. The greater the scope for influence, the more meaningful the engagement processes is likely to be.
- Inclusive: Inclusive engagement is about ensuring decisions are informed by diverse perspectives and expertise and that processes are equitable i.e. everyone can participate on equal terms.
- Deliberative: Engagement is most valuable when it is rooted in open discussions that encourage participants to work together to identify problems and develop solutions that work for everyone.
10 practical steps for improving engagement
Here are 10 practical steps you can take to make engagement processes more effective and ensure that it is meaningful, inclusive and deliberative.
- Involve civil society early: Bring civil society in to the decision-making process as early as possible and allow civil society to shape the direction of the engagement. This can create buy-in and a shared sense of ownership.
- Agree purpose and scope of the engagement: Decide together which issues will be covered by the engagement and which are out of scope. Discuss what you hope to achieve through the engagement and agree objectives. You may wish to include these in a Terms of Reference.
- Be open and accountable, while recognising need for confidentiality: Engagement should be as open and transparent as possible, but there may be a need to balance openness with the need for confidentiality. Before the engagement begins, everyone should agree ground rules about what can be shared and with whom.
- Co-create a well-structured process that encourages consistency: Develop a clear structure and timetable for the engagement so participants know what is expected and can dedicate the necessary time and resources to ensure it is a success.
- Choose a mix of engagement mechanisms to get breadth and depth of inputs: There are many ways of engaging with civil society from written consultations and surveys to roundtables and citizen assemblies. While some lend themselves to in-depth engagement with a small number of people, others enable you to bring in a wide range of views.
- Ensure speakers and participants are diverse: Meeting or event organisers must ensure there is a diverse range of speakers and participants in terms of race, gender, age and disability. Include the views and experiences of people from racialised or marginalised communities or people with lived experience and ensure they are taken in to consideration.
- Make the process equitable: Make allowances so everyone can participate on equal terms. For meetings, choose a time zone and language that is inclusive and provide interpretation and captioning if needed. You may also wish to pay honorariums or cover expenses. Chairs should make it clear they are open to diverse and challenging viewpoints. Using an external facilitator can help people feel more comfortable to contribute.
- Provide people with plenty of notice and sufficient time to respond: Diarise meetings as soon as possible and agree the agenda well in advance to ensure the right people are in the room. Ensuring adequate time to respond to documents and consultations makes it easier to include a range of perspectives and improves the quality of responses.
- Co-create the agenda for meetings: Prioritise issues that are most important and avoid trying to cover too much. Ensure the agenda and format provides everyone with an opportunity to participate (e.g. by using breakout groups or participatory techniques or inviting written feedback).
- Review, improve and provide feedback: Build review points in to the process, seek feedback from participants and make improvements as necessary. Decision-makers should also provide regular feedback to all participants, including how information gathered through the engagement was used and how decisions were made.
To find out more about how to improve engagement and see Bond’s checklist for effective engagement, download our guide to creating better engagement.