US government delegation talking to civil society representatives at the UN in Geneva. 

Credit: U.S. Mission Geneva/Eric Bridiers. CC licence: Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Ensuring civil society is heard

Principles and practices to improve government engagement with civil society


Monday, April 1, 2019

A strong and vibrant relationship between civil society and government is a sign of a healthy democracy. But the quality of this relationship in the UK is in decline. This paper is a response to failures in the UK government to adequately engage and consult with civil society organisations (CSO) working in international development, leaving them excluded from decision-making processes and exposing government policies and programmes to avoidable errors.

The report outlines fundamental problems in the way that government talks to its citizens, which is a warning that our democratic processes are being eroded. We explain the potential dangers of government bypassing civil society, and value of CSOs’ meaningful participation to formulating better public policy. We also outline principles and practical steps for CSOs and government to improve this relationship.

We use a series of case studies to highlight the ways in which the Department for International Development (DFID) and the wider government fall short of their own standards, as well as civil society’s expectations of meaningful engagement. 

We want government to adopt the following engagement principles:

  • Meaningful: Engagement must be relevant and purposeful. The government should never use CSO participation to reinforce decisions that it has already made. The greater the scope for influence, the more meaningful the engagement process is likely to be.
  • Inclusive: The best decisions are informed by diverse perspectives and expertise. It is crucial to consider who is in the room and who is not. If you can’t invite all the relevant stakeholders, be open and transparent about the criteria for inclusion and exclusion.
  • Deliberative: Engagement is most valuable when it is rooted in open discussions that encourage participants to work together to identify problems and develop innovative solutions. Deliberation can strengthen the legitimacy of a decision-making process and give people a sense of ownership over the final outcome.

To support both interests, we’ve included some practical tools that government and civil society can each use to improve engagement. Check out our map of engagement mechanisms and checklist for effective engagement at the end of this paper, which you can tearaway for easy reference.

Resource type: report

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