Who to involve

It is important to consider who to involve in a participation process. Specific questions can help to make sure no important sectors are forgotten if the purpose is to be achieved.

For example:

  • Who is directly responsible for the decisions on the issues?
  • Who is influential in the area, community and/or organisation?
  • Who will be affected by any decisions on the issue (individuals and organisations)?
  • Who runs organisations with relevant interests?
  • Who is influential on this issue?
  • Who can obstruct a decision if not involved?
  • Who has been involved in this issue in the past?
  • Who has not been involved, but should have been?

It is useful to consider categories of participants, which may include:

  • The public at large – or just a sample
  • Particular sections of the public affected by the issue
  • Statutory consultees
  • Governmental organisations
  • Representatives of special interest groups, local or national NGOs, trade associations, unions etc.
  • Individuals with particular expertise (technical or personal).

If the aim is to be inclusive and open to whoever wants to be involved, the best approach is often to identify an initial list of people and then ask them who else they think should be involved.

Issues in participant selection

Finding the right participants is not only important to ensure that a process works well, it is also essential in creating legitimacy and credibility for the whole process. Issues to consider include:

  • Who decides who is involved. As the selection of participants can be such a politically charged responsibility, it is useful to make the selection process as transparent as possible. Ideally, the planning / design group for the whole process will make these decisions. It is wise to ensure that the reasons for selection are noted so that any questions about selection can be answered.
  • Resisting pressure on numbers. There is often internal and external pressure to expand or reduce the list of those involved.  The number of people involved should not be arbitrary but based on a coherent understanding of the purpose and the context of the process.
  • ‘Usual suspects‘. Organisations sometimes try to avoid involving the ‘usual suspects’, which has become a term of denigration for people who habitually give time and effort to what they see as their civic responsibilities.   Describing someone as a ‘usual suspect’ should never be grounds to exclude them from a process any more than it is grounds for including them: people should be involved because they are the right people.
  • Opponents. It is equally wrong to exclude an individual or an organisation for being  a known opponent of a given purpose or process. Indeed, there are often good reasons for keeping  opponents ‘inside the tent’: these can be the people who most need to be involved so that they gain some ownership of the process and perhaps become more likely to support any final outcome (or at least less inclined or able to undermine it by having been excluded).
  • Everyone does not have to be involved in everything. With good planning, and the agreement of participants, different people can be effectively involved in the parts of the process most relevant to them.
  • Campaigning organisations. Many campaigning bodies, especially national NGOs, are constantly asked to be involved in participatory exercises. But they do not always see these as the most effective use of their limited resources. In addition, some see the compromise that can be inherent in some participatory processes as conflicting with their primary purposes. It can be useful to consider (and discuss with them) at which stage of the policy process NGOs are best suited to participate: agenda setting, policy development, policy implementation or policy review.
  • What’s In It for Them (WIIFT)? It is important to consider and discuss with participants what they want to get out of the process and what could prevent them from participating. If everyone’s motivations can be clarified at the start, there will be less confusion and everyone is more likely to be satisfied with the outcomes. This is especially important in an area that is suffering from consultation fatigue.