CE Handbook - Chapter 3: Developing your Citizen Engagement Plan

[ Table of Contents ]

It is beyond the scope of this Handbook to go into too much detail about all of the planning and implementation elements that may emerge over the course of a citizen engagement (CE) activity or initiative. This chapter has been developed to help you plan ahead and anticipate challenges as you move forward with your CE design. Building on the exercises in Chapter 2, this chapter will take you through some of the critical components for any CE plan.

3.1 Key Elements of the Planning Process

Once a suitable CE approach has been identified (based on the exercises in Sections 2.2-2.4), review the following list of key considerations to ensure that all facets of the planning process are carefully assessed. Planning for these elements will contribute to the successful management of the activity. It is also important to document all the parts of your CE plan to bring transparency to the process and to assist with evaluation.

Note: ** signifies a list of key considerations adapted from the Canadian Policy Research Networks' Handbook on Citizen Engagement: Beyond Consultation.Footnote 8 All other references are marked with individual footnotes.

"If the opportunities for participation are too late, or the timelines are too short, the public may get the message that you are not genuine about allowing for their meaningful participation. This can undermine the credibility of your public participation process."

Public Participation Guide (The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency 2008)
  • Team roles and responsibilities
    Most CE activities will require a team effort. The team will perform a project governance role. The roles and responsibilities of the individual team members should be established early in the planning process; at CIHR, these roles can be filled internally or by hiring an external contractor. Consider including a subject matter expert, external CE consultant/facilitator, communications staff, the CIHR CE advisor, and a knowledge broker (an intermediary who can facilitate knowledge exchange between different groups and "translate" responses from one group into lay language or political context for another) as part of your team.
  • Communications plan and logistics plan
    It is important to consider how much time your target audiences will need to engage with the material you are presenting. Once you have completed the decision tree model exercise, your strategic design plan should identify key points in time for inviting citizen input, how and when the intent/scope/objectives of the engagement will be communicated to potential participants, and timelines for when it will be beneficial (and feasible) to have reports or events to provide citizens with an update on the process. It may be worthwhile to investigate what the interested parties consider to be an "adequate" amount of time to respond to the issue or topic. Important dates, due dates, and estimated completion dates should be considered upfront and shared with the CE team.

    As you begin to plan your communication timelines, don't forget about logistics! For example, if you plan to engage a northern community, keep seasonal considerations in mind: short summer months may mean that residents are on vacation or working for extended periods, while extreme winter weather may make certain venues inaccessible during the colder months. Try to arrange your CE activity around the needs and preferences of your target audiences.

  • Developing internal capacity **
    Internal capacity for CE at CIHR is still growing. As you establish your CE team and begin to develop your plans, ask yourself the following questions: Do the other members of the team understand CE? How open are other staff members, managers, and decision-makers to citizen input? Is internal training required to develop awareness and understanding about the need to engage citizens?

    The PCE Branch is developing resources and learning sessions for CIHR staff. As the culture at CIHR shifts to embrace more opportunities to engage citizens in our work, the PCE Branch is available to all CIHR staff for advice and guidance about CE activities. If your CE team needs more information or training, contact the PCE Branch at pce.pec@cihr-irsc.gc.ca.

  • Cost implications
    One of the biggest obstacles to CE is the cost involved in executing the plan. As you develop your plan, consider what external resources may be needed to ensure that the elements of a consultation process are professionally guided (for example, consider the cost of facilitators, translators, graphic/web designers, subject matter experts, and evaluators). Expenses do increase once transportation, compensation for lost work time, and building internal capacity in staff are factored in. In this early planning phase, take the time to explore the array of different methods presented in the Summary Table of CE Approaches (Section 2.4) and try to anticipate their associated scope, timeline, and cost.

    Other budgetary considerations can include the following:

    • requirements for technical information and expert advice;
    • staff travel and accommodation;
    • hospitality (coffee, snacks, lunches);
    • preparation and distribution of relevant materials (e.g., discussion documents, background materials, meeting summaries, etc.); and
    • approaches for disseminating information and mechanisms for two-way communication (e.g., advertising, publications, travel, etc.).

    CE uses more resources in the short term, but the opportunities for public participation can lead to greater benefits in the long term. Consider the costs and benefits of your proposed activities and implement the ones you expect will best meet your objectives and will produce meaningful input from your target audiences.Footnote 9

  • Recruitment of citizens **
    Recruitment methods will depend on the objectives of the activity and the target audiences identified, based on CIHR's Citizen Typology (see Section 2.1.1 of the CE Framework). Ensuring inclusiveness and reaching appropriate target audiences can make recruitment a challenging and time-consuming part of the planning process. The four main types of recruitment are outlined below.
    • Targeted
      This type of recruitment is the most commonly used approach for the selection of participants in the development of strategic priorities, plans, guidelines, and policies. As its name suggests, this method involves reaching out to specific communities or audiences to solicit their participation. It is sometimes combined with the methods described below as a means to be more inclusive.

      The citizen typology in the CE Framework helps identify the specific sub-sets of individuals and groups who should be considered in the planning of CE activities. It is crucial to identify the needs, issues, and concerns of particular individuals or groups. This knowledge forms a basis for determining who should be involved, what communication processes and messages should be used, and which mechanisms or approaches are likely to facilitate the effective participation of groups and individuals.

      Targeted recruitment helps to address democratic deficits that frequently occur in public consultation events by fostering participation of frequently overlooked participants (i.e., First Nations, people with disabilities, those with particular religious perspectives). Identifying and addressing the needs of marginalized or vulnerable populations is an important consideration in the recruitment process. The credibility of an engagement activity is also determined by the level of inclusiveness of individuals who have limited power and lack a voice to express their concerns. Marginalized populations can include Aboriginal peoples, ethnic groups, the poor, people living in particular geographic circumstances such as rural and remote areas, and potentially neglected groups of patients such as those with mental health problems or addictions. (The Canadian Policy Research Networks' Handbook for Citizen Engagement provides comprehensive information on how to address these needs and minimize the barriers to inclusion of these stakeholders. See Section 3.2, below, for more information.)

    • Random
      It is important to select a sample of participants randomly (usually with help from professional polling firms) from the target population in order to legitimately extrapolate findings to a broader population. This approach to recruitment has the advantage of reaching people that other methods will likely not reach. It may be appropriate to initially "over sample" hard-to-reach or specific populations, since their later drop-out rates are higher; this will ensure more representative data collection.
    • Open
      This type of recruitment is achieved through an open invitation for people to participate in an event or exercise-a simple first-come, first-served concept.
    • Self-selective
      This method can be used in combination with targeted or open recruitment. Participants are selected from those who respond to an open or targeted invitation to create a group that represents the population(s) of interest to the CE goals. This is a good alternative to random recruitment for those with a limited budget.
  • Framing of the activity **
    Framing is a crucial step in the design process. Suppose, for example, that you want to include cancer survivors in a discussion about treatment options and future research. Describe or "frame" the event in a way that demonstrates the need for non-expert perspectives (using plain language, explaining the objectives of the event and the type of contribution that you need), then your chances of gaining valuable insight from these former cancer patients will increase dramatically. Whereas using materials written in research-driven, technical language would tend to accomplish the opposite.

    "Citizen Engagement provides forums for citizens to process complex information so that they can come to a deeper understanding of a situation and become capable of making a well-founded choice."

    Handbook on Citizen Engagement: Beyond Consultation (Canadian Policy Research Networks, 2008)

    Many of the other pieces of your CE plan will be shaped by the approaches you use to frame the CE activity. The issue, priority, policy, or guideline(s) to be discussed needs to be framed in a way that enables a heterogeneous public to engage with it. Issue framing requires the use of accessible language and careful thinking about what information, alternatives, and solutions there are and how they can be presented. Make sure that the material you present is objective and culturally sensitive.

    Once the participants have been chosen, it is important to provide them with access to key background information, facts, and a range of material (including approaches, perspectives, and solutions) associated with the issue in order to give them an unbiased starting point for the CE activity itself. The information should be provided well ahead of the actual event or exercise; and be provided in neutral language and format.

    The following are some options to help you start thinking about how to frame the issue or activity:

    • Test the event title, outreach material, and background information for clarity and understanding with the target groups. Involve citizens in the framing process. The material can be sent to a sample of citizens to receive preliminary feedback.
    • Hire a specialist in knowledge translation and/or use plain language to ensure that the intended message is being communicated.
    • Consider who will write the material and for what audience (taking into consideration literacy levels of the target population).
    • Consider what information will be provided to participants and how this material will be tailored using plain language.
    • Decide how information will be provided to participants (documents sent in the mail, posted on the website, etc.).
    • Make note of whether or not the material needs to be translated, and if so, into what language(s).

    Framing also gives you a chance to manage expectations. Without proper communication, members of the public may make assumptions about a CE activity. For example, participants may expect that their opinions will have the power to terminate plans or redirect funds quickly. If this is not true, then participants can become frustrated and will lose faith in the process.

To minimize unfulfilled expectations, remember to be clear about the following:

  • the objectives of the CE activity;
  • the issues that will be addressed by the activity (and what issues cannot be dealt with through the activity);
  • how the public input or information will be used;
  • who will make the decisions;
  • which decisions can be influenced by the input received; and
  • any constraints under which you may be operating.Footnote 10
  • Facilitation **
    Facilitators can play a key role in any CE process. Not only can facilitators provide impartial guidance and moderation during the CE event or activity itself, but their experience and training in different CE techniques can also help you to shape the CE plan and objectives. As you begin to lay the groundwork for your CE activity, consider the following questions:
    • Is it important to have a facilitator that is well-informed on the subject matter?
    • How important is the perception of neutrality regarding the facilitator?
    • If external facilitators are to be hired, how will they be involved in the planning and design of the CE project?

    A more detailed checklist for selecting a facilitator is provided in Chapter 8.

  • Evaluation **
    For CIHR, an evaluation plan is required as part of the overall CE activity. In fact, the ways in which the activity will be evaluated should be considered when you begin to develop your CE plan. Keeping the evaluation component(s) in mind from the start will help you to establish realistic objectives that are measurable and a CE plan that is sound.

    The following are some key evaluation points to keep in mind as you develop your plan (based on the work of Pruitt and ThomasFootnote 11):

    • Clearly define what is to be evaluated: What will involve a goal-based analysis (process, outcomes, impact, outputs, etc.)? What will be measured or observed?
    • Build evaluation into the planning process: Has evaluation been adequately planned for, allowing appropriate time and resources for the evaluation process?
    • Involve participants: How will participants (citizens, politicians, staff, decision-makers) be involved in the evaluation of the process/outcomes?
    • Develop quantitative and qualitative indicators: What data, qualitative and/or quantitative, will capture the lessons learned from the project? How will the project outcomes be recorded, based on data needs?

    More information about how to incorporate evaluation components in your CE plans is provided in Chapter 8, based on Health Canada's Evaluation Menu and Public Involvement Plan Template.

  • Reporting to decision-makers and participants **
    It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is to give transparent feedback to participants. Closing the feedback loop by communicating the results of the CE activity and evaluation is another critical step in the CE process. Participants need to know how their input was used, who received it, and what decisions were made (and why). They also need to know that their participation was valued—and that it was a good use of their own time. Decision-makers also need to be aware of the results of the CE activity and evaluation in order to make proper use of the input received.

    As you develop your CE plan, consider the ways in which this reporting will be done. You may want to ask yourself the following questions:

    • In what format will participants receive feedback (letter, pamphlet, booklet, etc.)?
    • How will feedback be distributed (email, website, mail, etc.)?
    • Based on the evaluation or expressed expectations, what might be some key information to include?
    • Who will write the feedback, and for what audience (taking literacy levels and language into account)?
    • In circumstances where the outcome will not be known for some time, what is the best way to report back?
  • Documenting the activity details
    It is important to document your CE plan—partly for the purposes of transparency, accountability, and evaluation, but also to provide "lessons learned" to use in future CE endeavours (either your own or elsewhere within the organization).

    Include the following documentation:

    • a list of the interested parties who were provided with project-specific information;
    • copies of the information provided to the parties;
    • how and when information was provided to the parties, including whether a translator was employed;
    • all dates and locations of events or techniques used for the CE activity;
    • names of individuals and groups contacted;
    • lists of attendees at all meetings and events;
    • a record of communication, such as meeting minutes, etc.;
    • a summary of CE activities and outcomes; and
    • how the input from participants was used to inform decision making.Footnote 12

    These key considerations have been provided to give CIHR staff the tools to think through the critical components of a CE plan. While this Handbook cannot document every detail for planning and implementing a CE plan, this introduction to the "key elements" will enable CIHR staff members to develop clear objectives that are grounded in the philosophy of CE. While internal capacity for CE continues to grow at CIHR, staff members are strongly encouraged to hire a consultant (a CE expert) to design the CE process.

3.2 Addressing Barriers

After going through the exercises in Chapter 2 and the information provided in Section 3.1, you should have a fairly clear understanding of what CE approach will be best for your situation and what the pieces of your CE plan should be. To complement all of that information, this section will help CIHR staff members find innovative ways to be as inclusive as possible with their activities.

As always, however, barriers must be considered. For example, while it may seem that all the world is connected today via the Internet, the reality is that Internet use can depend on age, race, education, and income. Accessibility issues may also arise. If you plan to use online tools, take the time to research whether or not your target audience is likely to be online.

There are other specific challenges to effective CE online—beyond the barriers of accessibility or capacity. As you develop your plan for online deliberation, the following obstacles, as explained by Lukensmeyer and Hasselblad (2006), are worth keeping in mind:

  • Information overload. When consultation and deliberation are moved online, the availability of information that citizens have at their disposal increases exponentially. Deliberation forum designers can add libraries, search engines, and other information-gathering tools and thus, paradoxically, improve and confound the deliberative process by introducing both verified and unverified information.
  • Asynchronous dialogue. Because most online deliberations occur asynchronously (conversations can be accessed any time over an extended period, perhaps weeks), conversation tends to be asymmetric, driven by a few participants. Furthermore, individual posts often create sub-conversations, which in turn can yield less consideration of a single issue than would occur in structured face-to-face conversation.
  • Institutional skepticism. The link between public input and decision-makers has been weak in most online engagement exercises. While this is not a feature of the technology per se, it is a trade-off that comes with the territory: government agencies and decision-making bodies haven't done the work to build online tools for deliberation in the administrative process. At the same time, administrative wariness and skepticism toward online participation and the capacity of the public to contribute meaningfully remains high, framed as it is by experiences of poor process(es) around a contentious issue that have produced a deluge of comments of limited use.
  • Representativeness. The guarantee of representative samples online, and with them achievement of authentic deliberation, has not been pushed far enough among online practitioners. At present, most online practitioners are content to view the recommendations of their constituent groups as legitimate. Yet, in fact, they may reflect only those with a greater interest in the issue at hand and/or those with the technological sophistication to participate comfortably.Footnote 13

Strategies for countering these challenges exist, and the use of a professional online CE expert is strongly recommended for any plans to use online deliberation. Together with your consultant, you may be able to address (or mitigate) these challenges in creative ways that are tailored to your CE goals.

Barriers to participation for marginalized or vulnerable populations

One of CIHR's principles for CE is to be inclusive. An intriguing challenge in CE is reaching people outside of the "usual suspects" to bring the voices of specific populations to the discussion table 3 summarizes some of the practical barriers, specific to citizen engagement, that impede participation. It also offers some potential solutions and resources.

Table 3: Barriers to Participation and Potential SolutionsFootnote 14

Categories of Exclusion Barriers to Participation Potential Solutions
Cross-cutting barriers: Can be applied to all of the following categories Sense of worth: People living in poverty or with disabilities, women, sexual minorities, and people of colour or from ethnocultural communities have been stigmatized, belittled, and marginalized for some or much of their lives.

- Reinforce in multiple ways that input is valuable.

- Hire facilitators and staff who are sensitive and skilled at drawing people into the process. Alternatively, sensitize facilitators and staff through adequate training. (See Section b) of Chapter VII on Framing from the Canadian Policy Research Networks' Handbook on Citizen Engagement: Beyond Consultation.

- Hold special pre-sessions for people from these groups to start to voice their opinions in a smaller, safer environment.

- Create "speakers' lists" to be kept by the person sitting beside the facilitator, keeping track of how many men and women, white and non-white people speak. If dominant groups outweigh others, priority should be given to those of non-dominant groups who wish to speak.

Economic: Poverty is by far, the most pervasive and cross-cutting issue that excludes people from society. Time: Working three jobs to support a family makes participating in an event almost out of the question.

- Consult with target population about event times that work for them.

- Respect end-times.

- Provide food and child care.

- Hold the event near work or homes of population.

Social and cultural access: People from different classes inhabit different spaces in society and those with lower socio-economic status are less likely to have experienced civic participation.

- Choose a space for the event that is inhabited by the target population(s).

- Work with trusted community partners (i.e., non-profit organizations). They may be able to arrange a pre-meeting space so that participants can arrive in a group.

- Hold the event on main public transit line with regular services at times of the event OR provide transportation services.

Economic access: This is perhaps the easiest to overcome from the standpoint of an organizer of citizen engagement.

- Provide remuneration for lost work time, child care, transportation, etc.

- Provide food and/or child care at the event.

- Provide an honorarium.

Ethno-cultural and newly arrived Canadians: Many of the barriers mentioned in the economic category also apply to these groups as they are generally more at risk of living in poverty Citizenship: By virtue of the phrase "citizen engagement" members of communities who are not yet full citizens are excluded.

- Use alternative words to "citizen engagement" in outreach material (e.g., people, the public, community members) OR clarify what is meant by citizen engagement.

Language: English and French may not be the first language of ethno-cultural and newly arrived Canadians.

- Translate written material into appropriate languages.

- There are many options for event-based translation: whisper translation (one-to-one); group translation on the side; or official translation may be necessary for large groups.

Social and cultural barriers: People of different cultural backgrounds inhabit their own unique space in communities.

- Research the social spaces, places of worship, newspapers, and other places of gathering and communication and use them to host events and perform outreach.

Framing: This will have a large impact on who attends, as different groups may value and perceive issues very differently. - See Section b) of Chapter VII on Framing from the Canadian Policy Research Networks' Handbook on Citizen Engagement: Beyond Consultation.
Stereotyping age: Youth is idolized, and yet those who are too young (or too old) are discredited. Legitimacy: Those who are "too" young are stigmatized as being naïve, while the elderly are stereotyped as being out of touch with contemporary times. Thus both of these groups are often excluded from discussions and decision making.

- Define concepts and frame the problem in ways youth can understand and relate to.

- Adapt the process in ways that will not intimidate youth to speak up (e.g., small group discussions and reporting back in large plenary).

Ability: The needs of people living with disabilities are often overlooked, which consequently excludes them. Physical access: There are a surprising number of public spaces that cannot accommodate a wheelchair.

- Ensure that event space is accessible and advertise it as such.

- Set up the event space to accommodate those in wheelchairs (i.e., table height).

Transportation: Getting to and from events poses unique challenges to people living with disabilities.

- Give sufficient notice of the event for people to plan their adapted transport OR provide adapted transportation for them.

Communication: Depending on the person's disability, they may need assistance communicating with a group of people.

- On registration forms, ask people with special needs to specify what they will need to participate, using respectful language.

- Provide translation into Braille and sign language services (determining need before event).

Gender: While 50% of the population is female, women are still under-represented in positions of power, and policies do not necessary reflect their needs. The rights and freedoms of lesbians, gays, trans/bisexuals, and others are still being negotiated at the national level. Parenting: While times are slowly changing, women still carry a disproportionate responsibility for child care and parent care, placing a greater burden on their time.

- Provide child care or elder care money to participants.

- Or provide child care (and even elder care) at the event (ask people to register ahead of time).

Legitimacy: People who do not fit the dominant model of "male" or "female" are stigmatized and generally face problems of legitimacy in the face of authority - See potential solutions for "Sense of worth" barrier above.

Regardless of whether you are working with a marginalized group or members of the general public, creating an atmosphere of respect is essential to the success of any CE activity. All participants should know that their contributions are valued.

Dialogue and Deliberation Online

While the majority of CE approaches listed in this Handbook involve face-to-face participation, online consultation is growing in Canada, and there are a number of online techniques for CE that can be very effective. If you are planning to use online consultation as part of your CE plan, it is important to keep government accessibility standards in mind (all tools must follow the Government of Canada's Common Look and Feel guidelines).Footnote 15 CIHR will be developing a Web 2.0 Corporate Strategy for the purposes of identifying (as an organization) our goals for Web 2.0. This strategy will identify a process for Web 2.0 design, appropriate content for features, target audiences for engagement, and tools. Performance measures will also be developed to evaluate the effectiveness of Web 2.0 initiatives.

One tool that is growing in popularity is the Wiki. Several Government of Canada Departments have launched their own "Wikis", which is basically a website that allows anyone to enter information (without having to know a web programming language). Most offer a simple interface, with features similar to MS Word, to create and format a page, and a discussion area for people to add their own comments. For more information, please see "Why are Governments Lauching Wikis?" to find an overview of reasons that governments and many private sector organizations are interested in wikis, Facebook, LinkedIn and other similar tools.

Online deliberation can include processes that are complementary or analogous to in-person participation. Some of the characteristics of online versus face-to-face deliberation are outlined in Appendix 2 of the handbook outline the key features of online deliberation and clarifies the differences between this electronic mode of CE and face-to-face activities. Please note that the list "assumes 'ideal' circumstances in which the designer/user would maximize the application of available features that distinguish online deliberation from face-to-face."Footnote 16

3.3 Conclusion

This chapter was created to give CIHR staff a "crash course" in CE planning by providing readers with an overview of the key elements that should be considered in any CE plan, including resources, decision-making power, and expertise. Nonetheless, the use of a CE consultant is still strongly encouraged for the development of a CE plan, and the Partnerships and Citizen Engagement (PCE) Branch is always available for further information, advice, and suggestions.

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