Participation handbook

This handbook provides a guide to good practice in participation work across Scottish Government. It provides information about participatory methods and when to use them, the development of an effective participation strategy, and signposts to further resources.

Basics of participation

Participation is an umbrella term used to describe how people get involved in decisions which affect or are important to them. This can be in their local communities, as part of interest group campaigns, or in government policies and decisions.

Scottish Government’s vision for public participation is that people can be involved in the decisions that affect them, making Scotland a more inclusive, sustainable and successful place. We require and benefit from evidence and expertise that is produced through engagement, research and collaboration with members of the public and stakeholders, who have insight and experiences that we need to understand in order to develop effective policies and services.

We support public participation by:

  • creating opportunities for meaningful participation when the outcomes of policy and service design can be influenced
  • considering and using the results of participation activities as part of our policy and decision making processes
  • feeding back to participants and the wider public the results of participation activity and the difference it has made

This Participation Handbook was developed as part of Scotland’s Open Government commitments to improve the way people are involved in policy-making and service delivery.

This guidance is a toolkit that you can refer to as needed to help make decisions about participation within your policy area.

In many instances, Scottish Government officials will not deliver participatory work themselves. This is because:

  • participatory work requires specific skills and experience that government officials may not have
  • good quality participatory work is characterised by a levelling of power dynamics – this is difficult to achieve if government officials with decision- making power and a stake in the outcome are running an engagement
  • participatory work tends to require a more substantial amount of time and resources than most government officials will have available to them

It is important that officials are well informed about what good quality participation work looks like and that they understand how to plan their work to include meaningful opportunities for the public to participate in government decision-making or service design. Throughout 2024, a Participation Procurement Framework is being set up. This will provide a quicker and easier route for government officials to commission good-quality participatory work with specialist and experienced organisations, and this guidance supports effective working relationships with these organisations.

This guidance supports good practice in participation across government by providing you with key information needed to take decisions about when and how to undertake participatory work. This includes:

  • informing you about participation, participatory methods and when to use them
  • setting out the importance of inclusive practice and examples of what this looks like
  • providing a guide to developing an effective engagement strategy
  • supporting informed conversations with colleagues and analysts about participatory work
  • signposting to further resources

The Scottish Approach

Providing opportunities for people to participate in ways that will influence policy, service design and decision making is a fundamental part of the Scottish Approach to Government.

The drive to increase participation in and with government rests on two key principles:

  • that people have the right to contribute to, and to influence, the decisions that affect their lives, choices and life chances
  • that involving the people likely to be affected by the decision in the process results in better decision making

The distinctive Scottish Approach is characterised by moves towards embedding more participatory, co-productive and assets-based approaches at the core of how government operates. It recognises the important role that people have in bringing different types of knowledge and experiences to address the challenges faced by government.

Improving opportunities for participation means moving away from ‘doing to’ or ‘doing for’ towards a culture of ‘doing with’.

Open Government commitment

Participation is one of the three key pillars of the international Open Government movement, led by the Open Government Partnership. The Open Government Partnership’s declaration of principles, to which we are a signatory, describes the commitment to supporting participation as:

‘We value public participation of all people, equally and without discrimination, in decision making and policy formulation. Public engagement, including the full participation of women, increases the effectiveness of governments, which benefit from people’s knowledge, ideas and ability to provide oversight. We commit to making policy formulation and decision making more transparent, creating and using channels to solicit public feedback, and deepening public participation in developing, monitoring and evaluating government activities.’

Doing participation well

Effective and well-managed participation of people in policy development and implementation from the earliest possible opportunity leads to decisions that:

  • deliver more efficient and effective services
  • better meet people’s needs
  • better reflect community values
  • have a greater likelihood of effective implementation
  • demonstrate accountability (particularly in relation to the use of public money)

When not done well, it can damage the reputation of the specific initiative and of the government as a whole, by:

  • reducing trust in government - when the results of participation are not seen to be acted upon
  • building stakeholder frustration in situations where external organisations and individuals feel they have already given representations on the issue previously
  • reducing the likelihood of future participation - when people feel their contributions have not been considered, or they have not received feedback about how their input has been used
  • not meeting legal requirements - there are some policy areas where an Act sets out specific mechanisms for how and when engagement must be carried out
  • undermining previous undertakings, commitments or practices which have given certain people or groups a legitimate expectation that they would be invited to contribute
  • being an inefficient use of public money e.g. when there is already clear and available evidence on the views of stakeholder groups or the wider public on the issues



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