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.

Designing effective participatory engagements

Familiarity with different levels of participation and their use in the policy delivery cycle is the foundation on which decisions about participatory work can be taken. This section provides information on a key next step: how effective engagement strategies to support inclusive, high quality participatory work can be developed.

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.

Inclusive participation

High-quality participation work is relevant and purposeful, safe, kind, respectful, transparent, accountable, accessible and inclusive.

Participants involved are informed, empowered, and taking part voluntarily.

This guidance aims to support meeting these responsibilities by setting out what inclusive participation looks like. Key features of inclusive participation include:

  • designing engagements with people furthest from government in mind – this will result in approaches that everyone can successfully and meaningfully engage in
  • safeguarding equal access and providing logistical support (e.g. disability access, translators/translated materials, remuneration, expenses)
  • using specific methods and approaches to include groups or individuals who are less able or likely to participate

Making sure participatory work is genuinely inclusive can be complex. It requires forethought, careful planning, and a clear vision of the longer term – including of outputs, impact, and how all this will be communicated to all involved.

Working in this way becomes easier when inclusivity is built into the day to day of our roles. Doing this may require a shift in how we work, for example being prepared and able to constructively challenge others (including senior leaders) when needed, and pro-actively advocating for people furthest from government.

Working in an inclusive way is key to building trust and benefitting the communities that you are working with – these are aims of participatory engagements that are equally important to the evidence and insight produced. Firstly, consider carefully what the purpose of an engagement is – in particular whether the information you need is already available. If the public or stakeholders have recently been engaged with on a similar or the same issue, you should carefully review the outputs of those engagements and be certain that there are gaps in the information you need before commencing a piece of participatory work. Analysts in your local Analytical Service Division may be able to assist with access to relevant existing evidence. The public and stakeholders should not be expected to repeat themselves and duplication of work is not an effective use of government resources.

When you have decided to proceed with a participatory approach, the first steps in building trust and benefiting communities focus on participants being able to make informed decisions about their involvement. This includes:

  • being honest and realistic about the scope of influence for each engagement, including any limitations
  • outlining to participants what can and cannot be changed, and communicating this clearly to all involved
  • taking a transparent approach throughout all stages of an engagement, so that participants have the fullest possible understanding of what is happening, why, in what context and with what consequences

You should ensure that any engagement offers opportunities for meaningful impact – it is not ethical or an appropriate use of resources to engage the public on a decision that has already been taken or on an issue where there is no meaningful scope for public influence. The impact of an engagement should always be reported back to participants, so that they can clearly see the difference that their involvement has made. Participants should be informed about project timelines and when they can expect to see outcomes following their input.

Representation of different groups of people in participatory work requires careful consideration. There are situations where a sample of participants that is representative of the general population will be suitable for a project’s aims (for example, a Citizens’ Assembly), but there will be many instances where this is not appropriate. Participatory work tends to focus on engaging with marginalised and under-represented groups to address specific issues or design specific services. Over-sampling or exclusively working with participants who have a particular characteristic or circumstance can be an appropriate and valid approach.

Inclusive approaches to participant sampling and recruitment include:

  • ensuring you are aware of all affected groups, based on the outputs of an Equality Impact Assessment or comparable exercise – these groups should then be appropriately included in a sample, bearing in mind that over- sampling or exclusively working with participants who have a particular characteristic or circumstance can be a valid approach
  • considering existing evidence bases and where there are gaps in representation – proactively address these so that you are listening to new, unheard or marginalised groups
  • using methods of recruitment and engagement that address structural barriers to participant involvement
  • learn about the needs of different communities and demographics that are to be engaged with
  • advertise engagement opportunities in a wide range of locations and formats, to reach a more diverse range of people
  • consider carefully and make clear the practical and financial support that needs to be on offer to participants e.g. tech support using video calls, BSL support, easy-read background information, payment of expenses and compensation for time
  • engagements should be delivered in different formats and at different times of day e.g. offer evening and weekend workshops, a mix of online and in-person workshops (including rural locations if appropriate), opportunities for written and verbal contributions
  • consider carefully which methods are appropriate for the communities and demographics that are to be engaged with e.g. young people may value gamification elements to their involvement
  • ensuring safeguarding and a trauma- informed approach – this could include the provision of mental health and wellbeing support during engagements, and aftercare following the conclusion of an engagement

You should discuss sampling and recruitment with your local Analytical Services Division and with the contractor delivering this work.

Ensuring that participants are not left financially out of pocket for their involvement in your work is key. This includes covering the full range of expenses and, where appropriate, compensating people for their time. It is particularly important that we understand the perspectives and experiences of people in marginalised groups, so that we are equipped to develop policies and services which meet the fullest range of needs. Without payment of expenses and compensation for time, many people are not able to take part – their involvement may mean taking time off work or paying for childcare.

Separate guidance is available on paying participant expenses and time. This guidance provides:

  • a set of key principles to follow as you plan and take decisions about paying participant expenses and compensating participant time
  • a step-by-step guide for the process to follow when paying participant expenses
  • examples of amounts to consider paying participants, depending on what is being asked of participants
  • a step-by-step guide for the process to follow when compensating participants for their time
  • information on tax and welfare benefits implications

There will be instances where engaging the expertise of individuals in a community in a more formalised way will be beneficial, for example as community facilitators or peer researchers. Individuals within a community have a wealth of their own direct experience as well as understanding of the situations of the wider community. They often hold a trusted position within communities and can provide considered advice and support to all involved. You should discuss with the contractor delivering this work how community facilitators or peer researchers can be involved.

Designing and delivering inclusive participation is not a static process – you should expect to revisit questions of what inclusive work looks like, who is excluded and how this can be resolved.

Further resources:



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