Undertaking public engagement: Addressing gaps in understanding

If existing evidence on public views and acceptability is not sufficient and you consider that your project would benefit from further engagement with the public to address this gap, it will be useful to give some thought as to how public engagement can be encompassed within the wider project plan.

Public engagement can include a range of different methods and approaches to disseminate information, gather feedback, identify concerns and co-create solutions. These methods range from one-off polls or surveys, to more in-depth deliberative approaches with smaller groups of people.

The aims of these methods include:

  • Raising public awareness of the project (i.e., transmitting information)
  • Gathering public views (e.g., via surveys or focus groups)
  • Encouraging public participation or contribution to decisions (e.g., using participatory methods, such as citizen juries)

Each of the available public engagement methods have limitations, and the choice that you make will depend on the specific aims of your engagement activities, the context of your project, and the resources available.

It should also be considered that public views in relation to a particular topic area may be complex to understand and influenced by a range of different factors, which some methods may be better suited to exploring than others. For instance, recent research has examined the reported discrepancy between people’s stated concerns in relation to privacy and their actual data sharing behaviour.

When developing your public engagement approach, think about:

  • What you would like to achieve from your engagement activities
  • The wider context and novelty of your project
  • The nature of the issues that you would like to engage the public about
  • Who your most relevant sub-groups within the public are
  • The time and resources available

The below table briefly summarises common public engagement methods and when each may be useful.

High-level overview of public engagement methods

MethodWhen this method may be useful
Presenting information via media, websites, displays and presentations.Transmitting information to inform and raise awareness of an issue and promote a project. A contact mechanism for feedback may also be provided.
Gathering views via polling and surveys.*Providing a snapshot of public views and attitudes from many people, allowing the collection of statistical data. May be used once or at multiple points in time and may use single or multiple questions. Typically, less resource intensive than other primary data collection methods, but consideration still required for effective question design and sampling.
Understanding views via interviews and focus groups.*More in-depth exploration of views with individuals or small groups, including some flexibility to further probe and explore responses. Qualitative data allows greater understanding of the nuances of public views, identifying what may contribute to these views or what may address any concerns raised. More resource intensive than survey methods, requiring adequate moderation and consideration of the risk of bias.
Consultation using participatory methods such as user groups, citizen panels and citizen juries.In-depth consultation with groups on aspects of an issue, encouraging participation in decision making processes and collective discussion, and developing an in-depth understanding of views as a result of this process. Likely to be more resource intensive than other methods and can be used over a longer period of time to enable collective decision making and feedback at various stages. The Ada Lovelace Institute report on participatory data stewardship provides further information on participatory mechanisms that are designed to involve, collaborate with, and empower people with regards to data governance, which may be beneficial to consider.

*Although this linked source applies these methods to impact evaluation, the basic methodological principles remain the same.

Remember, engagement methods can include a combination of the above (e.g., a citizen panel may be formed and involved in a range of activities, including focus groups and surveys).

Whatever method you choose, ensure that you consider accessibility and inclusion to maximise engagement and representativeness.

Back to top

Communicating about data use

If your engagement activities are to be effective, it is vital that those you are communicating with sufficiently understand the concepts that you are exploring.

Notions of data use can be complex to understand, with terminology related to data privacy and confidentiality, the linkage and sharing of data, and different methodological and analysis techniques sometimes difficult for non-specialist audiences to engage with.

Ensuring that your engagement materials explain such concepts in an easily digestible way based upon the needs of your target audience is important regardless of the engagement methods that you use.

Engagement materials

  • Developing materials in collaboration with civil society organisations or other community representatives can be beneficial.
  • It may be useful to pilot your materials in advance with a small group or organisation that is representative of your target audience to ensure sufficient clarity, accessibility and understanding.
  • If available, materials that have been used in previous projects and initiatives for similar audiences may be helpful in planning your activities, such as the understanding patient data guidance on the best words to use when talking about patient data for research and other purposes.

The ‘find out more’ section of this guidance may be a good place to start to explore previous and current initiatives in this area.

Back to top

Key points when considering public engagement activities

Identify the aims and objectives of your public engagement activities. What is it that you are hoping to achieve?

This may range from informing people and developing their understanding, to asking for their views and attitudes at a single point in time or encouraging active participation in developing the project approach through more deliberative methods.

Review the different methods available for engaging with the public and consider which of these may be (a) useful and (b) achievable in your project.

  • It may be helpful to identify potential collaborating partners who may be interested in being involved in your work. Developing a public engagement plan could be useful here.
  • Think about who may be disproportionately impacted by the project. Are their voices adequately represented in your public engagement activities? Who may be missing from the discussion? Are different voices represented?
  • Think about the issues that you are hoping to cover in your engagement activities. Do they represent sensitive issues for some people? Is the topic accessible to your audience? Are your questions and materials clear and understandable to diverse and non-specialist audiences?

Finally, when deciding on your public engagement approach, consider how prepared you are to adjust your project plans in line with suggestions and findings that may emerge.

There is little point in undertaking extensive public engagement activities if you are not able to make any changes or implement any conclusions that may emerge.

Thinking about when the best time will be to undertake your engagement activities within the research process will help to ensure that your findings can effectively influence the research.

This may be at a single point in time or at multiple stages throughout the project, depending on the aims of your engagement activities.

Back to top