There are many ways for local governments to engage their citizens in decision-making processes.

Those different methods tend to have varying purposes and work their magic in specific contexts. Participatory budgets, for example, involve citizens in another way and occupy another spot on the participation ladder than an online survey on the renovation of a playground. And even besides the method you choose, many local factors can influence the progress, implementation, and legitimacy of your participation project.

Still, there are a few factors that can gauge the success of your participation efforts. VVivien Lowndes and Lawrence Pratchett, respectively the Professor of Local Government Studies Professor of Local Democracy and Director of the Local Governance Research Unit at the De Montfort University in Leicester, have developed a clear diagnostic tool that both anticipates obstacles to empowerment and links these to policy responses. In short, it identifies five criteria for citizen participation to reach peak effectivity.

1. “Can do”: resources, information and knowledge

The first letter of the CLEAR acronym, the C, stands for “Can do”. After all, before you can measure the success of your participation project, you have to make sure that citizens have the necessary skills and tools to participate.

For a participation project to be legitimate and democratically valuable, your participating audience should accurately represent your broader population in terms of gender, age, ethnicity, and location. This is less critical if you’re targeting a specific part of your community, such as teenagers or residents of a certain neighbourhood. But even then, it’s vital to diversify your audience and hear as many of your citizens’ voices as you can.

Focusing on inclusion and representativity is vital when setting up a participation project. Among other things, this includes evaluating your communication strategies, combining offline and online campaigns, and using software that’s easily accessible for everyone. Don’t worry – you’ll find everything you need to know in our free Inclusion in e-Democracy guide.

2. “Like to”: attachment and relatability

Once you’ve made your citizens clear how they can participate, it’s essential to let them know why they should. In the CLEAR model, the L stands for “like to”. For a successful participation project, you have to raise awareness about your project and convince your citizens to get involved.

One way to build the momentum about your project is to think about a strong, original launch. They say a strong start is half the battle, but when it comes to participation projects, this is more than a cliché. The more people know about your project and see the added value of getting involved, the more citizen input your project will receive, and the more you can co-create your community. A strong communication strategy ensures that your message not only reaches the right people, but also relates to them and convinces them to get their hands dirty.

In our free communications guide, you’ll find out exactly how to set up your communication strategy.

3. “Enabled to”: opportunity and involvement

The E in the CLEAR model stands for “enabled to”. In order to participate, you need to create the opportunity for citizens to do so. This point seems closely related to the “can-do” element, but while the latter is more focused on citizens’ skills and knowledge on how to participate, this element focuses on the civic infrastructure that allows for participation to happen.

According to Lowndes and Pratchett, “the existence of networks and groups which can support participation and which can provide a route into decision-makers, therefore, is vital to the vibrancy of participation.” This includes mobilising different social groups and umbrella organisations, which you’ll read more about in the inclusion and communications guides mentioned above. But it also means that, within your council, all stakeholders need to be on board. And that starts with the internal organisation of your participation project.

Our e-participation canvas is a practical one-pager that helps you to align with all the teams involved before launching your project.

4. “Asked to”: mobilisation and awareness

The A in CLEAR stands for “asked to.” According to Lowndes and Pratchett, people’s readiness to participate often depends upon “whether or not they are approached and how they are approached“. Are you clearly asking your citizens to engage? Who are you asking? And once that’s clear, what are you asking them to do, exactly?

There are many different ways to engage your citizens, and the participation method you choose to support your project and goal matters. Offering a variety of methods is arguably even better, because while some people might be comfortable attending a public meeting, others prefer joining an online discussion or clearing a few minutes for an online poll. And besides knowing what you want people to do, also take a moment to think about when you want them to do it. Every stage in the policy cycle is different, and citizens’ input can have a different impact depending on the timing.

In this free guide, you’ll discover 6 different ways to engage your citizens online, with practical implementation advice and inspiring case studies.

5. “Responded to”: action and implementation

Lastly, the R in CLEAR stands for “responded to”: “for people to participate they have to believe that they are going to be listened to and, if not always agreed with, at least in a position to see that their views have been taken into account.” Citizens will be less likely to participate if they question the impact of their effort.

The main issue here is that this relies on a sense of trust, which, quite like Rome, isn’t built in a day. You’ll have to prove to your citizens over and over again that their input is not only welcomed but also valued and actively taken into account. The best way to do this is by setting up a recurring cycle of participation projects and continuously keeping your citizens updated on their progress.

Once you’ve launched a participation project, it’s also important to measure your impact and, if needed, adjust your course. But how can you measure metrics as intangible as trust, engagement or democratic dialogue? In this free guide, we take a look at the dos and don’ts of measuring impact, focusing specifically on online citizen participation platforms.

Curious to see how you can engage your citizens? Schedule a free demo!

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