Involving citizens in evidence and policymaking learning by doing

Publication Date
Peter McColl

Participation has become a more significant part of public policy over the past decade. The Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Young Academy of Scotland, in collaboration with the Scottish Government, were delighted to run an event as part of the Government’s Evidence in Policymaking Fortnight. The aim was for both citizens and policymakers to understand more about participative policy design from each other’s perspectives.

Peter McColl wearing glasses
Peter McColl, Senior Associate in Scotland, The Consultation Institute.

There are two reasons for the increasing focus on participation. The first reason is that participation can help to produce better policies. By asking more people about their needs and experience, we can better tailor changes to accommodate those needs and experiences.

The second reason is that more participation can be seen to generate more consent for government policy by giving insight into the reason for decisions. In this context ‘loser’s consent’ is a helpful indicator. If those who do not get their favoured outcome can agree to it, that means the process has been successful. In Scotland in particular this goes as far as to be an expectation that people will be asked to participate in policy development as part of the commitment to co-production in ‘The Scottish Approach’. Our recognition that we need to make policy in a way that meets the needs of diverse groups makes asking people about their needs and experiences more important.

Our approach

We wanted to take an experimental approach to citizen participation in policy. Particularly because some of the problems we need to solve require not just participation but citizen mobilisation. We know that the challenge of climate change, like many other challenges in health and the economy, requires citizens to work together with the government and others to get the scale of change that we need to make. We were testing the idea that we need to move from a model of government regulating an evolving society to a government catalysing change to deal with the climate emergency.

We took it as a given that at the heart of good policymaking is good evidence to inform decision-making. We wanted to give citizens experience of the policy process that government uses, and to see if this could be used more widely to achieve better acceptance of policy while also improving policy proposals.

To do this, we sought to move away from a policy process which takes evidence broadly – as we might do through a consultation process and funnels that information to decision-makers. Instead, we examined how citizen participation might work as part of a more iterative process that takes evidence, identifies needs and experience and hones policy solutions.

We experimented with providing briefing materials that would be available to ministers in the form of an information pack – you can access the information pack below.

Part of the experiment was to examine how participants reacted to considerable amounts of material and overwhelming amounts of information to see how they responded.  

The issue

We wanted an issue that was immediately recognisable to citizens. Given the significance of the climate emergency, we decided to focus on this issue. There are plenty of technical policy areas here, such as how to deploy more electric vehicle charging points or how to transform land use to reduce climate emissions. However, we wanted something where citizens could bring their own experience with the aspiration that we could develop a co-produced solution.

The issue we chose was how to bring our housing stock up to the necessary standard of thermal efficiency. This essentially comes down to questions of how we retrofit homes with effective insulation.

Insulating buildings should be one of the first actions in addressing the climate emergency. It involves reducing demand and increasing efficiency, both virtuous on their own terms. But it has often fallen behind other approaches like decarbonising the electricity supply, or shifting to electric vehicles. We wanted a ‘wicked problem’ – one that needs to be solved, but where the solution is unclear.

What happened?

There were around 40 citizens present. They chose to attend having registered through public advertising of the event. Attendees were self-selecting – which we thought was helpful as it showed a level of interest.

Between 6 and 8 citizens were allocated to tables, with an additional facilitator allocated to each table.

The session started with a brief introduction to Policy and Evidence Fortnight followed by a presentation on the climate emergency and the policy framework within which the question sits.

There was a 45-minute session in which we aimed to encourage assessing the evidence and discussing the nature of the evidence. There was a short break, followed by another 45-minute discussion in which citizens were invited to develop solutions to the question of retrofitting insulation.

The small group discussions were lively and focused on the question at hand.

What did we learn?

The biggest lesson from the session was that people are able to participate in policy and evidence discussions in a way that is productive. There were strong recommendations from each table.

The issue was well chosen, giving everyone the ability to contribute. But it pointed to the difficulty of focusing on evidence where people have real-life experience of the issue at hand. Many of the discussions moved quickly to discussions based on individual expertise, rather than the evidence provided.

This points to several lessons. Firstly, where discussions are on issues with real lived experience, getting citizens to consider evidence presented to them requires more accessible formats. It may be more difficult even with more digestible materials.

The civil servants who facilitated the discussions all found the experience useful. Seeing how citizens deliberated helped them to understand the way in which policy is received, and – in conversation afterwards – noted that this would help to reinforce the policymaking process.

The event also pointed to many of the key reasons why insulating homes has proved so difficult. Participants explained how difficult it was to understand the options for financing such improvements, finding the right contractor to deliver the work and concerns about problems that people have experienced with insulation. These problems included issues of spray foam making houses more difficult to sell to the high profile problems with the Grenfell Tower cladding, which helped the spread of a deadly fire.

There were interesting discussions about how area-based approaches might help people to gain confidence in installation, while making it more efficient. This will mean catalysing social action on a street-by-street basis, even where the housing type is not uniform. By doing so we can encourage economies of scale and social signals to raise the uptake of insulation.


Future events should consider more use of video evidence, clearer instructions about when to introduce individual experience and expertise and more continuity in engagement. But the event received good feedback from participants and was clearly useful in helping both interested citizens and policymakers to understand each other more effectively. 

information pack

Peter McColl, Senior Associate in Scotland, The Consultation Institute.

This article is part of the event the RSE held in the Scottish Government’s Evidence in Policymaking Fortnight.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.