Engaging people and communities: step by step

Engaging people and communities: step by step

Plan your engagement with people and communities to ensure it is meaningful.

These questions can help you to think about relevant issues before you begin.

It is important to understand the purpose of your engagement. Why do you want to engage with people? It could be for a number of reasons:

  • designing a new service
  • improving a service
  • influencing health and social care policy
  • creating information that helps people use services
  • helping people to manage their own health and care

Engagement must make a difference. There is absolutely no point in doing engagement when a decision has already been made – this is determined in the UK by the Gunning Principles which say a public body must consult before making a decision, and give people enough time and information to consider and respond.

Understanding the purpose will help to set your objectives. This could be the benefits or outcomes you'd like to see from the engagement. Research shows that meaningful engagement with the public improves:

  • organisations' accountability amongst the public
  • trust and legitimacy in decision making
  • safety in care
  • communication and information about services
  • people's management of their own health and care, which leads to better health outcomes
  • health inequalities
  • empowering people to make decisions that affect them


The benefits of participation

What you need to know will flow from the objectives you identified when asking why you are engaging people.

Are you looking for a population-wide snapshot or the detailed view of a small group?

Being clear on what you want to find out helps define the methods of engagement you’ll use. It will also help you design the right questions to ask.

Open questions allow discussion to take place in a small group. Prompts and supplementary questions will encourage deliberation and understanding among participants. Focus groups and workshops are examples of this approach.

Closed questions, with a limited set of possible responses, are often used in questionnaires and surveys. They can be used to collect quantitative information from lots of people.

You could also use a mixed-methods approach with both questionnaires and discussion groups. This helps to strike a balance between thought-out deliberative feedback and a lot of different opinions from a wider range of people.

Do you need ethical approval?

Most engagement projects don't require ethical approval from an Ethics board. But engaging people who are vulnerable or at risk, or engaging people on sensitive topics, requires particular care and ethical consideration. Use our ethical checklist to help you with these engagement projects.

Who should be involved depends on the purpose and topic of the engagement. What group(s) will be most affected - either positively or negatively?

Carrying out an Equality Impact Assessment and stakeholder mapping will help you to consider communities and groups that may be affected or have an interest. They will identify any potential disadvantages and ensure your engagement activities are planned to be inclusive.

If you are engaging about a particular condition, such as diabetes, then it is important to hear from a cross section (small sample) of people with that condition. Does the condition affect certain age groups, genders or racial backgrounds differently? Are there sub-types of the condition (for example, Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes) which mean people will have different lived experiences? What about the experiences of carers and family members?

If it is a generic engagement exercise with members of the public in a community, then a representative cross section of that community should be identified. What is the profile of the local community? Things to think about include:

  • age
  • care experience
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation
  • people living in urban, rural, remote or island areas
  • social deprivation

How many people should you involve?

You don't need to include everyone in a particular engagement exercise. There's a limited number of views on any topic and eventually you will reach data saturation. By engaging a good cross section of people from different backgrounds you should get a sufficiently robust amount of data. As a rule of thumb:

  • one-to-one interviews should involve about 12 to 15 people
  • focus groups and workshops should have between 8 and 12 people in each group, with between 6 and 9 focus groups in total. Aim for a good cross section of different populations or people with different aspects of a condition.
  • surveys depend on the population or community that you are targeting. Around 30 responses to a small-scale survey in a community engagement exercise will yield a good amount of data. A robust representative survey will need around 380 responses in order to get a statistically valid population sample, although we are straying into a research project here rather than community engagement.


The key issues in terms of how many people to involve the engagement exercise should be the objective, the topic and the available project management resources – cost versus time versus quality. High quality engagement will take longer and cost more.

Ultimately, proportionality is key.

In an ideal world we should be engaging people as soon as possible in the development of a project - and certainly before any final decisions are taken.

This could take the form of inviting a small number of affected stakeholders, or third sector support organisations, onto a project planning group to help shape the engagement exercise from start to finish. They could help to develop questions, identify who should be engaged and how and add insight to conclusions.

One-off versus ongoing engagement

Consider whether you want to engage with the same people over and over, or whether it is enough to hear from people once. You may wish to go back to people you have previously worked with in order to develop solutions to issues they identified, or to check that your understanding or assumptions are correct.

On the other hand, people may be more willing to give their views if they know that they do not have to give an ongoing commitment. When involving people with particular medical conditions, their health may prevent them taking part over a longer period.

When is the best time for the participants to take part?

It is important to bear in mind the needs or the people you wish to engage. Carrying out an engagement activity during office hours may suit staff but is this most appropriate for people with caring responsibilities?

Are evenings and weekends better for people?

If people will find it difficult to commit to attending at a certain time, can they contribute at a distance or at a time of their own choosing? Engagement that does not take place in real time, such as surveys and online forums, may be preferable to focus groups or interviews.

Engagement can take place face-to-face in a physical location or at a distance, such as by telephone or online.

The best way to engage is by going to where people already go.

For the general population this may be shopping centres, outside libraries or community centres or bus and train stations.

For engagement with specific groups of people - perhaps with a particular health condition - partnering with community or third sector organisations where these groups meet would be ideal. This ensures that people are in a comfortable environment and aren't asked to attend meetings or events at places and times that don't suit.

For online engagement, third sector or condition-specific support organisations usually have online groups and forums where people can share information. Getting access to these online spaces is the equivalent to the face-to-face group space.

As far as possible, an engagement project should give people a choice of feedback options, such as:

  • attending an event or workshop specific to the engagement
  • meeting as part of an existing group
  • posting on an online forum
  • completing an online or paper-based questionnaire
  • taking part in a telephone interview

There are many different engagement methods and no one method will suit all engagement purposes. A range of methods should be considered at the planning stage.

Giving people several different ways to engage means you’re more likely to get a diverse range of views.

You may want to consider:

  • What needs or requirements do participants have? This will determine your approach to engagement. You may have decided on a particular method but need to adapt this according to participants' requirements.
  • Will a method exclude anyone? Involving people from a variety of backgrounds means that something that suits some people creates a barrier for others. It may be better to hold a number of small sessions with separate groups rather than trying to bring everyone together on one occasion.

Our Participation Toolkit can help you to select an engagement method to suit your needs.

Analyse the feedback

Community engagement projects can produce a lot of data and information. The best way to analyse this is to plan your engagement from the start and keep the feedback proportionate to the objectives of the project.

Analysing quantitative data or questionnaires and surveys can be made easier using electronic survey analysis tools. Even if the survey is paper-based, responses can be entered into the electronic version and the software can analyse most of the data automatically -with the exception of open questions, so it is best to keep these to a minimum in questionnaires.

Analysing qualitative data is more difficult as it is text and word based rather than numerical. This is why qualitative data should be collated in smaller amounts. The most straightforward way of analysing qualitative data is to use the questions as a framework and then code and theme the feedback to each question.

Close the loop

It is good practice to feed back to all participants and organisations that took part in the engagement project, where possible. Sharing the report and actions taken as a result of engagement can give them a sense of closure.

Feeding back also demonstrates transparency, respects participants' views and - research shows - makes participants more likely to take part in future.

Evaluate the engagement

Reflecting on an engagement project brings a number of benefits, not least by learning what worked well and whether your met your objectives and outcomes.

Evaluation also generates case studies of your work.

Our Evaluation Toolkit will help you to evaluate your engagement.

Last Updated: 16 May 2023