Why is it relevant?

Working with a growing group of diverse stakeholders (citizens, scientists, policy-makers, practitioners, etc.) is at the heart of a Citizen Observatory. Yet it can be a real challenge to coordinate communication and activities among all the different groups. This is especially true when the Citizen Observatory is still fairly new and its members do not yet have an established way of working together.

How can this be done?

Finding ways in which to work with all stakeholders within a Citizen Observatory is often challenging. However, there are several methods and tools which can help you to engage with this variety of stakeholders from the start and throughout the lifetime of your observatory.

A Citizen Observatory brings together (groups of) citizens (often from different age groups, socio-economic backgrounds or political orientations), scientists (including from different scientific disciplines) and decision-makers (civil servants as well as elected officials). A key aspect of working with these various stakeholders means turning separate individuals into a unified group with a shared interest. Choosing and implementing a suitable co-design process can help stakeholders to identify and agree on the common theme they feel passionate about (more on how to suitable co-design approaches here).

The different stakeholders of the observatory represent a large number of relevant organisations and individuals to keep track of and work with. It does not make sense to engage all stakeholders with the same intensity. Instead, identify the most efficient and effective approach for each stakeholder. Drawing up an engagement strategy can help to involve, in a sustainable way, the stakeholders that are needed to make the Citizen Observatory successful and to build relationships with the wider society in which the Citizen Observatory operates.

To create an engagement strategy, you can prioritise the stakeholders by distinguishing them according to two criteria: their influence on the Citizen Observatory and their interest in the Citizen Observatory. For example, ‘push communication’ (one-way communication from the Citizen Observatory, such as sharing updates via email, Twitter or podcasts) is sufficient for low-interest/low-influence stakeholders. Attempts to establish a partnership would be a waste of resources and time. Collaboration and partnership are only appropriate for key players: stakeholders with high influence and high interest who could bring considerable benefits to the Citizen Observatory, but who conversely – if not managed well – would bring considerable risk.

Influence and interest of the different stakeholders are not the only important things; different circumstances and objectives require different approaches. It can be helpful to map the current and envisioned Citizen Observatory members on the Stakeholder Influence Grid (Milosevic, 2003). This matrix maps the level of commitment of a stakeholder, or Citizen Observatory member in this case, against the importance of their support.

High-commitment and high-importance Citizen Observatory members are ‘fully on board’. These ‘champions’ can be engaged to help drive change, take on specific tasks and take the Citizen Observatory to the ‘next level’. Citizen Observatory members with high commitment but low importance are ‘strong believers’ and are essential for the Citizen Observatory’s legwork’. Those Citizen Observatory members with high importance but low commitment are ‘conscientious objectors’, so the Citizen Observatory’s engagement strategy should focus on increasing this group’s commitment, for example by means of bilateral meetings and targeted communication. Low importance and low commitment Citizen Observatory members are known as ‘cheerleaders’; these people are good for morale but cannot ‘win the game’ for you.

Lessons from the Ground Truth 2.0 Project

While setting up Citizen Observatories in Europe and in Africa, the Ground Truth 2.0 project found that working with the different stakeholders of a Citizen Observatory can benefit from the following:

  • Build mutual relations between the members of the observatory by paying personal attention. Close personal connections at the most local level seems to be most promising. Citizen Observatory participants appreciate it when their names are remembered and they are welcomed and addressed with a personal touch; it has proven useful to invest some time in associating names with faces.
  • Consider the context and circumstances of the different stakeholders. For example, planning Citizen Observatory meetings after working hours is often valued by citizens who are volunteering their time. This provides a good base to build robust personal relationships with them. Decision-makers prefer to participate in meetings during working hours, so it can be necessary to brief them bilaterally before they will agree to join Citizen Observatory meetings at the end of the working day, together with citizens.
  • Set up a WhatsApp group (or similar) for the group communication. This is easy and accessible, but also dynamic and informal. This type of communication provides a stronger personal touch than email and can help to cross boundaries presented by the official roles and titles of representatives of public authorities. It also helps to integrate new people in the group; they can become familiar with the group dynamics in a very accessible way.

While some Citizen Observatories are focused on a local or regional issue, others aim to address a global issue and need to build a movement and active participation at that scale. When this is the case, the engagement strategy should focus on building communities, rather than being a distribution strategy focused on channels and platforms.

Citizen Observatories are powered by participants. It therefore follows that engagement should focus on building communities that support active participation instead of platform‐based communities that support passive information spreading. There should be a fundamental link between communication, engagement strategies and participant pathways, and a plan for how these will change as the Citizen Observatory matures.

The plan should respond to the following broad stages:

  1. At the beginning of the project focus on using communication through partner channels with social media to raise awareness and encourage participants.
  2. Then, as active participation begins, focus communication between participants to build sustainable, active communities.
  3. Finally, as the Citizen Observatory produces real results, move to broadcasting only to the participant communities to wider audiences, using the Citizen Observatory’s channels and PR activities in mainstream media.

The use of social platforms and traditional media channels are most effective when they tightly focus on achieving the goals of building an active community at the heart of the Citizen Observatory, not building large groups of followers just for the sake of it. Over the last few years in particular, organic reach on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook has made it much harder to meaningfully engage participants.

The GROW Observatory Narrative Design and Storytelling

GROW built its engagement plan around ‘circulation’, encouraging participation, engagement and knowledge sharing between communities, rather than a traditional ‘distribution’ model.

Narrative Design is at the heart of the GROW engagement strategy and is linked to research on the drivers for participation commissioned by the BBC in 2006. This report showed that while existing micro‐communities were the most important triggers for participation, storytelling plays a crucial role in upscaling, activating large audiences by serving as Catalysts, Instructions and Celebrations.

GROW developed the Narrative Design process to create, curate and amplify stories, developing effective stories for each audience type: grower, policy/advocacy and science and specialist users. This is a user‐centred process, building on well-known personas and scenarios, looking at existing behaviour within GROW communities and using this information to make decisions about story formats.

The broad structure for the Narrative Design process is detailed below:

  1. How are stories shared in this community?
  2. What are people discussing in this community?
  3. What stories are already being shared by the community on this subject?
  4. How can we add value to the community?
  5. How will we listen to the responses?

Finally, using an open research model, methods, tools and emergent results were iteratively evaluated and circulated as the Citizen Observatory matured over time. GROW developed different ways to circulate these materials to the full range of active participants. These included a programme of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), webinars, focus groups and community gatherings specifically to support peer-to-peer knowledge exchange across 24 communities. Insight workshops were a particularly successful approach to bringing all stakeholders together to share knowledge and results and to enable a more agile and responsive observatory at a large scale.

Useful Resources

PROJECT REPORT: This Ground Truth 2.0 report presents the generic elements of a stakeholder engagement for Citizen Observatories (i.e., to sustainably engage active participants and  influential supporters) and shows the tailored strategies of for six Citizen Observatories.

VIDEO: The GROW Insights Workshop held a meeting and panel with local and national authorities, policy-makers and decision-makers to explore Citizen Observatories’ contributions to the SDGs in Athens.

BOOK: Citizen Sensing: A Toolkit from the Making Sense project presents a framework, tools and methods in action. See case sStudies “(Amsterdam AirQ” and “) , Commons Mapping Tool”.

CoP: The WeObserve Co-design & Engage Community of Practice brings together practitioners of Citizen Observatories and citizen science to share and learn different ways of engaging stakeholders in Citizen Observatories.

PROJECT REPORT: Engagement activities and their impacts on policy development. It includes UN FAO slides from one of the GROW MOOCs covering multi-stakeholder soil governance models.

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This work by parties of the WeObserve consortium is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.