U.S. Public Participation Playbook

A resource for government managers to effectively evaluate and build better services through public participation.
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Understand the playing field

Learn how to understand and empower your participants.

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    Play 2: Understand your participants and stakeholder groups

    Community and stakeholder understanding is key to organizing a successful participatory effort. Once you determine who you’re trying to reach, you can refine your outreach efforts to effectively communicate with participants and stakeholders.


    • Create personas of your target participants in order to understand their needs.
    • Conduct sampling and initial outreach to better define and understand participants.
    • Use groupwork methods to draw representations based on observation and not assumption.
    • Identify obstacles you must overcome to reach participants, including connectivity and schedules.
    • Determine how you will reach diverse groups of people with broad perspectives.
    • Identify gatekeepers, including community groups, who can help reach potential participants.
    • Customize your engagement strategies for each type of stakeholder.
    • Meet your audience where they are, not where you want them to be.

    Case studies

    • Peace Corps Application Process Redesign: Peace Corps redesigned their application process to meet the expectations of their target audiences. A shortened application allowed applicants to choose which countries they want to serve in. This receptivity to the audience’s needs and experiences resulted in record-breaking application numbers for Peace Corps.
    • The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency opened unclassified geospatial intelligence information to the general public through their Ebola Relief Website. They recognized an unprecedented need for a large number of stakeholders to quickly access information that can help NGO’s and other workers battle the virus.


    The CDC: Gateway to Health Communications & Social Marketing Practice website provides resources to build health communication or social marketing programs. It provides tips for analyzing and segmenting an audience, choosing appropriate channels and tools, and evaluating the success of messages or campaigns.

    Play 3: Understand and communicate the benefit of participation

    Participants must understand how they can contribute to a program and why it is important they participate. Clearly defined and communicated benefits help craft effective messages and inclusive engagement. Understanding what successful participation looks like is critical to knowing whether your program succeeds.


    • Decide what essential information participants need to know before engagement.
    • Build a communications strategy that considers the expectations and motivations of participants and the value of participation.
    • Involve senior leadership and ensure they understand the importance of participation.
    • Provide inclusive access to orientation materials.
    • Define how participants benefit from the process and what they can contribute, including information, permission, and time.
    • Inform participants when they should expect to hear follow-up from their engagement.
    • Report how participation impacted program efforts.

    Case studies

    • National Day of Civic Hacking organizers submit problem statements to explain an issue, explain how the public can address it, and provide resources to help orient people to the problem. They also outline time commitments and skills needed.
    • Regulation Room is a pilot project sponsored by the Federal Government and operated by the Cornell e-Rulemaking Initiative. Organizers provide participants resources to better understand the rulemaking process and teach them how to make an effective comment. Participants comment on a report after discussion ends to ensure the program captures ideas before the Government receives a final version.
    • Give a Minute is a micro-participation/crowdsourcing event with clear expectations for participants. Moderators collect and share ideas both digitally and in-person.
    • NASA Socials are events where NASA’s social media followers can learn about NASA’s missions, people, and programs. Through these behind-the-scenes experiences, participants are empowered to advocate for the agency and attend future events.

    Play 4: Empower participants through public/private partnership

    Leveraging corporate and community partners is a powerful way of gaining support and participation for government campaigns and events. Partners and sponsors can help reach new audiences or reinforce messages within existing ones. Public/private partnerships also legitimize both what your agency is trying to accomplish and how that information or program is delivered.


    • Define and create partnerships.
    • Survey agency employees for knowledge of community and stakeholder groups.
    • Reach out to nonprofit organizations and community partners who can amplify participation opportunities and connect your agency with additional partners.
    • Use a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), an Interagency Agency Agreement (IAA), or another type of contractual agreement to describe each partner’s responsibilities.
    • Outline the terms and the specifications of the partnership, including messaging, logo usage, promotional opportunities and boundaries.
    • Create an “authorized partners” list to reduce legal issues

    Case studies

    • The Heart Truth® campaign, created by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), partners with dozens of corporate and community sponsors. The campaign raises awareness about heart disease and its effect on women through both online and in-person fitness events.
    • In 2014 LabTV launched its vision of creating a free, scientist-to-student web/video platform aimed at inspiring the next generation of researchers. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) worked with LabTV to produce hundreds of videos of NIH researchers with varying backgrounds and interests, and matched students with scientists who can share information about life as a medical researcher.
    • A coalition of private companies, non-profit organizations, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created STOP.THINK.CONNECT.™ Partnering with industry leaders, DHS attracts a broader audience and garners significant public participation for online events such as Twitter chats to help spread its message.
    • The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) website is dedicated to stamping out distracted driving. DOT enlisted the help of several organizations to spread its message. One partner, the FOX television show “Glee”, helped produce public service announcements that feature characters from the show.

    Metrics: How do you know you understand the playing field?


    • Total number of participants.
    • Number of participants needed to establish a representative sample size, as well as primary and secondary groups.
    • Number of participants from primary and secondary target groups.
    • Number of new participants.
    • Number of returning participants.
    • Percentage of participants satisfied with the “customer experience.”
    • Rates of conversion, e.g. from contacts > visitors > signups > contributions.
    • Volume of sharing, recruitment activity or other promotion.
    • Quantify the quality and effectiveness of participation, e.g. relevance of feedback.
    • Quantify the value and in-kind services donated by public/private partnerships, e.g. air-time, printing, advertising, or prizes.
    • Numerical comparison of current participation with previous efforts and non-partnership activities.