Our Research Questions & Learning Strategy

What is Public Square and why does it have a learning strategy?

Public Square is a two-year action research programme that explores how to improve participation at a local government level. We will do this by working with a group of councils, communities, and citizens across the UK to first hear about, and then test out, what would make a difference and support better participation for all. We will work in public to inform future work carried out both by ourselves and others within local democracy which will allow lessons to be shared, and for a wider range of voices to feed into our research. Our research and prototyping will be used to develop techniques, tools and approaches that will be made openly available for others to use.

Our anticipated programme outcomes:

  1. Have a deep understanding of the a) barriers and opportunities regarding participation in decision-making at various levels within local government  (for example, the local delivery of services as well as strategy and policy decisions), and b) current options for citizens to participate in decision-making at a local level. 
  2. Develop interventions that support the uptake of democratic participation and engagement at a local level in decision-making and test these;
  3. Inspire local government to take up more participatory practice and, where relevant, wider public-sector organisations;
  4. Build connections and relationships between a diverse range of people and networks that are working on the broad topic of democratic participation, highlighting what already exists and enabling collaboration. 
  5. Explore what meaningful citizen engagement and decision making really look like for citizens in their own terms.

We have created a framework of learning activities to ensure that throughout all elements of the programme, we are continually exploring our research questions. 

Our research questions

Underpinning question:

  • What does long-term, financially sustainable participation look like for citizens and local government, in different contexts?


1. Defining the problem
  • What does meaningful participation in the wider process of decision-making look like? (for example holding to account, scrutiny, neighbourhood planning and oversight of decisions)
  • What difference does meaningful participation make to decision making? 
  • What gets in the way of achieving this?
  • Are there wider social benefits from doing meaningful participation in this way? (for example, increasing community cohesion, increasing trust)
2. Understanding the current context
  • What is the state of current participatory practice in local government? (including Town, Parish and Community Councils)  Who are the innovators? 
  • what are the different pressures, constraints, and other factors that shape different practices of local government's response to citizen participation?'
  • Who is working on this topic in the UK and globally?
  • What innovations are there in other settings that could be applicable in local government? 
3. Understanding opportunities and challenges
  • What holds citizens and organisations back from engaging with local government, and other local public sector organisations? How can this be overcome? What motivates and enables people to get involved? 
  • What holds local government back from engaging with citizens and organisations?  What motivates and enables council officers and elected members to engage effectively with citizens? How can this be overcome?
  • How will tools that have been developed to support more meaningful democratic participation help or hurt the pursuit of more meaningful participation?
  • How do we make participation work for those who lack skills, capacity and confidence? (This is for all actors)
  • In what cases do citizens get the most ROI for active participation?
4. Testing, developing and prototyping
  • What is needed to further help support engagement between citizens and local authorities/public-sector organisations? 
  • Having developed interventions, how effective are these? How do they need to be developed further? 
5. Dissemination
  • What are the best ways to join up efforts, ensure lessons are shared, and work with councils to develop an open, common toolkit for civic participation?
  • How can our findings from our research apply to contexts beyond our initial cohort and  be developed into something that will be taken up in practice?
  • How best can you leverage central and devolved governments' interest and investment in participation?
We do not support Internet Explorer. Please use a modern browser for a better experience.