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FAQ 7: How many people need to be involved?

Public dialogues to inform policy or decision making typically involve a relatively small number of participants in order to allow for in depth deliberation to explore their views, and the values, beliefs, experiences, interests and needs that underlie them. Public dialogues are, however, often complemented by other forms of engagement that involve a larger number of participants.

Public dialogues to inform policy or decision making commonly involve a relatively small number of participants, compared with other forms of dialogue, engagement or social research. This is because there is a trade-off between the depth of a discussion and the number of people that can be involved in it.

The purpose of public dialogues is typically to achieve in-depth deliberation in order to support participants to develop their views and delve beyond them to uncover the values, beliefs, experiences, interests and needs that underlie them.

This type of dialogue therefore requires the involvement of enough participants to represent a range of different and diverse views, values, beliefs, experiences, interests and needs. However, there is a theoretical (but impossible to define in advance) optimum number of participants, beyond which there are diminishing returns from adding more participants in terms of the difference or diversity of contributions, but rising costs and challenges for facilitation and analysis (which are both likely to begin to suffer).

Therefore, representativeness in this case is typically achieved via the same approach as qualitative researchers take. Participants are chosen through a process of purposive sampling, the aim of which is to involve a selection of people who might represent the widest possible set of views, values and demographies. Therefore, the findings cannot be taken to be statistically representative of the general population, but can uncover participants’ views, and the values, beliefs, experiences, interests and needs that underlie them.

While this is commonly the case for dialogues that inform policy or decision making, there are other methodologies, such as Deliberative Polling® and Citizens’ Summits, which involve much larger numbers of participants, typically because they have a different primary purpose.

Public dialogue projects do not necessarily just use one methodology, but take a mixed approach. The Sciencehorizons dialogue project, for example, included a deliberative panel (involving 31 participants), facilitated public events (involving 842 participants) and self-managed, small group discussions (involving around 2,400 participants).

Public dialogues are also often complemented by other forms of engagement or social research. Written consultations, focus groups, opinion polls, simulations and other methods have been used to complement the in depth findings of public dialogues.