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Citizens’ Panels

A Citizens’ Panel is a large, demographically representative group of citizens used to assess public preferences and opinions. Citizens’ panels are made up of a representative sample of a local population and are used by statutory agencies, especially local authorities, to identify local issues and consult service users and non-users. Potential participants are generally recruited through random sampling of the electoral roll or door-to-door recruitment. They are then selected so that membership is made up of a representative profile of the local population in terms of age and gender.

Once they agree to participate, panel members, or sections of it, participate in surveys at intervals over the course of their membership and, where appropriate, in further in-depth research such as Focus Groups. The types of questions to ask the Panel requires careful thought to ensure that they are relevant to the participants. Panel members need to be clear about their role on the panel. Make sure you tell them what is expected of them from the start, as some people think a ‘panel’ will involve face-to-face discussions, where in fact questionnaires or telephone polling are the most common panel techniques. Members also need to be told how frequently they will be consulted, how long they will be on the panel etc.

Origin:
Citizens’ Panels have evolved from Opinion Polls and Market Research.

Used for:
Panels can be used to assess service needs, identify local issues and determine the appropriateness of service developments. Large panels can also be used to target specific groups for their views on issues. Citizens’ Panels measure the views of a large body of people over a period of time, thereby assessing the impact of developments.

Who participates?
Citizens’ Panels can range in size from a few hundred to several thousand people. With more than 1,000 participants it is often possible to identify sub groups of panel members who can be surveyed about issues specific to their needs or interests. The Panel needs to be systematically renewed to make sure it is still representative of the population in general.

Panel members need to be recruited in a way which ensures that they are representative of the population as a whole.

Cost:
Running a Panel can cost anything from £5,000 a year to well over £20,000. Costs vary depending on the size of the Panel, the methods in which the members are consulted and the frequency of consultation. If all research is telephone based and if the Panel is shared with other partner organisations the costs can be cut. Be wary when sharing the Panel with other organisations though, as this limits your own use.

There are considerable costs and work involved in running and maintaining the panels, requiring significant resources in terms of staff time, skills and money. In some cases incentives are given to encourage participation in a Panel; for example a prize draw. In the long run, it should work out cheaper than regular one-off surveys.

Time requirements:
Staff time will be needed to keep the panel database up to date, recruit new participants, run and analyse the consultations. Feedback on the outcome of consultation needs to be disseminated among the participants, often through a newsletter.

There are mixed views on how often the Panel should be consulted. 4-6 times a year is a common recommendation but others engage with the Panel once a month. Too frequent engagement leads to some participants dropping out and others becoming too knowledgeable to remain representative.

When should you use?
– To monitor public opinion on key issues;
– As a source for participants for more in-depth processes, like focus groups;
– Engaging the public with the development of new policy areas.

When should you not use?
– Citizens’ Panels should not be the only form of consultation.

Can it be used to make decisions?
No

Strengths:
– Can be used by a partnership of agencies;
– Can target specific groups if large enough;
– Allows surveys or other research to be done at short notice (once the panel is established);
– In larger panels members are representative of the population;
– Can track changes in views over time;
– The cost of a panel, once established and used several times, is less than a large-scale one-off survey.

Weaknesses:
– Needs considerable staff support to establish and maintain;
– Non-English speakers could be excluded;
– Reflects your agenda rather than the community’s;
– The database of names and addresses requires constant updating;
– Younger members tend to drop out, so the panel gradually gets older.

Can deliver:
– Picture of public opinion over time.

Won’t deliver:
– In-depth understanding of the public’s views;
– Empowered participants;
– Consensus/Shared Vision;
– Improved relationships.

Example: Bristol Citizens’ Panel

The Bristol Citizens’ Panel was established to keep the council informed about public opinion, and is promoted as ‘Bristol’s biggest think-tank’.

A random sample and interviews were used in late 1998 to recruit 2,200 panellists that mirrored the population of the city as a whole. Since then, the Citizens’ Panel has been asked more than six hundred questions, ranging from issues like recycling to whether or not Bristol should have a directly elected Mayor. Over the years new panellists have been recruited to replace inactive panel members. Each year the Panel receives up to four questionnaires, which can either be completed on paper or electronically on the council website.

The results from the Citizens’ Panel are regularly fed into decision-making, and the panel has also featured in the local and national media. Panel members are kept informed of the results of the surveys via the panel newsletter “Feedback” and results often appear in the local media and are all available on the council website.

Contact Bristol Citizens’ Panel

Telephone: 0117 922 2848
Web: http://www.bristol.gov.uk/ccm/portal/

Contact Market & Opinion Research International (MORI)

MORI House 79-81 Borough Road, London, SE1 1FY
Telephone 020 7347 3000
Fax 020 7347 3800
Email mori@mori.com
Web www.mori.com

This text was excerpted from Involve’s great 2005 publication, “People & Participation: How to put citizens at the heart of decision-making.” Learn more about Involve at www.involve.org.uk/.

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