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Fostering Inclusive Policy Research: Embracing a Participatory Approach

By Katie Ragsdale & Katie Kristensen

At the Social Policy Institute (SPI), we are deeply committed to fostering inclusive and impactful policy research. We recognize that the traditional top-down approach to policymaking often neglects the voices and experiences of communities and stakeholders most impacted by the problem at hand. Over the past two years, we have begun a journey toward building our capacity to engage in participatory research. In this blog post, we will explore the importance of developing a participatory approach in policy research and how we are realizing it in our work.

What is a Participatory Approach?

A participatory approach lies in the attitudes, not methods, of researchers. It asks researchers to probe how knowledge is created, whose expertise is solicited and valued, and to what end resulting knowledge is used. This approach recognizes the social context of how knowledge is produced. In conventional policy research, researchers control the research process and agenda, and study participants serve solely as subjects of investigation. A participatory approach requires a fundamental shift in power dynamics where researchers share decision-making on what is being researched and how with the people and communities most impacted by the policy issue being examined.

With this approach, the people most impacted become co-producers of knowledge. Lived experience is (rightly) understood as invaluable expertise crucial to understanding the complex issue at hand. Further, the approach aims to create knowledge for action and not just understanding. The outcome of the research is not just publishable results, but the provision of resources (e.g. grants, programs), capacity-building in the community, and knowledge that can be shared via other avenues (e.g. with funders, local government officials) to effect change.

By actively involving communities in the research process, policy researchers can tap into local knowledge, ensure representation, and create a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the issues at hand. Collaborative decision-making necessitates and fosters an environment of trust and inclusivity. The approach has compounding benefits as it strengthens the researchers’ relationships with communities, facilitating future projects and furthering the potential for social change.

Benefits of a Participatory Approach

The adoption of a participatory approach in policy research yields numerous benefits. Firstly, research outcomes become more relevant and effective as they are grounded in the real needs and aspirations of communities. Empowerment is another significant advantage, as participatory research provides an opportunity for communities and stakeholders to actively contribute and shape policies that impact their lives.

Moreover, it builds trust and relationships between researchers and communities, fostering a sense of partnership and collaboration. By addressing power imbalances and promoting social justice, a participatory approach creates a more equitable and inclusive policy environment.

Steps in Generating a Participatory Approach

Realizing a participatory approach to research requires intentional, systematic changes. Organizations must first build a culture of inclusivity and collaboration, fostering an environment where diverse voices are valued and heard. Identifying and engaging key stakeholders is crucial, as their perspectives and experiences will inform the research process.

Training researchers in a participatory approach equips them with the necessary skills to facilitate meaningful engagement and collaboration. Clear and transparent communication channels should be established to ensure open dialogue and information exchange. Mechanisms for community input and decision-making must be put in place. Regular evaluation and adaptation of research practices ensure their continued effectiveness.

Here at SPI, we began by assessing our capacity to engage in a participatory approach through a ‘Hopes and Fears’ exercise and SWOT analysis. As a part of positioning ourselves to succeed in a participatory approach, we have engaged in critical self-reflection as we created a logic model for implementing participatory approaches across the organization. While we see community-based participatory research (CBPR) as a touchstone for a participatory approach to research, we also recognize that not all the policy work SPI engages in is suited to CBPR. Therefore, we are beginning to work—on a project-by-project basis—to move projects along the continuum of participation.

Challenges and Considerations

While a participatory approach to research offers great promise, it also comes with challenges. Overcoming power dynamics representation requires ongoing vigilance and commitment. Balancing diverse perspectives can be complex, but it ultimately leads to more robust and inclusive outcomes.

Allocating resources for participatory research is another consideration. It is essential to recognize that a participatory approach requires investments in time, funding, and capacity-building. Additionally, ethical considerations, such as protecting participants’ rights and maintaining confidentiality, must be given careful attention throughout the process.

Case Study: Implementing Participatory Approach at the Social Policy Institute

At SPI, we have embarked on a transformative journey to a develop participatory approach in our policy research. Through numerous initiatives and projects, we have seen the power of involving communities firsthand. From conducting focus groups and community consultations to co-designing research projects, we have learned invaluable lessons and gained insights that would have otherwise been overlooked.

Some recent examples include SPI’s work with the In Her Hands initiative which employs a CBPR design and with Habitat For Humanity International’s participatory approach a program evaluation study.

Our experiences have shown that a participatory approach fosters collaboration and innovation. It has enabled us to create policies that are more responsive, equitable, and sustainable. By sharing our journey, lessons learned, and best practices, we hope to inspire others to adopt similar approaches in their organizations.


Developing a participatory approach in policy research is not just an idealistic aspiration, it is a necessary step towards inclusive and effective policymaking. The benefits of involving communities and stakeholders in decision-making processes are clear and far-reaching.