Tag Archives: Stakeholder Engagement

We Thought it was Good, but not THIS Good: Community Participation in HIA

When we started this evaluation of how the field of HIA is doing at encouraging community participation in HIA, we have to admit, we had low expectations. But the results are in, and they are much more encouraging then we thought they might be.

At HIP, we have focused on community participation as a key way to reach international HIA goals of democracy and equity. We strive in our work to authentically and intentionally encourage community members who are impacted by public decisions to be involved in the HIA process. But, to be honest, we didn’t know for sure if community participation would lead to greater democracy and equity, or how strong the connection would be. So we set out to study it.

How do you measure how much a community participated in an HIA? How do you measure how that participation impacted democracy and equity? We started by diving into the literature and looking for resources to help us figure that out. First, we found the International Association of Public Participation’s Spectrum of Participation, and we adapted it to be more specific to HIA.

Table 1_ spectrum comm parti

Then, we had long discussions about what the ultimate outcome of democracy might be, on an individual and collective level, and we decided it was captured best by the concept of civic agency. We defined civic agency as: a community’s ability to organize and undertake collective action in its own self-interest. We measured civic agency by creating survey questions that lined up with the ways civic agency was discussed in the literature. We asked questions about community members taking action, increasing contact with decision makers, strengthening skills to influence future decisions, and if community voices about the HIA topic were heard.

Once we had our questions ready, we sent out our survey to HIA team members and to the community members that participated in their HIAs. We got nearly 100 respondents (63 HIA team members and 30 community members), representing 47 HIAs across the US. We followed this up with an in-depth study of four HIAs that we followed from beginning to end, to better understand the context of our findings and see if there was anything we missed.

Turns out, the field is doing a better job at incorporating community participation in HIAs than we thought. Most respondents reported that the level of community participation in their HIA fell in the middle of the spectrum, at the “involve” level. Perhaps even more encouraging, community members ranked their HIAs as higher in community participation than HIA practitioners did.

Figure 1. Level of Community Participation as reported by HIA team members (N = 59) and community members (N = 28).

Figure 1

Another finding that was stronger than we expected – no one feels like the community participation has a negative impact on the success of their HIA. In fact, a whopping 84% said they thought it had a positive impact.

Figure 2. Impact of Community Participation on the Success of the HIA

Figure 2

In fact, further analysis showed that HIAs that had higher levels of community participation had better odds of successfully impacting the HIA decision point (this is how we defined success). In other words – it’s not just having the community participate that improves the success of an HIA, it’s having the community participate at high levels of participation.

Finally, HIAs are doing a good job at supporting democracy through civic agency. With responses ranging from 63% to 85%, the majority of respondents reported that each measure of civic agency was achieved through the community participation in their HIA. This is great news. While we always suspected this would be the case – it makes intuitive sense that involving people more in the decision-making process that impacts their lives increases democracy – it is very encouraging to see this documented.

Figure 3. Civic agency outcomes (N = 88)

Figure 3

So overall, this study was able to contribute to the field of HIA by helping to define levels of community participation and impact on democracy through civic agency. We were able to show that the field of HIA is already doing a decent job of community participation in HIA, and community participation is contributing to civic agency and to the success of HIAs. Higher levels of participation led to even more successful HIAs.

But there’s still room for improvement. Less than one-third of the respondents indicated that community participation in their HIA was at one of the top two levels on the spectrum – where the most benefit comes. The findings from this study give us even more reason to keep striving for these higher levels of participation. We thought this was true, and now we know it is. Good news, indeed.

Check out our full report for more information on recommendations to enhance community participation in HIAs.

Bias in HIA Research – What is Your Research Philosophy?

[As research director at Human Impact Partners, Holly Avey spends a lot of time not just looking at our findings but thinking about how we conduct and use research. This is the first in a series of blogs about the role of research in HIA.]

A persistent discussion in the HIA world is bias: Are findings biased if they are too heavily influenced by the participation of members of the community being studied? Although HIA practitioners in North America have concluded that input from stakeholders is an essential part of the process – guides have been written about how to engage stakeholders – there is still a tension in the field about how to do this and how it might impact the quality of the research. The National Collaborating Centre for Healthy Public Policy has summarized this tension in two fact sheets that discuss the risks and obstacles of citizen participation and the principal reasons to support it for HIA.

A core argument about bias is that if you involve community members in research, you’re just getting their opinions, and opinions aren’t the same as scientific fact (as Celia Harris discussed in her blog about the recent National HIA Meeting). You’re muddying the waters; you’re diluting or contaminating the scientific validity of the process if you include unsubstantiated opinion as part of the data in your final report. Interviews aren’t the same as air quality data.

That’s clearly true – interviews aren’t the same as air quality data. But is one a source of data and the other a source of bias?  Michael Crotty, author of The Foundations of Social Science Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process, says your answer might depend on your philosophy about research as a whole. I’ve summarized his argument to show that the perceived difference between interviews and statistical analysis of data might really be a reflection of how different researchers see the world in very different ways.

Four Basic Elements of Research1

Four elements of research process

Example 1

(often associated with quantitative research)

Example 2

(often associated with qualitative research)

Your research philosophy: what knowledge is and how to get it

Objectivism: things exist in an objective reality. The way they exist does not have anything to do with the way we think about them or experience them. Good research can measure this objective truth.

Constructionism: everything is relative and depends on context. The way things are is just a construct of the way we make sense of them. It’s just our own personal theory. Research needs to capture this context and personal meaning.

Your theoretical perspective: how you explain what things mean through research

Positivism: information is not scientific unless it can be proven right or wrong by observation and experiment.

Critical inquiry: reality is constantly changing. Every action changes the context. We must constantly be critical of our assumptions when we do research.

Methodology: how you design your research

Experimental research: start with a general scientific theory of how things work, then propose an explanation for how something more specific works, then try to prove your idea wrong (if you can’t prove it wrong, we’ll assume it’s right).

Action research: design your research so that the data that is collected and analyzed can be used for problem solving actions. This should be a collaborative process that allows you to understand the context of the information collected and how it can be used.

Methods: the research toolbox of tools you use to ask and answer your questions

Statistical analysis


1 Adapted from Crotty, M. 1998.The Foundations of Social Science Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process. Sage Publications, London.

If you think things exist in an objective reality and the purpose of research is to measure this objective truth, information from interviews might indeed seem biased. But if you believe that everything is relative and depends on the context and the meaning of the events and experiences, interviews might seem like very valuable data.

My personal research philosophy – and HIP’s – leans more toward constructionism – the context and personal meaning influence the realities people experience. Does this mean that we don’t see the value in experimental research and quantitative data like air quality monitoring data? Not at all. We agree that this information is important as well. What it does mean is that the research we do will likely be a combination of these types of data, whenever possible. It means we think context is extremely important, that we need to pay close attention to our assumptions, and that our role as practitioners is to use research and the research process to inform decisions in a way that improves health and reduces inequities.

Tune in next week for another blog on research, where I’ll muse about how to come up with the right research questions to match the purpose of your HIA.