Informal methods of participatory public engagement are those that occur as part of routine human interaction, outside of political institutions, and may involve dialogue, collective decision-making, and deliberation.
Problems and Purpose
Unlike 'institutionalized' forms of participation, informal methods of engagement are acted out on a day-to-day basis as part of routine human interaction. Although informal participation takes place outside of political institutions, the kinds of interaction may be the same, including dialogue, deliberation, collaborative decision-making, etc.
Informal participation takes place in the private sphere yet its effects often manifest or influence actions and actors in the public sphere and spaces of political power. The general purposes for which individuals engage in informal participation are:
- Knowledge sharing
- Social capital and networking
- Collective agreements and decision-making
Origins and Development
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How it Works
The selection process and targeted demographics depend on the intended purpose of both formal and informal forms of participation. The differences lie in context: informal participation takes place in the private sphere, and is therefore on a much smaller scale. As well, selection techniques such as sampling or the use of randomized-controls are not typically employed (at least not systematically or consciously). Participants are typically chosen from among one’s own social group or become involved through sheer circumstance. One similarity between informal and formal, institutionalized forms of participation, is that they tend to select from among those with a stake in the decisions made or actions taken. Typically, those chosen for participation benefit in some way from the interaction.
Informal forms of participation do not differ significantly from their formal counterparts involving, as they do, dialogue, deliberation, collaborative engagement, and collective decision making. Where the methods and tools differ is in their context – the private rather than the public or political sphere – and the way they are employed – through trial and error, observation, or intuition rather than formal training or experience in facilitation. Formal participation often takes the form of ‘events’ or pre-planned, structured engagements that follow a set agenda and are overseen and managed by trained facilitators. In contrast, informal participation is often initiated spontaneously or on an as-needed basis throughout the day and, as such, relies on the interpersonal and conversational skills of its participants acquired through socialization.
Examples of informal participation include:
- An individual seeks out the knowledge of those with similar experiences or, conversely, seeks to gain understanding from those from different backgrounds or social situations
- An individual initiates individual- or group-dialogues and debates on issues whose interpretation and understanding is important for both parties.
- An individual consults with those with more knowledge or experience before coming to a decision
- An individual engages with others (like-minded or otherwise) to gain support for collective action
- An individual attempts to convince others through rational, informed persuasion in order to come to a mutually-beneficial or supported decision
Analysis and Lessons Learned
According to the Community Capacity-Building Framework, community capacity is built and operates through both formal and informal forms and processes of participation and engagement. Community capacity is a fundamentally democratic concept, defined as “the interaction of human capital, organizational resources, and social capital existing within a given community that can be leveraged to solve collective problems and improve or maintain the well-being of that community.” Informal participation contributes to community capacity by building social capital, strengthening individual capabilities, forming networks of trust and collaboration, and increasing knowledge and use of formal channels of public participation.
There is currently scant research on informal forms of participation despite their ubiquity in both the Global North and Global South. In a meta-analysis of 100 studies of citizen engagement in 20 countries, John Gaventa and Gregory Barrett found that civic engagement was conducted through formal channels in only 19% of cases while informal participation – including social movements and campaigns, and local associations – was used in 58%. Not surprisingly, 78% of cases using informal forms of participation were to be found in the least democratic countries where formal channels of engagement are often non-existent, exclusive, and/or provide little political power to participants. ‘Local associations’ is broadly defined by the authors but closely represents informal participation, including processes such as grassroots community organizing and membership in neighbourhood or community organizations. However, Gaventa and Barrett’s conclusion that “the importance of local associations as a tool for building citizenship and gaining government responsiveness...is a factor which deserves far more attention” is perhaps no more true than in relation to truly informal, day-to-day uses of participation. Field work and on-the-ground interviews with locals is ongoing so analysis of informal participation is, hopefully, forthcoming.
 Bo Kinney, “Deliberation’s Contribution to Community Capacity Building,” in Democracy in Motion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 166.
 John Gaventa and Gregory Barrett, “So What Difference Does it Make? Mapping the Outcomes of Citizen Engagement,” IDS Working Paper 347 (Oct 2010): 48, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2040-0209.2010.00347_2.x/pdf.
 John Gaventa and Gregory Barrett, “So What Difference Does it Make? Mapping the Outcomes of Citizen Engagement," 49.