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Supporting community participation in research projects - part I

3 Dec 2020 | Cat Tabbner

Cat Tabbner and Monique Campbell are community engagement and empowerment (CEE) specialists within our team working alongside the researchers at GCPH, the University of Glasgow and our partners.

In this two-part blog they discuss the six contextual factors for supporting community participation in research and provide recommendations based on rapidly reviewing recent evidence published by third sector community organisations.

We are often asked for advice on seeking community participation in research projects. Our responses emphasise the need to understand community contexts and the importance of applying good practice. The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Glasgow’s communities in a range of ways. We have already seen good practice adapted to support community recovery from the crisis, for example in the revised National Standards for Community Engagement. In this blog, we discuss what this changing context may mean for research projects wishing to engage communities and give recommendations based on the available evidence.

Why contexts are important for meaningful participation

Many voluntary and third sector organisations, advocates and networks are continuing to publish a wealth of intelligence about their work. Many recent reports describe how groups are responding to, coping with and trying to recover from the impacts of the ongoing pandemic on communities and its associated mitigation and control measures. Evidence emerging from a wide range of sources, including our own, shows the speed, skill and agility of community responses even while battling difficult and precarious financial situations. A number of reports also stress that barriers to engaging communities are increasing, especially for people who were already in vulnerable situations caused by poverty and inequalities. Overall, worsening inequalities are being widely reported, including by the GCPH and community organisations across Glasgow and Scotland.

Understanding these contexts is important because action to help Glasgow endure and recover from the pandemic will need meaningful participation and expertise from communities, especially those most affected by the crisis. Research projects may be able to usefully contribute towards these efforts, even where that may not be the main goal, and even where contributions may be minor. From our experience, it is important that projects understand the local, often unique, contexts that they will working in and understand the situations that communities are coping with so that they do not create, maintain or exacerbate inequalities.

Six contextual factors for supporting participation

To help researchers understand some enduring implications of this pandemic for their projects, we have rapidly synthesised some of the available evidence. We present six contextual factors for research projects to consider before seeking participation from communities.

The six key factors are: assets; money and resources; equalities and appropriateness; inclusion and accessibility; availability and energy; and changing circumstances.

Each factor needs to be considered in the specific context of the challenges and learning that individual communities have been reporting. Communities are diverse and groups will describe their own participation requirements better than we can. We recommend that they are asked. This blog explores some of the main issues which have been widely reported, so they are likely to be common across many communities and therefore relevant to a range of research projects.


Across Glasgow and Scotland, the depth and breadth of expertise within communities has been amplified by the speed, meaningful action, knowledge, flexibility, contrasting surges and decreases in volunteering and pooling and redirecting of resources which have been demonstrated in response to the pandemic. In addition to the scale of the commitment shown by communities, this mobilisation of assets has been further supported by the flexibility of funders to relax rules or re-purpose programmes in order to release funds.

We recommend that meaningful engagement with communities starts with taking an assets-based approach. This means considering how to value and support skills, strengths and successes during the participation process, and building on what is already working well for communities. 

Money and resources

Many community organisations in Glasgow and across Scotland are reporting dire financial situations due to a range of causes that include budget cuts, austerity and the impacts of COVID-19. Supporting participation may require a financial payment for community organisations’ staff time since they are often the ones to liaise with community members on behalf of research projects. Staff and volunteer costs are more relevant than ever because many are working from home and are facing increased energy bills.

Funding may also be needed for equipment or services to support project participation, including carers, childcare, interpreters (spoken languages and British Sign Language) or translators. However, the availability of these types of services is being severely affected by the pandemic. For example, disabled people have described cuts and disruption to their social care.

We recommend that projects find out about the kinds of resources that communities require to support their participation.

In the context of our work at the GCPH, the University of Glasgow and with our partners, these factors are not new. What is new, however, is the urgency and renewed importance of attending to these factors if we are to recover from the pandemic in ways that reduce, not exacerbate, widespread inequalities in our city.

In the second part of this blog, we explore the remaining four contextual factors; equalities & appropriateness; inclusion & accessibility; availability & energy; and changing circumstances.

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Supporting community participation in research projects - part II

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