Approaches to public involvement

In the past we have used the terms consultation, collaboration and user controlled to describe different levels of involving people in research. Over time it has become clear that, in practice, research projects can include a combination of these three and also that the boundaries between them are not clear cut. It is therefore more helpful to describe them as approaches rather than levels. Within these approaches there are many different ways of involving members of the public during the various stages of the research. For example, you might work with one or two service users or carers as co-collaborators throughout a research project, as well as consulting with a wider group of service users on a specific aspect of the study or members of the public might lead on one stage of the research.

How you involve people will depend on the nature of your research, as well as the different activities people decide they would like to get involved in.

If it is the first time that you have involved people in research consider where public involvement will be most effective in your research. This might be in a relatively modest way at first, perhaps in just one activity or at one stage of the project. Build on the skills and experience you develop in future projects.


Consultation is when you ask members of the public for their views and use these views to inform your decision making. Consultation can be about any aspect of the research process – from identifying topics for research through to thinking about the implications of research findings. (read more)

If you decide to consult with people on your research we recommend that you:

  • give them enough time to respond
  • feedback on the actions you have taken as a result of the consultation
  • ask if they would like to hear about the findings of the research.

Working more closely with members of the public, returning to ask them for further information, and developing an ongoing relationship with them, will take you towards collaboration.


Collaboration involves an ongoing partnership between you and the members of the public you are working with, where decisions about the research are shared. For example, members of the public might collaborate with the researchers on developing the research grant application, be members of the study advisory group and collaborate with researchers to disseminate the results of a research project. (read more)

This is a broad approach that can be used in a wide range of different research activities and at many different stages of the research project.

Collaboration requires commitment, openness and flexibility and it is important to plan and prepare adequately (see briefing note five on planning and preparation).

User controlled research

User controlled research is research that is actively controlled, directed and managed by service users and their service user organisations. Service users decide on the issues and questions to be looked at, as well as the way the research is designed, planned and written up. The service users will run the research advisory or steering group and may also decide to carry out the research. (read more)