Navigating the Landscape of Citizen Engagement Methods for Enhanced Security Research

As we witness the emergence of groundbreaking security technologies, it becomes increasingly evident that their development should not occur in isolation. Instead, it demands active involvement from citizens and diverse societal actors to ensure ethical considerations, human rights, and societal values are at the forefront of innovation. Societal engagement in security research is not merely a choice but a necessity. The transformative impact of new security technologies permeates every aspect of our lives, from personal interactions to broader societal structures. While holding the promise of enhanced public safety, these technologies also have the potential for controversies and unintended consequences. They can inadvertently infringe on human rights, perpetuate power imbalances, and amplify social injustices. Our recently published report acknowledges the importance of adopting a proactive and inclusive approach and provides guidelines to reduce potential challenges. 

Societal engagement emerges as a crucial element in the broader framework of responsible research and innovation (RRI). It is intricately linked to the key dimensions of RRI – inclusion, anticipation, and responsiveness. Inclusion involves engaging civil society via, for example,  citizen and civil society organizations (CSOs); fostering anticipation involves exploring potential risks and opportunities; improving responsiveness involves enabling stakeholders to articulate measures aligning projects with civil society concerns. 

There are three distinct rationales behind societal engagement: normative, instrumental, and substantive. The normative rationale views citizen engagement as a democratic right, emphasizing inclusiveness, equity, and equality. The instrumental rationale perceives engagement as a means to endorse specific decisions, fostering trust, consent, and compliance. The substantive rationale accentuates engagement’s role in achieving better decision-making by incorporating diverse knowledge and values, ultimately enhancing the quality of choices.   

The necessity to target some or all three rationales —normative, instrumental, and substantive—in any societal engagement activity depends on the specific goals and context of that engagement. In our report we emphasize that societal engagement strategies should be flexible and adapted to the context and goals of each activity. Different methods, or specific workshops, can have different starting points, emphases or objectives as shown in Figure 1. Some engagements may prioritize normative aspects, emphasizing democratic values and inclusivity, while others may lean more toward instrumental goals, such as building trust or gaining consent. Additionally, our report emphasizes that understanding the expectations and needs of stakeholders involved in the engagement is crucial. Different stakeholders may prioritize different rationales, and tailoring the approach to meet their expectations can enhance the effectiveness of the engagement.  

The report also emphasizes the critical need for societal engagement in security research and technology development. New security technologies can exert transformative influences on various aspects of life, work, and institutions, making understanding the ethical implications and potential moral challenges imperative. The proactive engagement of society early in the innovation cycle enables the identification of ethical and societal issues, dilemmas, and opportunities. The TRANSCEND project encourages engagement with gatekeepers of civil society, such as CSOs, facilitating better planning and informed decision-making to responsibly address concerns associated with technological advancements. 

Methods for Societal Engagement in Security Research 

The core of the report lies in its exploration of methods for engaging societal actors and stakeholders in security research. The report details the meticulous process of identifying suitable engagement methods, stressing the importance of refining options to address the complex and sensitive topics associated with security research. The Engage 2020 catalogue emerges as a valuable resource, offering a comprehensive list of engagement methods applicable to security-related contexts. 

From an initial list of 57 methods, the report narrows it down to 14 promising options through a rigorous review process. A set of criteria designed to meet the project’s needs guides the selection process, focusing on effective engagement with stakeholders from diverse backgrounds, adaptability to different European contexts, and accommodating vulnerable groups [1]. Eight methods (see below), meeting all criteria, form the foundation for the TRANSCEND project’s approach to societal engagement in security research [2]. The report emphasizes the ongoing nature of this process, with plans to experiment and refine these methods in pilot projects, contributing to developing a robust toolbox.  

The Eight Toolbox Methods: 

  • Citizen Summits 
  • World Cafés 
  • Focus Groups 
  • Deliberative Workshops 
  • Interviews 
  • Perspective Workshops 
  • Non-Socratic Dialogue 
  • Participatory Strategic Planning


Good Practices for Involving Societal Actors and Stakeholders 

Recognizing the potential challenges in involving civil society in security research, the report introduces a 5-step approach to involve diverse societal actors, emphasizing shared purpose, stakeholder mapping, involvement of citizens and CSOs, promotion of inclusion and diversity, and strategic planning and execution [3]. These practices are presented as valuable guidelines for effective societal engagement, promoting improved problem-solving and legitimacy in research and innovation.

Figure 1: Relationship between Research Leaders, Objectives and Methods

The report transparently acknowledges its focus on a limited set of fourteen engagement methods, aiming to avoid overwhelming users with many options. It encourages users to consider the specific needs of their projects and select methods accordingly. The limitations section emphasizes that the selected methods may not be universally suitable for all projects, allowing for flexibility and adaptation based on unique project requirements. 

In conclusion, as societal engagement gains prominence in research and innovation, the report serves as a roadmap for navigating the intricate landscape of security research. It provides practical insights and guidelines for researchers, practitioners, and organizations aiming for responsible and impactful advancements in the security field. Our next steps are to pilot our Toolbox across four security domains: fighting crime and terrorism, cybersecurity, border management and disaster resilience. Through pilots in these domains, we will test and improve our Toolbox so that it is optimised for specific security contexts. Through its rigorous exploration of engagement methods, we hope that the TRANSCEND project will emerge as a beacon guiding us toward a future where security and societal well-being coexist harmoniously.

If you would like to learn more about this work, follow the link below to read the full report, and please feel free to contact us at   

Source Report – Nof Afghani, Ralf Lindner, Marc Steen, Richa Kumar, Elena Falomo, Leanne Cochrane. Deliverable 1.1 –State of the art in methods for citizen and societal engagement. TRANSCEND Project (EU HEU, GA 101073913), 30. September 2023. 

Further Reading:

[1] For further information, see Chapter 4 of the report. 

[2] For further information, see Chapter 6 of the report. 

[3] For further information, see Chapter 5 of the report. 

Author: Nof Afghani, Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI