Learning in context

Community Engagement: Choosing the right tools

By 20/04/2021

The community is a key stakeholder in most research, especially action research, because government policies aim to benefit communities. So how is community engagement woven into a research project, and who is responsible for ensuring that it done appropriately? I would say the responsibility falls to both the researcher and the communicator, and in many cases a data analyst as well. Ideally the researcher manages the research programme: designing research questions, conducting a literature review, identifying a problem statement, and choosing which geographic areas to cover, amongst other tasks. The data analyst analyses the data gathered and provides evidence to corroborate the researcher. The communicator typically unpacks the research, and relays it based on the needs of the audience.

To succeed a research programme needs to choose an appropriate tool to communicate with the community. Action research aims to engage communities in the research itself, to ‘give a voice to the voiceless’. A few of the most effectives tools for action research include Key Informant Interviews (KII), Focus Group Discussions (FGDs), questionnaires, and ethnographic research.

Key Informant Interview

Key Informant Interviews (KII) are qualitative, in-depth interviews with a community who have first-hand knowledge of the issue. It is important to understand what you hope to achieve by using a KII:

Define this option

  • Why have you chosen this option? To receive a deep insight on a specific or related topic?

Review existing information

  • Conduct preliminary research to identify existing information.
  • Identify if your audience have already been asked your questions.
  • Check existing data to further focus your interview.

Select key informants

  • Plan the selection of individuals.
  • Include interviewees from diverse backgrounds and sectors; they should be knowledgeable about the issue.
  • This option is time-consuming, so ensure that it is the right choice.

Develop the interview process

  • Choose the interviewer: someone who is a good organiser, has proven communication skills (written and spoken), and is a good listener.
  • Outline the number and types of questions.
  • Structure the interview, remembering to use the audience’s limited time wisely, and choose the most appropriate medium (telephone, video, or face-to-face).

Formulate the interview questions

  • Create a script to guide the interviewer.
  • Write step-by-step instructions.
  • Include an introduction to the research: background, purpose, and activities.
  • Describe how the information will be used.

Most importantly: engage with the audience to ensure a fruitful exercise.


Focus Group Discussion

A Focus Group Discussion (FGD) brings together people who have similar experiences or background and are in a position to discuss a specific topic. It solicits qualitative research such as ideas, points of view, and opinions. It is crucial that it be moderated and remain focused. It attempts to link research and policy by providing useful insights from varied opinions. Sometimes it is useful to host a focus group before designing a questionnaire (see below).


A questionnaire or survey can include both closed and open-ended questions. Closed questions can provide data for analysis (quantitative information), while open-ended questions provide more qualitative information.

The data could then be presented using bar charts, pie charts, and percentages, for example. The qualitative data can lead to further discussions.

Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research is a qualitative method and includes observation and interaction in a real-life environment. It provides a detailed description of the relevant aspects of a community. It involves fieldwork and the context and research objectives define the situation. The data-collection activities include observing participants and conducting formal, informal, structured, and semi-structured interviews.



Choosing the right tool will help significantly in achieving research objectives. A researcher should always bear in mind the sentiments of a community and this includes their privacy, time, and reason to participate, and most importantly researchers need to take the time to win the trust and confidence of a community, especially when ‘listening to the voice of the community’. It is equally important to ‘ground truth’ research findings – that is to test assumptions against the reality in the community – to ensure robust policy recommendations.


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