People & Citizen Engagement
Committed Volunteer or Usual Suspect

What Is This?

This examines the terms ‘usual suspects’ and ‘committed volunteer’

What Is Its Use?

This is a tool to help you think about the value of those who are most actively involved while remembering the importance of engaging with a wide range of people as is possible.

Often in community consultations the same faces are seen. Sometimes, these regular attendees are called ‘usual suspects’.

The term is disrespectful. These people are prepared to volunteer their time and energy and should be valued for doing so. On the other hand, the ‘usual suspects’ sometimes pursue their own agendas regardless of the views of others they are meant to be representing. There are examples of older people’s forums being ‘hijacked’ by a small vocal group.

When designing citizen engagement projects, you need to bear in mind the need to hear everyone’s voice. Not all your participants might see it that way.

Usual Suspects Or Committed Volunteers – What’s The Difference

The following is an excerpt from a paper you can find in the Research Review (PDF, 451k).

“The term ‘usual suspects’ expresses some of the frustration and dissatisfaction with the current reality of participation in formal decision-making structures. Underlying this seems to be the view that the system isn’t working, that agencies ought to be involving a wider range of people, that the ‘usual suspects’ are the ‘wrong’ people somehow, perhaps that they are rubber-stamping decisions made elsewhere. In essence, participation is seen not to be delivering change. The Viewpoint discussion reflected on the role of the ‘usual suspects’ in this shortfall. Are the ‘usual suspects’ to blame? Are they standing in the way of wider participation and therefore change? Or are there more fundamental problems inherent in the system, with the consequence that only a limited number of people – the ‘usual suspects’ choose to engage with it?

The overwhelming message from contributions to the discussion was that the criticism implicit in the term ‘usual suspects’ puts the blame on the wrong people. The ‘usual suspects’ may simply be the ones keen enough to get involved despite all the imperfections of the system. If we want to include a wider range of people, it is the system itself that needs attention. As one contributor put it:

while we are “focusing on the leaders as having let [people] down, the real issue of the structure or decision making process and its flaws is not addressed.”

(Blakey, Richardson and York 2006)