“Most research into why participation is not generating the hoped-for results and levels of engagement points to three key groups of issues:
- Conventional 'top-down' approaches to participation do not overcome the feeling of powerlessness that many participants experience, nor the political, economic, cultural and technical barriers to participation.
- People are much more likely to get involved if they think something tangible and worthwhile will come out of it, which is why it is better to support independent organisations run by people themselves.
- Capacity building to support empowerment and participation is lacking, especially among excluded groups - but this does not mean turning people into professional service users.”
“At the heart of these issues is the question of power and where it lies. Regardless of the quality of techniques employed or facilitation provided, if a participation exercise consists of a powerful body (e.g. a government department) inviting limited submissions on pre-determined questions from the disempowered, then the power imbalance built into the consultation will cast doubt on the results. Power is derived most obviously from being able to choose and frame the questions and the type of language used; but it is also important to consider who is asking the questions, when and how they are asked, and of course who can answer.”
This quote I found via a very interesting article by David Wilcox on his web-site “Designing for Civil Society”. It is actually a quote from a book in the process of writing by Wilcox and Lee Bryant. You can read the full chapter here from which this further quote is taken.
Capacity building should be about network development and strengthening, rather than just individual interactions with service users. Even if organisations adopt open participation tools and methods, the absence of network development will mean they never get off the ground.
Personal ownership, agency and voice:
Rather than expect people to visit somebody else’s online space to share their views or debate issues, more and more people will share their own views through a personal space, weblog or wiki with the expectation that these can be cross-posted or syndicated to other places that would like to share them. People should own their own contributions and express them in their own voice - it should be up to the consulting organisation to do the leg-work to aggregate these contributions by going to the people, rather than vice versa.
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What all these themes have in common is the question of power: in a networked world, power lies with the network nodes, not the centre. If we are to move beyond the traditional broadcast or portal model of e-government, or the staid forum-based approach of early e-democracy, then we must actively seek to increase the power and the capacity of the network for participation to succeed.
These comments are made in the context of e-democracy and the Internet, but they apply equally to the more conventional networks we try to build in our community planning activities. If we are ever to move beyond mere consultation, where people are invited to give their views on a limited set of issues that are fed back into a process that remains largely opaque and inaccessible to them, then we need to look to this sort of thinking for some lessons on how to do this in the real world. This will only work however if it is matched by a corresponding shift in behaviour of those in government, which means letting go and sharing power within a network of organisations, not clinging to the idea that only government, charities or companies have the answers and their ‘customers’ (or ‘clients’) are simply a resource to be managed.
“…if you look at what is happening in the commercial world, marketing specialists and some big corporations now recognise that that the best way to improve their products is to develop and maintain continuing conversations (http://www.cluetrain.org) with their customers in an attempt to genuinely involve them in customer support, product design and future direction.”
…[active community involvement] makes huge assumptions about people's readiness to commit to community action. But I've stood in community centres watching people come in to find out what's happening and see who can help them; and I know they will sense and avoid any situation where they might be pinned to the wall and coerced into being treasurer of this or that committee for the next four years. If your everyday life is a complex muddle of errant kids and dodgy health, malevolent housing conditions and unpredictable income, you're probably not up for a 24 month committee commitment. If you can see how it relates to your problems though, you might be up for collectively organising something where you can see a beginning and an end.
He has summarized his conclusions in a diagram that you can see here.
Boosting what I've called community confidence, local presence, and the frequency of conversations between residents will have a positive effect, I would argue, on getting sustainable community engagement (which of course has to be a rich mix of participatory opportunities, not a string of committees) and on community cohesion.
The outcome is what David Wilcox calls ‘more conversations, less committees’, which is used as the title for for this post. In that context, an organisation of which I am a Board member is hoping to pick up on the idea of People’s Cafes developed by the New Economics Foundation. I am also quite enamoured with the idea of ‘Study Circles’ and the use of storytelling.