In a recent post I argued that if government-run participation is going to have a transformative effect on our society, we need to see it as a power struggle. If we don’t, participation is likely to replicate existing power relations, with the same potential for pursuing the interests of the more powerful at the expense of the already disadvantaged. The role of the practitioner, then, is to act as a power broker, and to manage this power struggle in a way which at least gives everyone a fighting chance.
I want to think now about what this would look like in practice. I don’t think the answer is a new methodology. All good advice on running participation should (and often does) consider power in one way or another. But as I’ve argued, a shift is needed if we’re going to see overcoming power inequality as the overarching aim, rather than an add-on.
As a way of starting this off then, I want to suggest one principle to guide decision-making about participation, three things to think about when running participation and finally, a note of warning.
One (working) principle:
Design participation in a way which discriminates in favour of the least powerful participants.
In practice this should mean that when we’re designing a process, we need to stop and think:
Then, design a process which works for them.
In a way this is a form of positive discrimination. But rather than weighting responses afterwards, the discrimination happens upfront, in the design of the process. This kind of discrimination is likely to be controversial. But given that most forms of political participation are strongly weighted in favour of the most powerful, and that participation inequality is likely to get worse with austerity measures (you can find yet more critiques on this here and here), I think it’s justified. I’m not proposing excluding anyone; those who want to have their say anyway are still able to do so.
Three things to think about
Thing 1. The messages we send
Making public participation genuinely accessible goes way beyond wheelchair access (though that’s obviously important too!). People not only need to be able to participate, they also need to feel welcome, invited and ideally even ‘at home’ in the form of participation.
The way in which participation takes place speaks volumes to people about ‘who’ the process is for. So often when speaking to citizens about why they don’t want to get involved their response is that ‘it’s not for people like me.’ Choosing a venue in a posh area, or one where alcohol is for sale, or choosing a process which requires a large amount of time, or where there’s no way for children to participate, will all send messages to people about whether or not it’s a process ‘for them’.
In making all these decisions, we need to think about the messages we’re sending – both before and during participation – about who the process is for.
Thing 2. Equalising understanding
In a recent community organising workshop in Leicester, we asked local citizens what got in the way of them participating with the local council. The technical language and the use of acronyms by council officials came up. The woman who mentioned it had overcome this by Googling acronyms after meetings and turning up to the next meeting armed with this new knowledge. But she shouldn’t have to do this, and we know that most people wouldn’t. They’d just leave and probably not come back.
Clear and accessible language is important for two reasons. Most obviously, unless everyone understands the issues, they’re not going to be able to contribute. Not many people can overcome their own pride enough to say that they don’t understand something, and doing so can be a confidence-knocking process. Secondly, though (and following on from Thing 1) complex language is a powerful way of telling people who don’t understand that they shouldn’t be engaging. Or, as Oliver Escobar puts it much more articulately in his recent pamphlet:
At best, we use jargon unwittingly. At worst, we use it as an instrument of power. It becomes a marker of our status, expertise, or authority. It helps us to establish zones of exclusion (untouchable areas) in the conversation, and to justify our monologues, pre-packaged messages, and dominant voices.
While knocking out the jargon and acronyms from all participation is a good first start, given that one in five adults currently struggles to read and write at all, this only gets us so far. Any written material at all still excludes massive numbers of people.
If we’re using our principle correctly, and assuming that those with the lowest literacy levels will correspond roughly to those with the least power, participation should be entirely non-written. There are lots of other ways to communicate – using video, pictures and the spoken word.
I realise that this sounds a bit drastic. But I think this is the level of discussion we need to be having if we’re serious about participation equality.
Thing 3. Equalising voice
People learn and communicate in many different ways, and exploring these can be a powerful equaliser. We know, for example, that running a participation process which requires people to stand up in front of other people and talk at a meeting will put most people off. That doesn’t mean that we can’t include this, but it does mean that we need to think about other ways of doing things.
One example is Planning for Real. This approach brings people together to make a scale model of the area – much easier to understand than a map – and discussions take place through this model. The physicality of the approach allows people to show their needs in a non-confrontational way, rather than explaining or defending them. There is also little or no bias in favour of the articulate or self-confident, and the process can accommodate a wide variety of people (cue photo recently dug out by my dad of me aged 3 looking fairly happily engaged in just one such process).
Our toolkit on informal participation also includes a range of other methods such as video blogging, which can engage people in different ways.
A final note of caution
I know that for some people, discussion of ‘accessibility’ of information in public participation can ring alarm bells. There’s a danger that they can present a dumbing down of content for public consumption. And yet there’s nothing patronising about using accessible information and participation methods unless you see a hierarchy between different ways of communicating.
However, I think there is another danger here. Because there has traditionally been such a strong hierarchy between different ways of communicating, there’s an entrenched sense that if something doesn’t include some long words and a form to fill in, it’s likely to be less serious and therefore less influential.
When participation is more informal and fun, this does not change government’s responsibility to deliver a process which has integrity – ie. where citizens can influence decisions and in which decisions are fed back to citizens once their views have been considered.
As always I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Image by donielle