Published on February 9, 2011

Shifting our perspective: Can participation be designed?

By Tim Hughes

Tim is Open Government Programme Manager at Involve and coordinator of the UK Open Government Network - a coalition of active citizens and civil society organisations committed to making government work better for people through increased transparency, participation and accountability.

Do people have the time to participate?  This question has received a significant amount of attention recently thanks to the Big Society.  But rather than drawing attention to and developing an important area for discussion, the debate seems to have descended into opposing sides shouting “Yes!” or “No!” with ever greater ferocity.

The problem, I feel, lies in the perspective of the discussion; for what is claimed to be a radically decentralist idea, the Big Society debate has looked at participation through a remarkably centralist lens.  Rather than focusing on how participation can work (or be made to work) for people, it has instead focused on how participation can work for government.

This leaves little room for subtlety or progression in the debate, and I believe has done a disservice to some good ideas behind the Big Society by focusing too much on the notion that people will takeover their local services, which has generated understandable cynicism and criticism.

It is true that the majority of us will not have the time to take over running our local library or maintain our local park. And for those who do, many will not have desire or the confidence to take on such a commitment.  To look at participation from this perspective limits the benefits of participation (and there are many) to a very small section of society.

Instead of seeking to bend peoples’ lives to fit participation, we should instead be thinking about how we can bend participation to fit peoples’ lives.  While some people may go out of their way to participate, most will not, and we must accept that. If we are to unleash social action, as the government says it aspires to, I believe we need to start thinking about how we can design participation from the perspective of people.  Only by working with peoples’ motivations and the grain of their lives will social action be encouraged.

Below are some groups of questions that I hope to explore, refine and develop into some principles for designing participation.

1. To what extent can participation be designed into everyday activities? The Good Gym is an interesting example of an attempt to link a common pastime (running) with volunteering; it “pairs runners with isolated less-mobile people in their area.  Runners jog to their house, deliver something nice, have a brief chat and are on their way again.”  What other opportunities are there to build participation into daily life?

2. Where can attractive and easily accessible entry points to participation be developed? These will likely need to be low in intensity, but with the potential for participants to readjust their level of participation over time.

3. Can pathways through participation be designed? Can people be encouraged to increase their level of participation overtime as their confidence and skills increase and they see the benefits of their actions?  Can we develop pathways between different forms of participation, for example, linking online to offline engagement or volunteering to taking part in public consultations?

4. How can participation be made to be as effective as possible?  Participants want to see that they’re achieving something and progress is being made. For the most part, they don’t want to sit in never ending meetings.  How can administrative burdens be reduced?  How can decision making processes be designed to be quick and painless?  How can we link participation to peoples’ motives?

But I suppose the biggest question must be, can and should participation be designed?

(Image by Robert Couse-Baker)

3 Responses to “Shifting our perspective: Can participation be designed?”

  1. Martha Lawton
    February 9, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Very astute.

  2. David Wilcox
    March 12, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Participation processes could be designed – at least in theory – when people were being invited to respond at various levels to programmed offerings from public agencies, for example. We’ve had lots of guides and toolkits on that, and plenty of consultancy. But it often didn’t work very well.
    Now we don’t have those programmes on offer in the same way, the game has changed … but we still need, probably more than ever, ways of collaborating. Can we design collaboration? Not in the old ways.

  3. Carol Sherriff
    March 15, 2011 at 11:16 am

    Thought-provoking article and comments – as a spare time runner, I loved the example of the Good Gym what an inspired approach. I will see if my running club are interested in something similar.
    On one level, I don’t think you can design participation or collaboration because if you are doing either in a significant way, people always do their own thing and make it their own. In my experience, you need a clear and transparent purpose for either and to recognise that individual’s will bring their own purpose for getting involved. For example, we have done an interesting evaluation of volunteering where the volunteers are involved as a way of dealing with their own social isolation as well as supporting individuals who are isolated.
    On another level, there is plenty of good practice evidence in both participation and collaboration and as we go forward we should be drawing on that – some very obvious points include don’t involve people if the decision has already been taken or if their views wont affect the result, consider why they would want to be involved not just why you want them to (and preferably ask them) and as the article says take things to the groups you want to engage with, don’t expect them to come to you.
    A stimulating debate, thank you.

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