Published on September 13, 2011

The bitesize Pathways through Participation report

NHS Lanarkshire: supporting more effective consultation

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Lens on shelf showing upside down image projected on wall

The Pathways through Participation report was published today. Is it possible to boil down over two years of research and hundreds of hours of interviews into one finding? 

It’s important to be wary about boiling research findings down too much. Oversimplification can hide and confuse much more than it illuminates. For a project the size of Pathways through Participation, which had three researchers working on it fulltime over two and half year and generated 100s of hours of interviews, this is even more the case. However, as I was rereading the report prior to the launch this morning, I think that there is one thread that binds the mass of textured findings within the report. It is a thread that I think all of us in policyland should bear in mind as we carry-out our work.

The report paints a picture that is at odds with the media and thinktank narrative of falling voter engagement, rioting communities and mass civil disengagement. Instead the report points to vibrant involvement in joint community activities and active engagement in the challenges that face us all. The point is that much of this engagement is not of a kind that is valued by policy makers, or at least doesn’t happen in ways that they can see and use.

The report is clear. People engage in community life for a wide variety of motivations and very few are motivated by the interests and concerns of policy makers. Therefore, if we are serious in wanting to boost engagement, we need to start adapting what we do to meet the terms and motivations of citizens, rather than expecting them to adapt to our purposes and objectives. This will be obvious to many working at community level, but is too often forgotten by those working more distantly.

My contention would be that this is an important lens through which all government initiatives should be viewed and judged. We can expect them to have limited impact if they aren’t based on a deep understanding of what motivates citizens. The texture and depth in the report demonstrates that this will be context specific, down to the level of community and individual. It is this headline finding, combined with the level of detail that makes the Pathways report so important.

Photo credit: jonnyphoto

6 Responses to “The bitesize Pathways through Participation report”

  1. September 13, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    I think this lens of responsiveness over policy/strategy offers tremendous potential. However most of the infrastructure is designed to do strategy and policy not ‘listen and respond’.

    This is why so much of what passes for participation work consists of having funds to engage people from ‘communities’ in working towards specific policy objectives, usually in relation to health, crime or the employability.

    Adopting a listen and respond or responsive mode takes great courage, a fair bit of skill and a lot of understanding from stakeholders who may in the short term not get the ‘outcomes’ that they want to buy.

  2. September 13, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    I agree with @mikechitty’s cynical version of the community devel industry above – at its worst. I worked for a national funder whose aim was to spend £21bn on risk averse furryness over social change (which i think is changing now..) But have we destroyed communities innate capacities by formalising them in the past? (http://www.smallisbeautiful.org/publications/mcknight_84.html) I’m not so sure, but this is only part of the picture.

    So – infrastructure, done well, aggregates individual motivations and effort. The question seems to be what structure is necessary, and what is an impediment to this..? I see no benefit to labelling participation as ‘volunteering’, or trying to quantify it through stark programmes or initiatives.

    I think we start with the individual. What the individual can’t do, the group can do. What the group can’t do, local infrastructure can do. What local infrastructure can’t do, national infrastructure has to do. Then we feel like we’re moving in the same direction and we can stop all the stupid VCS competition.

    I think we’re entering a critical time – where national bodies stop asking for case studies and start listening to what people are doing (York has 60 VCOs on twitter http://twitter.com/#!/YorkCVS/york-voluntary-orgs you can listen to them from whenever you like). I see no distinction between demand-led and strategic work when commissioners come out from under the data mountain and genuinely pass the baton over. When user led orgs are not criticised for being difficult. When infrastructure is valued for doing what individuals can’t do on their own. And i think we are heading in that direction right now.. I hope this helps clarify @sburall.. Thanks!

  3. Simon Burall
    September 14, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Mike, thanks for your comment here and your engagement with the #pthwys thread on twitter during the launch.

    I tend to agree with you, and disagree with you. Which may or may not be helpful. The findings in Pathways are clear, that government support, or active encouragement, to boost community participation can be counter-productive. It can remove energy and squash local initiatives, whether they are happening under the radar or not. I suspect that this is particularly true for initiatives that are designed to boost something as nebulous as social capital, though this wasn’t something we explored directly in Pathways and I can’t rely on the report for evidence of this.

    While this is true, it is also the case that Government does much that changes the enabling environment for citizens to participate. it can do this positively or negatively without directly trying to push participation. Pathways explores how this might be done.

    During our twitter exchange, you highlighted the dangers of trying to use ‘co-creation’ type process to develop a common vision between government and communities – http://twitter.com/#!/mikechitty/status/113540733629247488. And yet we do need some way of developing a common vision for the shared future of communities.

    This would imply that we do need infrastructure – both of the VCS and government type – for that reason, as well as all the reasons that Casey highlights. In addition, government does have to take decisions and does need to engage communities to understand how to get the decisions right (there is lots more to say about consultation but this isn’t really the place, Edward is about to post something later today on exactly this).

    It seems to me that Pathways throws everyone in Policyland, ie everyone working above community level (and probably many within), a challenge. And the challenge is this; how do you turn your institutional needs and motivations into something that makes sense from the perspective of citizens? Just as importantly, can you create structures that allow citizens to engage with you in a way that fits with their lives, needs and motivations, rather than suiting senior management and politicians.

  4. September 14, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    “I learned as a community organiser in Chicago, real change comes from the bottom up, the grass roots, starting with the dreams and passions of individuals serving their communities.” – Barack Obama – Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship 2010

    We know this as community development practitioners.

    Our funders know it too.

    So why do we still, so often, corrupt the community development process in order to impose the strategic objectives of funders, planners and policy makers on the grass roots? Just to pay the mortgage?

    In the second city of the Empire
    Mother Glasgow watches all her weans
    Trying hard to feed her little starlings
    Unconsciously she clips their little wings

    Are we still clipping wings….?

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