Published on October 26, 2011

The end of one pathway

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.

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Pathways through Participation Researcher Tim Hughes explores some of the implications from the research findings, and the further questions that it raises.

The past month has been an exciting time at Involve with the launch of the Pathways through Participation final report and briefing papers. This marks the end of a 2.5 year project, funded by the Big Lottery Fund, and led by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) in partnership with the Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR) and Involve. Pathways through Participation explored how and why people get involved and stay involved in different forms of participation over the course of their lives. If you don’t have time to read the full report, there’s a 12-page summary report. And if you don’t have time to read that, Simon wrote a blog post on the day of the launch boiling the research down into one finding.

Last week we held an event in the Houses of Parliament to launch a briefing paper which brings together the findings and implications of the research relevant to ‘Local engagement in democracy’. Specifically, it looks at what the research says about the language and image, practice, and accessibility of local engagement in democracy. The briefing paperand slides from the event are available on theproject’s website, and the audio of the project team’s presentation is also available online.

The event included some great reflections from Sir Merrick Cockell (Leader of the Royal London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and Chair of the Local Government Association), Tessy Britton (a social designer with an interest in creative-collaborative methodologies), and Stella Creasy (MP for Walthamstow) – audio of which is available online – as well as some really interesting discussion of the implications and questions raised by the research. Annie has posted some thoughts on ‘Rebuilding the political’ sparked by the event. Keep an eye out for a report of the event which will be available this week.

For me, one of the most pressing findings of the research for those interested in local engagement in democracy is that too often public consultation changes nothing for citizens but their willingness to continue to be engaged. Firstly, experiences of formal consultations were almost entirely negative with concerns that consultations were tokenistic and repetitious – there was lots of activity, but not much outcome – and that decisions had already been made. This meant that our interviewees were often quite cynical about the value of engaging in public consultations as they thought their involvement wouldn’t change anything. Not achieving an impact led some of the interviewees to stop or redirect their involvement, including in one example from taking part in a consultation to attending a demonstration.

Secondly, there were no examples from our 101 interviews of local councils or other public organisations proactively engaging with individuals and groups to bring about change within an area. Instead, ‘opportunities to formally participate in the decision-making processes of public institutions […] were restricted to reacting to (and usually against) changes proposed by a council or other public body.’ Therefore, for citizens this restricts the motivation for engaging in public participation to maintaining continuity within their communities, rather than as a way to improve them, and it immediately sets up a them-and-us scenario, rather than a collaborative relationship.

The research therefore shows the negative effects of bad engagement, but it raises a number of questions. Is the contrary true – if people have a good experience of public participation are they more likely to become involved again in the future? What does a positive experience look like? Do people want to see a change in policy as a direct result of their involvement, or is the feeling that they’ve been listened to enough?

These are questions we hope to look at in the future. As always we’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts.

2 Responses to “The end of one pathway”

  1. October 26, 2011 at 11:22 am

    Participatory Budgeting can help with your two challenges. When it is done well it is about local budget holders, such as councils “proactively engaging with individuals and groups to bring about change within an area”. So far most Participatory Budgeting has been small scale “community kitties”. The challenge is to move PB onto mainstream budgets like has happened in some European cities and in Brazil, where PB originated. There it has had a transformative impact on poverty and also on inequality.

    This week a new campaign has been launched – The People’s Budget. It is setting out to resource community groups to persuasively make the case for new and more PB. Ultimately we are aiming for 1% of local public budgets to be decided by residents. This is an exciting bottom-up campaign which is about transferring direct decision making power (and not “consultation”) to citizens. More info at http://www.thepeoplesbudget.org.uk

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