Participation takes place in an unequal world. If we don’t acknowledge and engage with these power inequalities, there’s a danger that participation will increase them.
Recently, I spent an evening describing the work of Involve to an old school friend. Quite political, but with no particular interest in participation, she challenged me to justify my work. Our conversation went something like this:
Old School Friend: Why do you get so excited about participation? In the grand scheme of things, what’s it achieving?
Me: Well, people have lots of different reasons for doing participation (better decisions, long-term savings) but my underlying motivation is normative; I want to live in a fairer society, and for me this means one where people can influence decisions and where power is distributed much more evenly. By giving people more of a say, I see participation as working towards this.
[I probably rambled a bit more than that].
OSF: But does participation really distribute power more evenly?
Me: Um, well, sometimes, but no, not necessarily I suppose.
This conversation has been playing round in my head. My friend was right of course that my motivations for participation rely on a big assumption that needs to be challenged. There’s a lot written on power analysis in social action and campaigning. Power Moves is a great place to start, going through examples of how citizens have influenced various policy decisions and examining the shifting power relations within them.
But I can’t find much explicitly addressing the impact of formal or semi-formal public participation – here I mean the invited kind of participation often run by large organisations or arms of government, which might take the form of consultations, participatory budgeting exercises or resident advisory panels.
If we do want participation to distribute power more evenly, then I think we need to see participation much more as a power struggle of one sort or another. The danger is that without understanding and acknowledging power imbalances, participation not only cannot tackle them, but also has the potential to increase them. You could argue that increasing inequality is in fact the default position of participation exercises; participation just amplifies the voices of the noisy at the expense of the ‘silent majority’. This is one of the features of participation as part of the messy, opt-in activity of democracy rather than the social science of opinion polls. (See Edward Andersson’s blog on some of the challenges regarding consultation responses).
Many of the concerns about the Big Society and localism agendas centre on this core issue. Is ‘parent power’ really just ‘pushy parent power’ and where does this leave the children of others – riding on the coat tails of rising standards, or with their interests even more sidelined? Greater local public control over planning sounds like a good idea, but will it be a charter for Nimbyism, and how do the overcrowded and homeless get a say in the discussion?
The villain of these stories is often the ‘usual suspects.’ As some have pointed out, they are also, of course, our most active and committed citizens, and should be celebrated rather than derided. And yet surely it’s right that we should be attentive to these inequalities in participation, particularly given that they often mirror other social and economic inequalities with such haunting accuracy.
There’s a danger that an enthusiasm for participation and engagement will lead to the sloppy assumption that involving more people is necessarily better for everyone. History is full of examples where this is not the case. Many have argued, for example that the extension of the franchise into the middle classes in the Great Reform Act of 1832 led to draconian poor laws as the traditions of charity and mutual obligation of the old order were finally abandoned, leaving the poor even worse off.
A slightly more recent example is the rise of student councils. Although they give students a say, those who end up on student councils are often the ones for whom the education system as it stands is working rather well, and the research suggests there are dangers of creating a ‘student voice elite’ within a school. Furthermore, without the voices of those who are excluded from education, schools are likely to move further from meeting their needs and make it even less likely that they’ll rejoin the system, at a massive cost to the taxpayer and society more generally.
Although ‘giving citizens more say’ is probably a good rule of thumb, we need to keep asking who, and crucially, who isn’t involved. A headline in the Guardian last month ran “Cameron to curb ‘fat cat’ pay with people power.” Given that the people involved are shareholders, that is mostly pension funds and banks, surely ‘people power’ too deserved inverted commas?
Participation as an island of equality amongst other inequalities?
Interestingly, there is considerable evidence of a correlation between political engagement and levels of economic equality. There is less agreement about the subtleties of this causal relationship, but the jist is fairly simple: economic resources can be used to influence others, and effectively converted into political resources, making it less worthwhile for people with less money, power or influence to get involved.
On the one hand this correlation provides hope of a virtuous circle for increases in participation and other inequalities. This suggests that good participation should not only be considering how inequalities effect participation, but also how participation can minimise other inequalities. One example of this is participatory budgeting which has its roots in the idea of participation as a tool for the redistribution of services in Latin America.
On the other hand, though, it’s a good reminder that the way in which participation unfolds is constrained by the context we’re in – a context of economic, gender, race and other inequalities. We need to be humble enough to recognise that we operate within the limits of our society; participation processes cannot remove power relations. At best, they can provide pockets where power relations are re-moulded. But to do this they must acknowledge, understand and engage in power relations.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking about how this might be done. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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