Three key conclusions from the Pathways through Participation research are summarised below:
1. Participation is personal and must be viewed first and foremost from the perspective of the individual taking part
Policy-makers and practitioners who wish to promote and encourage participation must view participation holistically, because trying to channel individuals into narrowly defined areas of participation is unlikely to result in more active citizens. If an individual does not identify with a particular cause or activity, reducing the barriers to them becoming involved is unlikely to make a difference. Any attempt to encourage participation must take into account the differing and multiple motivations people have for becoming and staying involved.
Participation is inherently about a free choice to take part without coercion. Our interviewees defined their own participation and made their own decisions about how and why they participated according to their upbringing, life stages, personality traits, beliefs and values, interests and personal circumstances. In contrast, government policy was never described as a motivating factor by the interviewees, and any influence was reported negatively: imposition of government agendas and intentions on people’s existing activities, for example, was viewed as politicising their participation and was almost unanimously rejected.
People’s negative reaction to the imposition of agendas that are not theirs has potentially been exacerbated by government’s encouragement of comparatively narrow, highly formalised and structured forms of participation (e.g. public consultations, regeneration boards, health consultative bodies, formal volunteering). This does not fit easily with the variety of participation activities we identified. It can also be counter-productive: it can dissuade some people from participating and limit the diversity of people involved, or kill-off local groups through, for example, processes and demands that are too formalised, and generally inhibit less structured forms of participation.
2. Participation can be encouraged, supported and made more attractive
Our research identified a range of factors that fostered people’s participation. There are many basic practical reasons why people do and do not participate that can be addressed. Our research challenges assumptions that non-participation is about apathy, laziness or selfishness. Participation opportunities need to complement people’s lives and respond to people’s needs, aspirations and expectations. The ‘build it and they will come’ approach does not work in isolation.
People juggle many competing demands for their time and attention and their priorities will vary according to personal circumstances and life stage. This has implications for the role that participation can play in local communities and wider society. Current policy agendas that look to citizens to take control and manage community assets or deliver public services, for example, are unlikely to be attractive forms of involvement for people who want to engage in a more episodic, light-touch way.
While participation is already widespread, there is significant potential for more opportunities to participate to be made available to a wider range of people. We found that few people had a full picture of the range of opportunities available to them locally. Decisions about what to do and how to get involved tended to be almost entirely the result of personal contact (e.g. being asked by a friend) or finding information of direct personal relevance (e.g. an advert to join the parent-teachers’ association of their child’s school). Support bodies and other public and voluntary and community organisations also often had only a partial picture of local activities, groups and events, which limited the extent to which they could help provide access to relevant and appropriate opportunities for individuals wanting to participate.
These findings complement previous research which has, for example, found that smaller, grassroots organisations rarely engaged with Volunteer Centres and often existed independently of such structures. However, we observed that well-run and welcoming groups, the right physical locations in which to meet and sufficient funds can create the right growing conditions for people to participate and provide a positive experience that will encourage them to continue participating.
Many interviewees highlighted how their parents and wider family had played an influential role in instilling a culture of participation and/or the values and beliefs that later framed their participation. But not all interviewees had been socialised into participation through their family; schools and youth groups (such as Scouts and Guides) also played an important role in providing opportunities for participatory activities during people’s formative years.
Institutions, organisations and groups enable participation by providing resources and support, and in some cases, bridging communities through their everyday contacts with people. Places of worship and community centres provided a range of opportunities to participate, some within their own walls and some beyond. The importance of physical spaces where diverse groups can meet, and bonds and networks are formed and maintained, was found throughout the research: without access to a hall or a room many collective activities would simply not happen. The spaces that provide access to a range of activities and people allow pathways and connections to be established that support sustained participation.
Individuals who are bridge-builders within communities were also an important enabling factor. They brought people together and facilitated access to opportunities and routes into participation. However, sometimes key individuals were seen as a mixed blessing if they acted as barriers to the involvement of others, perhaps protecting their own positions at the expense of others, or preventing new people from taking up leadership roles.
3. Significant barriers to participation are entrenched
At present much policy remains focused on initiatives to address the symptoms (e.g. technology to promote volunteering and giving opportunities) without addressing the underlying causes (e.g. lack of confidence or resources).
We found that deeper and more entrenched issues in society are reflected in disparities in the practice of participation. Issues of power and inequality in society are critical to understanding how and why people get involved and stay involved. The uneven distribution of power, social capital and other resources means that not everyone has access to the same opportunities for participation nor do they benefit from the impacts of participation in the same way. Such persistent and structural socio-economic inequalities are clearly challenging to address and cannot be removed without profound political and societal changes.
Our recommendations are clustered around three themes:
1. Develop realistic expectations of participation
An over-optimistic view of participation can portray participation as the answer to all society’s ills but it is important that we acknowledge its limitations and develop realistic expectations of what can be achieved. This requires policymakers to be clear about the purpose of the participation they want to see happening, and to recognise that almost everyone already participates in one way or another. It also requires institutions, organisations and groups to recognise that participation is dynamic and that opportunities need to be flexible; that participation should be mutually beneficial – participants need to gain something from the experience; and that people have limited time and sometimes just want participation that is sociable and enjoyable.
2. Understand what policy and practice interventions can and cannot achieve
Policy and practice interventions can influence participation, but there are many other factors that shape how and why an individual participates, and that affect the desired impact of policy and practice decisions. Participation is more bottom-up than top-down, and does not always happen in the ways policymakers and practitioners want or expect. Some factors that shape and encourage participation are easier and quicker to influence and shape than others.
We suggest that:
- An individual’s motivations are difficult to shape in any predictable way but policy-makers and practitioners should acknowledge their importance and aim to understand them.
- An individual’s resources cannot be wholly shaped by policy-makers and practitioners, but can be influenced by policy and practice decisions and initiatives.
- An individual’s opportunities to participate can be shaped collectively by policy-makers and practitioners.
3. Improve participation opportunities
The first step in improving participation opportunities is to establish strong foundations by starting at an early age, providing appropriate formal and informal places and spaces for people to meet and join in activities, and creating links and pathways between individuals and organisations through networks and hubs.
Improving participation opportunities requires starting where people are and taking account of their concerns and interests, providing a range of opportunities and levels of involvement so people can feel comfortable with taking part, and using the personal approach to invite and welcome people in. Support is needed to enable institutions, organisations and groups to learn how to operate more effectively and therefore sustain people’s interest and involvement. It is vital to value people’s experience and what they do, at whatever level of intensity. Language referring to the ‘usual suspects’, ‘NIMBYs’ and ‘do-gooders’ is pejorative and creates a negative mood around active participation and should be avoided. The design and management of public consultations should be improved, so that participants feel it is worth taking part and that their contribution can make a difference.
Finally, organisations and government at all levels need to be aware of the benefits of participation, and use these to promote involvement. Similarly, those already involved can tell positive stories about their experience, and encourage others they know to participate. The recruitment of new participants is almost always more effective through word of mouth.