Too often, discussion of participation begins and ends with identifying methods. One-off events or individual methods are an important element of participatory processes, but they are only one part.

Methods have probably become the main focus for people’s participatory working because they are usually the key interaction point, the ‘set piece’, in which institutions come face to face with those they seek to involve. They are the front-line of participation. But as with all front lines, their effectiveness is determined almost wholly by the quality of the planning that precedes such action, especially the planning of how to handle the results from that interaction (the products and wider outcomes), and how to link the specific participatory initiative with wider decision-making processes and systems, particularly in democratic institutions such as local government.

Specific methods thus form just one part of the overall participatory process, which will also need to take into account purpose and context. In summary, the key factors in participatory working are:

Purpose + context + process  = outcome

  • Purpose. It is essential to be clear what a participatory process aims to achieve. Ideally, the purpose will be explicitly agreed among all participants (“this is what we are trying to do”).  Some participatory exercises may have a primary purpose (for example, to influence a particular policy decision), and a secondary purpose (such as to build relationships).  The nature of the purpose contributes to the choice of methods. 
  • Context. Every situation is unique, shaped by the issues, the people, history, location, structures of organisations and institutions taking part, wider decision-making processes and systems, and so on.  These factors will fundamentally affect what can and cannot be done – and which methods will or will not work. Participatory working always needs to be understood in relation to the wider systems within which it takes place (such as organisational structures and policy priorities), especially external and internal decision-making systems.  The nature of the context affects the choice of methods. 
  • Process. The design of the participatory process is about planning how the purpose will be achieved (including which methods should be used and when). The design of the process should always follow agreement on purpose – ‘form follows function’ – and understanding of the context (including how any eventual decisions will be made). The choice of individual methods is affected by the nature and stage of the overall process.

In summary, therefore, the choice of participation methods has to be made within an overall design for effective participatory processes (however short or long term, specific or comprehensive) and will depend on an understanding of the context, and an understanding of what participation may be able to achieve so that the purpose of any single exercise (or comprehensive approach) can be clear and realistic.