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