StalagmiteOne of the best tools to overcome power inequality is bottom-up participation such as Community Organising. However, there is still a need for top-down participation too.

Recently, I suggested that if participation is going to work towards a fairer and more equal society then participation exercises need to challenge existing power imbalances. A number of the comments I received prompted me to think about the different roles for top-down and bottom-up participation in overcoming power inequalities.

Here are two of the comments on my last post:

Naomi Diamond says:

Community organising is the participative process which has been developed specifically to address and overcome power inequalities. Root Solutions Listening Matters, the community organising tool or method which lies at the heart of the OCS funded Community Organisers programme led by Locality explicitly sets out to reach the uninvolved where they are – on the doorstep, in shops, schools and businesses. Only in engaging these people – all of us – in the having a say, getting involved, doing things for themselves, participating in democracy and opposing abuses of power is it possible to ensure a healthy democracy which does not simply concentrate and continue to reinforce power inequalities.

Peter Cruickshank says:

… isn’t there then the risk that [the people running the participatory process] might (inadvertently perhaps) end up acting as self-appointed advocates? Would another approach be to see the process as empowering advocates from within the community?

Both Naomi and Peter seem to be suggesting a shift towards bottom-up participation. My response is yes – absolutely! As Naomi implies, there’s a whole host of work and thought in this area which tackles power inequalities head on, and often very effectively too. This is particularly exciting at the moment with the Community Organising programme picking up steam.

However, it doesn’t address my initial concern about how to manage top-down participation exercises in a way which equalises power. Here I’m talking about participation exercises which are run by government or other bodies in order to involve citizens either in decision-making about individual issues or setting overarching priorities within which decisions need to be taken.

One response would be that we shouldn’t be investing in top-down participation at all, instead focussing all our efforts on bottom-up models. While I think the answer might be to invest much more in bottom-up approaches, I do think we need top-down participation as well. Here’s why:

  • Sometimes, government needs to set the agenda. There’s a lot of talk about creating opportunities for citizens to set the agenda for conversations with government, and that’s absolutely right. But citizens also need to respond to government agendas at times. A lot of our work at Sciencewise, for example, is in the area of science and technology innovation. Many of the issues – such as Synthetic Biology and Nanotechnology – are unlikely to crop up on doorsteps as issues that citizens want to campaign on. Many probably don’t even know what they are. And yet they do have an impact, both now and in the future, and it’s right that government gets citizens’ input into decision-making early on.
  • Potentially, the structures of top-down participation can be fairer, particularly with more controversial issues. While Community Organising traditionally has quite a structured process for citizens and community leaders to decide on campaign issues, this is currently the exception to the rule. Much more bottom-up participation is in the form of old-fashioned campaigns, an area which is ripe for the domination of the loudest – and best funded – voices. If governments are going to respond to these voices, I believe they have a responsibility to create spaces where a wider selection of citizens are encouraged to deliberate over issues (there have been a number of interesting examples recently which I’ve blogged on before).
  • If participation is restricted to bottom-up adversarial activities, we miss the opportunity for more collaboration between citizen and state. Perhaps the ideal scenario is one of co-production – where government and communities set the agenda together. Previously this has focussed largely on the production of services, but there’s no reason why the principle can’t be applied to decision-making. This requires some work from the top-down too – it requires government to leave space in the policy making process for co-production to have an influence and to invest time and resources into supporting citizens in getting involved.

I’m aware that these opinions reveal my own optimism that those in power are worthy of our cooperation and participation. There are some who believe that a functional democracy relies on a less rosy and more combative relationship between citizen and state – one in which we need to be holding government to account in any way possible, not replying to their consultations.

While I see this view too, I don’t think it’s an either/ or. Indeed, I think it needs to be both. We need to build a culture in which we expect government to involve citizens in important decision-making, where we hold them to account when we don’t think they’re doing this well enough, where we work with them to overcome social challenges and make good decisions, and where we also create change ourselves and set our own agendas which we demand government responds to.

I’ll be posting some more practical ideas about how top-down participation might overcome power inequalities later this week.

Image by Hodges