Final design

When all the key issues have been broadly considered a detailed design will be needed for the whole participatory process. It is at this stage that the decisions about timing, numbers, costs, techniques, use of results etc. will finally be made.

Stages of the design process

Perhaps the biggest barrier to good public participation is the time needed to effectively design and deliver the process. Too often unrealistic timescales are set by commissioners, especially in the public sector. There are six main steps to detailed process planning, all of which take time to complete:

  • Set up planning / design group
  • Agree project plan
  • Logistics
  • Communications
  • Planning the follow-up to the participatory activities
  • Final thoughts.

Each of these is covered below. 

Step 1. Set up planning / design group

Even the simplest project will benefit from a formal planning group to ensure that the process planning is taken seriously and programmed into people’s work schedules. The group can also be used to get early buy-in from those who need to take account of the results of the process (sometimes a separate ‘executive group’ may be needed for major processes to ensure senior management involvement).

The planning / design group can be the same people as those responsible for delivering the process, or a separate delivery team may be established, in which case very close working relationships need to be established. Both planning and delivery teams may involve external contractors as well as internal colleagues. External participation professionals, such as facilitators, can prove valuable if the issue is likely to be controversial, when the independence of the facilitation can become an issue.

There are many different participation practitioners and it can be quite daunting knowing who to choose. One respondent to this research suggested that “At present it is extremely difficult for those commissioning participation work to know whether they are getting what they need or even a good deal”.

Facilitators may come from many different academic backgrounds, or may have been trained within different conventions. There is, as yet, no formally recognised accreditation system that can guarantee the quality of any professional, although the International Association of Facilitators does have a certification scheme.

Whoever is selected to deliver a process should be involved as early as possible.  For example, facilitators are not just the people hired to run meetings, they can also help to plan processes and provide realistic guidance about what can be achieved and how to do it.  In fact, many professional facilitators will not run meetings unless they have been involved in the planning process.

Personal recommendation can work well, but knowledge about facilitators tends to be limited to certain subject areas or approaches. Some factors to consider in choosing a facilitator are:

  • Subject knowledge. While facilitators do not need to be experts in the subject area, they need to know enough to facilitate the debate and take the process forward;
  • Reputation and experience, especially in similar circumstances;
  • Training and methods used (see Section 4);
  • Appropriate style. While many facilitators may be able to deal with a wide range of contexts, some facilitators may be more experienced and comfortable, for example, dealing with a professional high status forum rather than a small local community meeting (and vice versa).

In some processes it may be necessary to have support from other professionals, such as lawyers or planners, who understand the system being worked within. Local organisations may be able to provide these specialist services (as they may be able to provide participation practitioners), for example, local facilitators’ networks, law centres or planning aid networks.

Step 2. Agree project plan

A project plan will include details of:

  • Timeline – remember to allow time for translating if that is required, and that time is needed between events for further work to be completed to take to the next stage;
  • Budget – an adequate budget is essential, including setting aside time for staff who need to be involved;
  • Key dates and actions, including when final decisions will be made, who by, and how this links to the participatory process;
  • Methods – the process may use a range of different methods at different stages, and careful planning is needed to ensure these work well together to make the overall process successful.

Be realistic about how long things take and always allow more rather than less time for planning and for people to get involved. As soon as you can, forewarn participants that a process is in the offing so that they can set time aside to get involved. 

Step 3. Logistics

Participatory processes require a lot of practical arrangements, especially in terms of briefing materials and venues.

  • Briefing materials – decide what materials the stakeholders will need to participate effectively. If a written document is produced, the language must be user friendly and avoid jargon wherever possible. Breaking information into small manageable chunks can help, as long as the overall messages remain coherent.
  • Venues – suitable venues will be needed for any workshops or public meetings. Venues can be problematic as many of our civic buildings are not designed for the more modern techniques, and many of the centres which are more suitable can lack the gravitas or be too expensive. The important point is to be aware of the various needs of the specific process and ensure that the venue can meet them (e.g. access for people with disabilities). 

Step 4. Communications

Communication is important throughout a process: from the start to get people interested, during the process to ensure people are kept informed about what is happening and at the end to ensure that people are aware of what difference the process has made.

Individual invitations are often the best way to get people involved. However, if you are communicating with a wider audience you may wish to use:

  • Mail shots;
  • Leaflet drops;
  • Advertising in local and national newspapers;
  • Trade press or the newsletters of interest groups/representative bodies/trade associations.

Some formal processes (e.g. land use planning, environmental impact assessment, etc) have specific requirements for these communications.

Step 5. Planning follow-up to the participatory activities

The initial planning needs to consider, right from the start:

  • How the results of the process will be used – how it will feed into decision-making systems, and how the final outcomes will be reported back to the participants and others;
  • How you will know whether the process has been a success – what the success criteria should be for the process (e.g. specific changes to policy wording, a new team set up to work on something). ‘Success criteria’ are simply a reformulation of the original objectives of the process, but it can be useful at this stage to revisit those and possibly redraft them to make them easier to communicate to others.

Step 6.  Final thoughts 

  • Constraints on the detailed design. Every participatory process has to operate within practical and political constraints including money, time, skills, numbers of people, accessibility, types of venues available, characteristics of participants. It will help to identify which constraints are genuinely fixed and those that may be negotiable.
  • Too much design. For some processes too much design can be inappropriate, either because it stifles creativity or because it makes the process too formal. The role of design is to ensure that the focus and structure of the process is appropriate to its context, people and purpose, not to ensure that it goes like clockwork with no room for spontaneity.
  • Ethics of the process. It is essential that processes explicitly avoid manipulating or abusing  potential participants. Process ground rules need to be set to establish a clear ethical framework for the process (e.g. non-attribution or confidentiality; being aware of child protection, minority and disability issues).