An institutional response can be the most significant change that occurs following a participation process. It might be a policy change (e.g. we will change the routing of a road) or a reaction (e.g. we will not change the route of the road because…). Any such change requires agreement to change from the institution itself and preparation within the institution.
It is essential that explicit links are made between the participatory process and the location of the decision that will affect future action, if the decision is outside the participatory process. This will require clarifying how the institutional response to the outputs and outcomes of the participatory process will be managed.
The nature of the systems and processes that will make the final decision will affect which outputs and outcomes should be identified for the process, so these outputs and outcomes need to fit easily into wider systems. These issues will also, therefore, affect the choice of participatory methods that can be used.
Clarifying the process for gaining the institutional response is vitally important because:
- It establishes a commitment to change from the outset by recognising that some response will need to be made;
- It ensures that mechanisms are in place to deal with the outputs that come from the participatory process and ensures that these outputs can be dealt with effectively and within a given timescale;
- It allows those running the process to explain to participants exactly what will be done with their effort, how the process will be managed and how its outcomes will affect / change things;
- It helps clarify what is and is not discussed (no point discussing things that really cannot be changed);
- It helps clarify the roles of the different participants, as it clarifies what is expected of them all at different stages of the process.
Deciding the institutional response will require thinking through:
- What to do with the outputs from the participatory process when they arrive?
- What has been promised (explicitly or implicitly) to participants and others (externally and internally)?
- What are the expectations (internally and externally) in terms of how the results are taken forward?
- How will we communicate to others what we have done with the results of the process?
- How do we dovetail the results of the participatory process into mainstream decision-making processes and how might these need to change to enable the results to be acted on?
Specific problems affecting the links between the outcomes of the participatory process and existing decision-making systems include:
- Agreeing how to respond to participation is not prioritised by decision makers. Other urgent demands may divert decision-makers’ attention from agreeing how the institutional response to a participatory process will be made. The early involvement of decision-makers is essential in getting the individuals ‘up-to-speed’ on the issues in question (e.g. through establishing an ‘executive group’ early in the process), so that when they are required to respond at a later stage they can do so effectively and quickly.
- Confusing participation with consultation, which results in confusion about what sort of institutional response is required and expected.
- Wider political tensions, including issues of:
- Accountability: is the decision being devolved to legitimate process?
- Leadership: how does the process relate to conventional political leadership?
- Democracy: how does the process relate to the role of elected representatives?
- Inability / unwillingness to do what the participatory process demands. It may not always be possible for all the conclusions of a participatory process to be acted upon immediately (or ever, in some cases).
If, for whatever reasons, it is likely that it will prove impossible for an institution to respond in the way participants in a process anticipate or desire, this needs to be made clear as soon as possible. It is the job of those steering the process to recognise this and decide how to deal with it; in fact, the process should never get underway in the first place if its likely outcomes are completely unrealistic.
Raising expectations, requesting the investment of time and energy and then ignoring the outcomes is a recipe for cynicism at best and civil disobedience at worst.