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A-Z intro

The A-Z of Effective Participation

Section S-Z here....A-D | E-K | L-R |

Shop front
Skills Audit
Small Groups
Special events
Start where people are at
Staying involved
Steering group
Strategic Assumption Surface Testing (SAST)
Strategic choice
Structures for participation
Supporting independent community initiatives

Team building
Terms of reference
Time Line
Trading company
Village appraisals
Voluntary sector
Why encourage participation?
Working groups
Workload planning
Yes or No

Shop front

A temporary office or shop front in the community you are working with shows commitment to meeting people on their own terms, rather than in meetings you have arranged. It provides an independent address and contact for any project. However, be careful that:

  • The shop front doesn't substitute for the substance of what you are trying to achieve.
  • You can afford the cost and have people to staff it.
  • You aren't setting up a problem for someone else to take over.
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Skills Audit

You may need to look no further than your own group for the expertise you need for your project or campaign.

Auditing skills

In order to find out what talent you have:

1 List the tasks you have to carry out in as much detail as possible, using a brainstorming session if necessary.

2 Choose 10 random tasks and ask each member of the group to:

  • Score each task 1(no good) to 5 (very good) on how good they would be.
  • State what they would need to do to become very good (e.g. practice, training).

3 Pull your ideas together, and for each item list:

  • Who can do it, and how well.
  • What would be involved in getting more people competent.
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Small Group

Large meetings and committees are not good for working through difficult issues. You can often make a lot more process by taking some time out in smaller groups and reporting back.

Breaking into groups

In order to allow members of a large group a say:

1 Introduce the issue to the large group, and set tasks for smaller groups. State time limits, how to report back, and arrange where each group should go.

2 Break into smaller groups of not more than 6 to 8. Meet and discuss the issue. Appoint a facilitator, recorder, reporter if necessary.

3 Report back to the large group.

4 As an alternative reshuffle into new small groups and report back to each other within the groups.

Summarised from Resource Manual for Living Revolution.

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Among the committee meetings and workshop sessions allow time for social events where people can get to know each informally. People are far more likely to get involved in something which is fun.

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Simple solutions are like a bunch of spare keys. They seldom work. Anon.

Solutions have to be custom-made for the problems they are going to unlock. They are reached by clarifying the problem, having ideas and generating options, and then decision making.

The book 101 Ways to Generate Great Ideas has a section on Techniques to Develop Solutions. Most are oriented to commercial product development, but generally useful methods include:

  • What words of praise will be said when you have a solution?
  • List the attributes a solution may have, before try to see it in total.
  • Suggest a metaphor for the problem.
  • Reverse the situation, then reverse the problem.

See also Clarifying problems, Destruction testing, Options, and the
Easy Answers section.

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Special events

Special events and festivals are one way to reach people who are not interested in formal meetings. Possibilities include parades, bringing in community artists, making models, holding exhibitions, getting school children involved through art work, drama or music, friendly competitions, involving local shops and businesses in events.

Special events bring fun and celebration into participation. However, they require lots of allies in order to plan and carry them.

Source Christine Flecknoe.

See also Allies.

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Stakeholders are those who have an interest in what you are or may be doing, because they will be affected or may have some influence. For example:

  • Who will benefit from your proposals?
  • Who may be adversely affected?
  • Who may help or hinder?
  • Who may have skills, money or other resources?
  • Who decides?
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One of the most important decisions to be made in a participation process is the level of involvement offered to the various interests by whoever initiates the process - for example, Consultation or Acting Together. Stance is the suggestion or assertion that a particular level is appropriate - which may or may not be generally accepted. For example, a local authority may start a consultation process but find that residents want more say. Negotiating an appropriate stance is an important early stage of a participation process.

Deciding your stance

In deciding where you stand consider:

  • What level of participation are other interests likely to consider appropriate?
  • What level will your colleagues or others in your group accept or support?
  • What skills and resources will be needed? Will you be able to follow through?
  • Will you change your stance if others don't accept it?

See the section Where do you stand?

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Start where people are at

If you really want to involve as many people as possible, you have to go to them rather than expect them to come to you. That mean:
Going to their place rather than yours - homes, clubs, pubs, churches, mosques, Chambers of Commerce.
Starting with other people's concerns rather than your own.

See also Access, Special events.

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Staying involved

People need to experience some benefit or encouragement if they are to stay involved. The study Limbering Up found people stopped being involved because of:

  • Personal reasons.
  • Disagreements.
  • Nothing being achieved.
  • Having no real say.
  • Domination by a clique.

They were encouraged by:

  • Feeling they would be effective.
  • Experiencing success.
  • Seeing peers involved.
  • Feelings of personal benefit - or conversely...
  • Something being really bad.

See also Conflict resolution, Cliques, Confidence, Success.

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Steering group

If you are at the level of participation of Acting Together, and aiming to create a formal partnership, it may be appropriate to set up a steering group which is a 'shadow' of the management committee or Board that you will be creating later. Adopt similar procedures for the steering group that you will use for the management committee - that should help ensure that early decisions are taken are in the interests of the partnership, rather than simply the self interests of the various representatives.

See also Board, Management Committee, Team building, Terms of reference.

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Strategic Assumption Surface Testing (SAST)

SAST is a technique for a large group to examine different options for action and then develop a common action plan.

Running SAST

1 The group splits into small groups and each takes an option to consider. The task of each group is to 'sell' its option in an uncritical 15 minute presentation to the other groups.

2 As each group makes its presentation the facilitator notes the main points on two charts, one headed 'actions' one headed 'advantages'.

3 After each presentation the audience questions and criticises, and these points are recorded on a third chart headed 'debate'.

4 The three sets of charts are exhibited, and there is a final discussion to bring ideas together and plan next steps. During the final discussion:

  • The common 'actions' are turned into an action plan.
  • The 'advantages' are translated into agreed criteria.
  • The issues of 'debate' are clustered and treated as areas of uncertainty which may require further investigation. Activities to investigate these uncertainties may be transferred to the action plan.

Source Charles Ritchie, CORU.

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Strategic choice

Strategic choice is a sophisticated technique for making decisions and developing action plans in situations with many options and uncertainties. This can be done in a workshop session, or using Strategic Choice software - STRAD - available from Stradsoft Limited. Strategic choice works through four modules:

  • Shaping, where the main areas for making decisions are identified in order to provide a problem focus.
  • Designing, where you start to explore ways forward by seeing which combinations of options from decision areas could be combined.
  • Comparing, where the implications of different paths through the strategic problem are assessed.
  • Choosing, where you review what to do about key areas of uncertainty and move towards action plans.

The book Planning Under Pressure provides a detailed description.

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Structures for participation

Organisations like local authorities often favour participation methods which fit their own way of working - so they invite people to join committees, or set up other structures. Jerry Smith, of the Community Development Foundation, suggests there are five main classes of organisation used by local authorities:

1 Consultative bodies.

2 Councillor bodies usually based on wards or other local authority administrative divisions.

3 Joint bodies composed of councillors and community representatives.

4 Narrow-range community organisations like tenant co-operatives, community housing associations, and community economic development trusts.

5 Broad-range community associations such as neighbourhood and community councils.

Choosing a structure

Issues to consider in choosing a form of organisation include:

  • Geography.
  • Relationship to the political system.
  • The relationship with new and existing bodies.
  • Balance of community and local authority representation.
  • The level of participation offered.
  • Formal status of the organisation.
  • Method of operation.

See also Community forum, Community initiatives, Development Trusts.

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Success may take many forms in a participation process. Ultimately it may be associated with some 'product' - achieving your aims and objectives, or purpose. It may also be about a successful process - meeting deadlines and targets along the way, ensuring that people are staying involved.

See also Criteria, Outcomes.

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Supporting independent community initiatives

Supporting community based initiatives means helping others develop and carry out their own plans. You can, of course, put limits on what you will support. It is the most 'empowering' level of participation - provided people want to do things for themselves. They may, quite properly, choose a lower level of participation.

Supporting community initiatives is appropriate:

  • Where there is a commitment to empower individuals or groups within the community.
  • Where people are interested in starting and running an initiative.

It is unlikely to be appropriate when:

  • Community initiatives are seen as 'a good thing' in the abstract and pushed on people from the top down.
  • Where there aren't the resources to maintain initiatives in the longer-term.

See the section Where do you stand? for more detailed discussion.

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Surveys provide an important starting point for participation processes. Whether they enable people to participate significantly in decision making, and subsequent action, depends very much on the way they are done:

  • Questionnaire surveys - whether conducted by interviewers or completed by respondents - may be improved if local groups are involved in the design, collection and analysis. Village Appraisals are designed and carried out by local groups, who may then use the results to press councils and others for action or to start their own projects.
  • Parish maps have provided the starting point for a large number of rural and urban projects. They offer wide scope for involvement because of the many ways in which they can be developed, and the focus on familiar features in the locality.
  • The Priority Search Team uses a focus group, representative of those to be surveyed, to generate ideas which become part of the survey questionnaire. However, taking action rests with the local authority or other body commissioning the survey.

See the book Creating Involvement for discussion of these and other survey techniques. See also Parish Maps, Priority Search, Village Appraisals.

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SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. It's a good workshop technique for starting to plan a participation process, or review where you are.


When you are clear what your aim is:

1 Brainstorm issues under each heading. Strengths and weaknesses relate to internal matters for the group or organisation, opportunities and threats to the external.

2 Draw up a summary and discuss how to:

  • Build on your strengths.
  • Do something about your weaknesses.
  • Make the most of the opportunities.
  • Try to avoid or eliminate the threats.
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Team building

The process of helping a group of people develop shared aims and objectives, values and a plan for putting them into action. People working together have more opportunities to get to know each other than, for example, members of a management committee meeting every month or two - so team building workshops can be particularly useful. Most techniques for developing ideas and making decisions together will help with team building, because they help people understand each other's interests and priorities. Similarly techniques specifically designed for team building can be useful in participation processes.

See the book Planning Together.

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The term is used here to describe any short-term device which helps make progress in a participation process. This may be a brainstorming workshop, a task like writing a leaflet to help clarify what you are trying to achieve, or a more complex game or simulation. Techniques are particularly useful for consultant, facilitators and trainers because:

  • They are discreet pieces of work with clear preparation and results.
  • If used well, everyone gets a sense that things have moved forward.
  • They are a good way of breaking out of conventional committees and public meetings which may not have worked in the past.

However, techniques should not be seen as 'quick fixes', but as milestones in a long term process. If people feel they are being manipulated, or made to 'jump through hoops' they will avoid further involvement or oppose further activities.

Choosing a technique

In order to decide on a technique, using this guide:

  • Browse through the A to Z to get an overview of possibilities.
  • Review the level of participation and your stance, and the techniques recommended as appropriate.
  • Review the phase of process, and recommended techniques.
  • Check through the problems index.
  • Use the Guidelines on how to... section.
  • Read 'Easy answers' for some cautionary comments on techniques.
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Terms of reference

Any subcommittee or working group should have clear terms of reference covering:

  • The purpose and membership of the group.
  • Who services it with agendas and minutes.
  • How often it meets - and for how long.
  • The topics or issues the group covers.
  • The powers of the group to make decisions.
  • What funding it has, if any.
  • To which committee or group it reports back.

See Just About Managing, Chapter 2, for a longer discussion.

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Time Line

It takes time to save time.

Joe Taylor.

Everything takes longer than you think - even when you know it does. Drawing a timeline is a simple technique to set priorities among activities and events which must be completed within a given period of time

  • Draw a horizontal line on a piece of paper.
  • Graduate it into appropriate blocks of time (days, weeks, months). The first mark is NOW, the last the completion date.
  • Think of all the tasks to be completed.
  • Place the tasks on the time line in the order of when they have to be done, and which are the most important to do at a particular time.

See also Workload planning.

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Trading company

Charities cannot engage in income-generating trading unless it is pursuit of their objectives. They can, however, set up subsidiary trading companies which covenant profits back to the charity. If you are considering this type of arrangement consult a solicitor and an accountant experienced in the field.

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The most brilliant presentation will achieve little if the audience suspects they are being misled - and workshop techniques will fail if people feel they are being manipulated. Trust is an essential foundation for all aspects of participation.

In order to develop trust:

  • Draw out and deal with any suspicions from past contacts.
  • Be open and honest about what you are trying to achieve - and about any problems.
  • Be prepared to make mistakes - and admit them.
  • Meet people informally.
  • Deliver what you promise.
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Values are statements of what we consider important. Since they may be emotive, political, and difficult to express, they are frequently hidden. However it is difficult to understand each other or reach agreement if we are unclear about values. For example, council officers faced with a tight project timetable may be frustrated by a community group which insists on numerous meetings, held in the evenings, leading to the appointment of a representative steering group. The officers value cost-effective delivery of 'product' acceptable to their political masters and the Government; the group values openness and democratic process. In groups where there may be underlying differences of values it is often most productive to concentrate first on what there is in common by discussing outcomes - what you would like to happen at the end of the day - and how you can get there. A group which has agreed aims and objectives may explore shared values by considering the image it wishes to present.

See also Aims and objectives, Criteria, Identity and Image, Outcomes, Purpose.

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At first sight video might seem a powerful medium for launching an initiative, but it can be costly and inflexible if you have to pay a professional team. A well-scripted slide show is cheaper, easy to change, and gives you personal contact with the audience. Slide shows and twin-projector audio-visual presentations can be transferred to video. These don't compare with professional videos, but save carrying the equipment around to small groups.

See also Communication.

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Village appraisals

This is a technique promoted by ACRE - Action for Communities in Rural England - through which local people use surveys to take stock of village life and encourage action by both volunteers and local authorities. A format has been established for local residents to carry out surveys of the services and facilities in rural areas, and there is computer software available. ACRE suggest a 12 stage process to use this:

1 Call a public meeting and form a steering group.

2 Decide the aims of the appraisal, and the area to be covered.

3 Consider how you plan to fund the project.

4 Draw up a realistic timescale and consider publicity.

5 Familiarise yourself with the software.

6 Decide on the issues that are important to your community and list them.

7 Use the 'menu' of questions from the software to design a questionnaire.

8 Print, distribute and collect the questionnaire.

9 Use the software to make a first analysis.

10 Review the aims of the appraisal and produce a report with recommendations for action.

11 Launch the report, and decide on the authorities to negotiate with.

12 Review the situation after a year to see how things are progressing.

Contact ACRE for further information.

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You see things; and you say 'Why?' But I dream things that never were, and I say 'Why not?' George Bernard Shaw

The idea of a vision of the future seems to me rather broader than purpose or mission, because it places more emphasis on values and approach - how you do things as well as the result you achieve. Vision may be a helpful term if you are using participation techniques that encourage people to create pictures of what they want, or develop models.

See also Limits, Outcomes.

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Voluntary sector

This blanket term is often used to cover a wide range of organisations which are very different from each other:

  • Self-help groups of people with a shared interest seeking to assist each other.
  • Community groups of activists concerned with a locality or local issue.
  • Small local charitable organisations with management committees and paid workers.
  • National charities with local branches.
  • Bodies like development trusts which may see themselves as not-for-profit companies.

Each will have its own style of working, and community of interest. Although a very important route to these communities, they should not be seen as representing 'the community'.

See also Community.

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Seeking a standard committee-style majority vote on a major issue is not an effective means of involving people in participation processes. However, simple voting techniques can be useful in small groups to decide between options.

Voting by ticks

For a group to decide quickly between different options or solutions:

1 List the possible options.

2 Make sure they are understood by everyone.

3 Give each voter ten ticks (or small sticky labels) to mark his or her choices. These can be spread through the list or allocated to one choice.

4 The item with the most ticks or labels wins.

From Getting Organised.

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Why encourage participation?

Marilyn Taylor, of the School of Advanced Urban Studies, offers the following reasons for local councils and other authorities to consider promoting participation:

  • Legislation or central government encouragement. A number of Acts impose consultation requirements, and many funding programmes also specify community involvement.
  • Dissatisfaction with public service delivery has led to government seeking to remove services from local government control; councils have responded with decentralisation and devolution of powers which involve participation.
  • Efficiency and effectiveness may be improved by involving the community and consumers. At the very least it forestalls conflict and can more positively bring new ideas, perspectives and resources into policy making and problem solving. Resources can be better targeted.
  • Consumers are demanding involvement. These days people are more likely to take action on issues of concern to them.

See also Benefits of participation.

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Working groups

A working group is a small group set up with a specific task to complete, with members chosen for their appropriate skills. Working groups are a good way of making sure interested people can get involved and make a contribution. In setting up working groups:

  • Create clear terms of reference.
  • Set a limit on how long they continue.
  • Encourage creative thinking rather than formal committee procedures.

See also Creative thinking, Time line.

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Workload planning

This technique - which combines action plans with a time line can be useful in planning participation process.

Workload planning

1 Set up a calendar of days, weeks or months for the process, with the period across the top of a sheet of paper.

2 Identify main events like meetings and publications as 'milestones' in the process, and position them as on a time line.

3 Work out the subsidiary tasks to achieve the milestones, including which must be started before or after others.

4 Draw these under each other as lines across the calendar, the length of line indicating time to complete, with start and finish points marked.

5 Allocate responsibilities.

Project management computer software is available to carry out workload planning, but can be rather time-consuming to use.

See the book Planning Together, Activity 30, for a fuller description.

See also Time line.

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Workshops are meetings at which a small group, perhaps aided by a facilitator, explore issues, develop ideas and make decisions. They are the less formal and creative counterpart to public meetings and committees.

Workshop guidelines

When running a workshop session:

1 Plan space and equipment:

  • Wall space or stands for charts.
  • Space for separate group working.
  • Coloured pens, Post-it notes, chart paper and blutack, coloured stickers/stars.

2 Agree with participants what is going to happen in the session

3 If using charts or handouts, check literacy and colour-blindness. Working in pairs or small groups can help to overcome problems.

4 Stick to an agreed timetable - keep an eye on the clock.

5 Write clearly, and encourage others to write on the charts - but don't force them.

6 Encourage work in small group (3-5), even if there is a lot of talking and input in the whole group sessions.

7 Speak clearly, and listen carefully to what people are saying - both in groups and in plenary sessions.

8 Check out understanding before writing on charts.

9 Be happy to make mistakes and admit them.

10 Don't establish yourself as the expert. Ask naive questions.

Source Charles Ritchie, CORU.

See the book Creating Involvement for descriptions of different types of workshops.

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Yes or No

Spencer Johnson in Yes or No: A Guide to Better Decisions uses an extended journey metaphor for decision-making processes and offers a technique for making decisions which is similar to Kolb's cycle, and Plan, Act, Review. He argues that it is important to take decisions using both head and heart. With the head consider:

  • Are you meeting a real need?
  • Have you developed and thought through options?

With the heart, ask:

  • Am I being honest, and trusting my intuition?
  • Do I deserve better?
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