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Framework for participation

This section summarises a theoretical framework for thinking about participation which brings together ideas from the 10 Key Ideas section. The summary below covers the main ideas:

  • There are different levels of participation appropriate for different situations, and it is important to decide where you stand.
  • There isn't one `community' but many interests - or stakeholders - to consider.
  • Participation takes time.

These ideas are then developed in more detail in following sections:

Summary of the framework

The framework is developed from the idea of a ladder of participation discussed in the 10 Key Issues section. The framework adds two other dimensions to the idea of the level of participation on a ladder:

  • The phase or stage of participation.
  • Different interests - or stakeholders - may be at different levels or stages of participation.

1 The level of participation - where do you stand?

See the set of questions at the end of this section about who `you' are and what you are trying to achieve.

The ladder of participation model described in the
previous section suggests some levels are better than others. In this framework I suggest it is more of a case of horses for courses - different levels are appropriate in different circumstances.

The key issue is what `stance' are you taking as someone managing a participation process, or controlling resources, and your reasons for doing so.

I suggest thinking of five levels - or stances - which offer increasing degrees of control to the others involved.

The least you can do is tell people what is planned.
You offer a number of options and listen to the feedback you get.
Deciding together
You encourage others to provide some additional ideas and options, and join in deciding the best way forward.
Acting together
Not only do different interests decide together what is best, but they form a partnership to carry it out.
Supporting independent community initiatives
You help others do what they want - perhaps within a framework of grants, advice and support provided by the resource holder.

The 'lower' level of participation keep control with the initiator - but they lead to less commitment from others.

Compare this diagram with Sherry Arnstein's ladder in
10 Key ideas

Each of these levels is discussed in more detail in the next main section:
Where do you stand?

2 The phase - where have you got to?

Participation is a process in which people have to think through what they want, consider some options, and work through what should happen. I suggest there are four main phases:

The phase at which something triggers the need to involve people, and you start to think what that involves.
The period when you think through the process, make the first contacts, and agree an approach.
The phase in which you use participation methods with the main interests in the community.
What happens in this phase will depend very much on the level of participation - you may be reporting back on consultation, or at another level setting up partnership organisations.

These different phases are discussed in more detail in the section It takes time

3 People - who is involved?

Some people will want - or demand - more involvement than others. Others will wish not to be involved. Identifying these different interests - stakeholders - and negotiating the level of participation appropriate is the third dimension of the framework

Some of the main issues in participation are about where power and control lies between these interests, and the role of `you' in this.

Before starting a participation process it is important to reflect on the role you have - the hat you are wearing. The way you act may be influenced by how far you control resources, to whom you are answerable. People's attitudes to you will certainly be influenced by the role and power they think you have.

It is also essential to clarify the purpose of participation - because that will determine which stakeholders benefit.

These issues are discussed in the items on Beneficiaries, Power and Empowerment in the A-Z

The nature of effective participation

I think participation may work best for all concerned when each of the key interests - the stakeholders - is satisfied with the level of participation at which they are involved.

That is, those who don't have much at stake may be happy to be informed or consulted. Others will want to be involved in decisions and possibly action to carry them out.

The difficult task for the practitioner managing the process is to identify these interests, help them work out what they want from the process, and negotiate a route for them to achieve it.

The power of the practitioner lies in influencing who will benefit. Participation is not a neutal process. As yourself:

  • What is the purpose of the process?
  • Who benefits? Who pays? Who controls?

With different interests seeking different levels of participation, and being in different phases, effective participation can seem like shooting an arrow through a number of keyholes.

Some early questions

At the start of a participation process a number of key questions should help you decide your approach:

Who are you? For example:

  • Someone in a position of power controlling funds or other resources.
  • Someone with influence because you are planning or managing a participation process.
  • Someone with professional expertise or knowledge?

What do you want to achieve by working a participatory style?

  • To try and develop plans that meet people's expectations.
  • To give people a say in the plans.
  • To give people control over the solutions.

Who will have the final say over decisions?

  • Yourself.
  • A management team.
  • Everyone who gets involved.
  • A political institution or other body

How ready are people, and organisations, to work in a participatory way?

  • Do they have the desire?
  • Do they have the skills?
  • Do they have the authority?

On to Where do you stand?