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Easy answers

Faced with ideas like levels of participation, different phases and roles you may be tempted by some quick fixes for your participation problems. These can bring their own difficulties. For example:

`What we need is a public meeting'

You will certainly need to meet the public, but the conventional set-up with a fixed agenda, platform and rows of chairs is a stage set for conflict. Among the problems are:

  • The audience will contain many different interests, with different levels of understanding and sympathy. It is difficult to know how to pitch a presentation.
  • It is very difficult to keep to a fixed agenda - people may bring up any issue they chose and you just look authoritarian if you try and shut them up.
  • Few people get a chance to have a say.

As an alternative:

  • Identify and meet key interests informally.
  • Run workshop sessions for different interest groups.
  • Bring people together after the workshop sessions in a report-back seminar. By then everyone should have some ideas in common.
  • If you must do a one-off meeting, split people into small groups early on and run a report back in the second half.
  • Make clear in all publicity that it is an ideas session with group discussion.
  • Plan the layout of the room(s) so you avoid `them and us', and can split easily into groups.
  • In short, make a public meeting the last thing you do, not the first.

See Access, Public meetings, Workshops in the A-Z

`A good leaflet, video and exhibition will get the message across'

These may well be useful tools, but it is easy to be beguiled by the products and forget what you are trying to achieve.

Before you brief the production team first consider:

  • What level of participation are you aiming for? If it is anything more than information-giving, you are looking for feedback and possibly other people's ideas and commitment. High-cost presentations suggest you have made up your mind.
  • What response do you want - and can you handle it?
  • Could you achieve more with lower-cost materials and more face-to-face contact?

See Communications, Videos in the A-Z and Where do you stand?,

`Commission a survey'

A questionnaire study and/or in-depth discussion groups can be an excellent ways to start a participation process. On the other hand they can be a magnificent way of avoiding the issue of what you want by asking other people what they want. Fine, if you are then able to deliver.

Bear in mind:

  • Surveys require expert design and piloting to be useful.
  • They are only as good as the brief you provide. Why do you want a survey?
  • It is unwise to jump from an analysis of the results straight to proposed solutions, particularly if you want the commitment of other interests. The analysis will inevitably be an abstraction, and the ideas will not be `owned' by anyone unless people have a chance to think them through.
  • In planning a survey: first put yourself on the receiving end of the questioning, and second design it as part of a process which will lead through to some action.

See Surveys in the A-Z

`Appoint a liaison officer'

That may be a useful step, but not if everyone else thinks it is the end of their involvement in the process. Are you just trying to pass the buck to someone else ?

Aim to empower your liaison officer. Consider:

  • Do they have the necessary skills and resources for the job?
  • Will they get the backing of other colleagues?
  • Are they being expected to occupy conflicting roles - that is, wear too many hats? It is difficult to present yourself as a neutral facilitator if you are also making recommendations on funding. The temptation to manipulate agendas is strong.

See It takes time.

`Work through the voluntary sector'

Voluntary bodies are a major route to communities of interest, and may have people and resources to contribute to the participation process. However, they are not `the community'.

  • There will be many small community groups who are not part of the more formalised voluntary sector.
  • Voluntary groups, like any organisations, will have their own agendas - funding targets to achieve, issues to pursue. They are not a neutral.

Treat voluntary organisations as another sectoral interest in the community - albeit a particularly important one:

  • Check out organisations with a number of different sources. Having said all that, voluntary organisations will have a wealth of experience and are essential allies. They've been through many of the problems of involving people before.

See Community, Stakeholders, Voluntary sector in the A-Z

`Set up a consultative committee'

Some focus for decision-making will be necessary in anything beyond simple consultation processes. However:

  • Even if a committee is elected or drawn from key interest groups it will not be a channel for reaching most people.
  • People invited to join a committee may feel uncomfortable about being seen as representatives.
  • The committee can just reinforce `them and us' attitudes if some members have more power than others.

Consider instead:

  • A group which helps you plan the participation process.
  • Surveys, workshops and informal meetings to identify other people who might become actively involved.
  • A range of groups working on specific issues.
  • Defining any central group in terms of the longer term aim. For example, if a Management Board or Trust is a possibility, you are looking for a `shadow' Board.

See Committees, Workshops in the A-Z

`There's no time to do proper consultation'

That may be the case if the timetable is imposed externally - or do you feel that consultation will raise questions you can't answer? Beware: the questions won't go away, and you could be forced into a climb-down later on in the face of protest.

If the timetable is genuinely tight:

  • Explain the pressure that you are under.
  • At least produce a leaflet or send out a letter.
  • Run a crash programme for those interested - perhaps over a weekend.

See It takes time, Timeline in the A-Z

`Run a Planning for Real session'

Special `packaged' techniques can be very powerful ways of getting people involved. However there are horses for courses - no one technique is applicable to all situations. Are you just falling into the technology trap - believing that a gadget will fix the problem? This guide aims to suggest what is appropriate when.

See Planning for Real
in the A-Z

`It's technical - requiring a professional solution'

If you believe that, why consult anyone? Before following this arrogant course, reflect on the many examples of disaster and political miscalculation where the experts knew best.

Before leaving it to the experts consider:

  • Are you sure you know what the problem is - would everyone else agree?
  • Is there really only one way of fixing things?
  • Do you need the support of other interests to carry the proposals through? If you don't give them an early say in the solution they could become part of the problem.

See Problem clarification, Decision-making in the A-Z

`Bring in consultants expert in community participation'

There's some truth in the saying that `consultants are people who steal your watch in order to tell you the time'. Often you have the answer yourself, and you are just trying to avoid grappling with the issue. Of course there are situations when you need outside expertise - whether technical, or in clearing your own mind or facilitating the participation process.

If you do use consultants:

  • Get a recommendation from a previous client if possible.
  • Give a clear brief on what you are trying to achieve, the level of control and boundaries for action. At the same time be prepared to discuss and, if necessary, renegotiate the brief.
  • Encourage them to ask hard questions and provide an independent perspective.
  • Play an active role in their work to provide continuing guidance and learn from the experience. Don't use the consultants as insulation.
  • Make sure you and your organisation can deliver in response to the ideas they produce, and you can handle things when they leave.
  • Include work within your organisation to parallel that with community interests. Many problem in participation processes arise within the promoting organisation.
  • Agree a realistic budget - then challenge the consultants to perform.
  • Remember that most consultancy exercises are only as good as the client.

See Consultants in the A-Z

The next section provides a framework for thinking about participation