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Theory to practice

Signposts from theory to practice

This section sets out how I have designed some of the signposting in this Guide - the cross-references from problems to participation techniques. It is rather theoretical, and if you wish you can skip it and move to the next sections.

The nature of signposting

The original idea of this guide was to help practitioners who subscribe to the `why' of participation find their way to the `how'. In practice signposting is complex for several reasons:

  • Every situation is unique.
  • Participation methods are not just quick-fix tools for success - they often require skill and experience in their application.
  • The methods are not always easy to find - there are not many participation `toolkits'.

For these reasons, this section - and the complementary `Guidelines on How to.. section - cannot provide a step by step manual. Instead I have tried to offer a number of ways of looking at the route from participation problems to solutions, with some pointers to topics and methods which are detailed in the A-Z section.

The starting point - problems

Whatever level of participation you are offering, and whatever phase you are in, there will be problems.

  • People will not read your leaflets or come to meetings.
  • Colleagues will fail to deliver on their promises.
  • Different interest groups will have conflicting aims.
  • Deadlines will be missed.
  • You may end up as the scapegoat for everyone's difficulties.

So what do you do when the going gets tough? Reach for a solution - a participation tool or method. You may go and talk to people, produce another piece of paper, run a workshop, set up a committee, or perhaps give someone else the job. The later section on Problems suggests which methods may be most appropriate in common situations. But what do we mean by participation methods?

The end point - participation methods

The methods for participation included in the guide fall broadly under three headings - techniques, structures and longer-term programmes.


Techniques are frequently used short-term interventions employed by consultants and trainers. They range from communication materials and simple workshop sessions through to more complex methods of decision-making, like Strategic Choice. They can be very useful ways of concentrating efforts to involve people, but should not be seen as 'quick fixes'. Participation takes time, and techniques will usually need to be part of a long-term programme, or related to a structure - see below.


Both interim and longer-term organisational structures are used in participation processes. They range from working parties and advisory committees to organisations like development trusts, and community-based coops. Local councils and similar organisations often favour structures because they mirror or can be linked to their committee systems and the procedures which go with them. They can stand in the way of real participation for those involved unless their purpose is clear, the balance of control or influence is agreed, and their proceedings are enlivened by workshop techniques.

Longer-term programmes

These are processes for participation, planned over a period of time, which may involve staff devoted partly or wholly to the programme as well as the use of techniques and structures.

The bridge - key issues

The problems in participation processes seem to relate to about 15 underlying issues. If can spot the issue, by asking the right questions, you may be able to find a participation method to use. I have listed what I think are the key issues below, with some signposts to methods.

1 Taking stock: Situation assessment

  • What else is happening which might affect us?
  • Who are the key interests?
  • What are the barriers to action?
  • Who holds the power, and are they prepared to share it?

See CATWOE, Community profiling, Stakeholders, Surveys, SWOT iin the A-Z

2 Taking stock: Self assessment

  • What do we feel able to do?
  • How confident are we?

See Capacity-building, Skills audit, SWOT in the A-Z

3 Clarifying purpose, values and vision

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • What will it seem like if we succeed?

See Aims and objectives, Mission, Nominal Group Technique, Outcomes, Purpose, Vision iin the A-Z

4 Roles

  • What part am I and others playing in the process?
  • What responsibilities do we each have?

See Accountability, Recruitment, Roles iin the A-Z

5 Increasing commitment

  • How can we get people to play an active part?
  • Why are people not interested?
  • Are my colleagues with me?

See Apathy, Commitment, Ownership in the A-Z

6 Communication Are we talking the same language?

  • Are we talking the same language
  • Do we understand each other?

See Communication, Meetings, Presentations in the A-Z

7 Developing criteria

  • What do we think is most important?
  • Do we agree on priorities and values?
  • How do we use this to choose between different options?

See Criteria, Evaluation, Values in the A-Z

8 Negotiation

  • How can we reach agreement on what to do and how to do it?

See Negotiation, Outcomes in the A-Z

9 Getting resources

  • What money, advice and other resources will we need?

See Fundraising, Resources in the A-Z

10 Developing skills/capacities

  • How will we develop the ability to work with others and achieve what we want?

See Capacity-building, Skills audit in the A-Z

11 Generating options

  • How can we think creatively to produce a number of different possible options for solutions?

See Brainstorming, Creative thinking, Ideas, Options, Nominal Group Technique in the A-Z

12 Making decisions

  • How can we choose between the different options and work out what to do next?

See Action plans, Cost/Benefit Analysis, Strategic choice in the A-Z

13 Developing structure

  • What type of organisation may we need - either in the short term to make decisions, or in the longer-term to carry out plans?

See Business planning, Competence, Constitutions, Structures in the A-Z

14 Managing structure

  • How will we run any organisation?
  • What skills and resources will we need?

See Competence, Governance, Management in the A-Z

15 Evaluating progress

  • How will we judge whether we are succeeding or failing

See Criteria, Evaluation in the A-Z

A community participation questions set

To ensure a broad. coherent approach to community participation, consider the following:

1 Commitment

Has the nature and extent of commitment to participation. amongst all those involved, been made clear at the outset? Have major differences been addressed?

2 Education for participation

Has some opportunity been provided to ensure some positive `induction' to the participation process for local people, professionals, elected members and others?

3 Applicability

Has it been decided whether, and in what general ways, a participative approach is applicable to all types of specific project or continuing initiative?

4 Initiation

Has something been done to ensure that the pattern and detail of participation activity is not determined totally by whoever initiates it? Is there a shared feeling of `ownership'?

5 Scope

Within a general principle of attempting to achieve the fullest possible involvement on any project, are all parties clear about, and do they accept, the level of participation on offer?

6 Delivering agreed scope

Are those in positions of power to influence the end outcome (elected members, officers, developers, funders) able to deliver the agreed level of involvement? (If it cannot be delivered, it should not be offered.)

7 All Stages

Is participation being started as early as possible in the planning and development process, and how can you make it something which should go right through from initiation to completion (and even into later community management)?

8 Defining Overall Community

Have the definitions of `area' and `overall community', used to determine who has an opportunity to be involved, been negotiated with all parties. and how will they be redefined if necessary as work proceeds?

9 Engaging Communities

Have the ground rules for how the many sub-communities within the area are defined, located and accessed been considered at the outset and agreed with all parties, and how will it be enlarged and extended as work proceeds?

10 Approach

Have those managing the involvement process, along with other parties, agreed an overall, coherent approach which ensures that all relevant issues are addressed and which considers the participation process over time?

11 Relevant Methods

Have the methods to be used been carefully chosen to relate closely to the scope of the work, the definitions of communities used, the stage of the involvement and the available skills and resources?

12 Range of methods

In general, is a range of methods to be used in order to increase the chances of engaging the largest number of people?

13 Resources

Have all resources available for the work been assessed, considered and valued - including `work equity' by community groups and others? Is there agreement about how those resources are best disposed throughout the work?

14 Management

Through what means will those managing the participation process ensure that the manner in which work is handled creates a sense of trust within the community about the fairness and neutrality of the process?

15 Resolution

Has there been consideration at an early stage of the manner in which the many views and ideas emerging from the participation process are assembled, weighted and used in relation to reaching any decisions? In particular, who will do this?

16 Going forward

Has thought been given to how practice should be evaluated in retrospect and time given, for all parties, to consider how best to take forward the lessons learned into subsequent involvement activity?
..... and finally:

17 Context

What general support is there from your organisation, is the time right to be doing this, are there any specific 'windows of opportunity' you can use to get things going? Where are the enemies and the barriers likely to come? Can you influence any of these?

This question set was supplied by consultants BDOR.

Guidelines and How to...