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Theory to practice

It takes time

Often participation is treated as a limited set of events - a survey, an exhibition, one or two meetings. However, if participation is to be more than superficial consultation it must be treated as a process which takes some time. This section deals with the main phases of participation, and stresses that success depends on careful preparation.

The participation process

The Framework section suggested treating participation as a process which has four main phases:

(Thanks to Allen Hickling for suggesting these phases during a workshop in Glasgow in1993).

Of course, in reality life is never that tidy, and we find that we are pitched into trying to do things without enough planning.

Often it is difficult to see what to do before trying something out, and reflecting on what happened. It may only be then that we find out what the real problem is.

This cycle goes on throughout any process to carry out a project or programme. Participation is no different.

Because participation doesn't run on predetermined tracks it isn't possible to set out a step by step guide - every situation will be different. However there are some key issues which keep cropping up, and some are more important in particular phases. The questions and checklists in this section all relate back to the main question set in the Signposts from theory to practice section.


The process of participation may be triggered in many ways:

  • A campaign of protest may be turned into a more collaborative programme of action.
  • An authority may promote a project.
  • Government may announce funding is available for community-based projects.

Often situations will be messy and unclear, with different people and groups having different views of what is going on. In order to move into a planned process of participation, it is important to start asking some key questions. These will recur in different forms throughout.

An outline agenda

  1. Who is going to champion the process?
  2. Who pays? Who administers? Who convenes ?
  3. What are you trying to achieve through participation?
  4. Who are the key interests in the community?
  5. Who are the key interests within any organisation promoting participation, and what are their attitudes?
  6. What level of participation is likely to be appropriate and acceptable?
  7. How will you know when you have succeeded?

For guidance see the section Guidelines on How to.., and A-Z entries on Aims and objectives, Confidence, Levels of participation, Stakeholders, SWOT.


As these key issues become clearer, it is important to prepare on three fronts:

  • Initial spadework with whoever is promoting the process.
  • Agreeing the approach with key interests.
  • Developing a strategy.

Most experienced facilitators and trainers agree that 80% of successful participation lies in preparation - so don't skimp on it .

Spadework with the promoter

In my experience the toughest problems in participation processes do not stem from apathy, ignorance or lack of skills among residents or other community interests. Given time and effort these can be worked through.

The most intractable problems arise because organisations promoting participation aren't clear about what they want to achieve, are fearful of sharing control, and seldom speak with one voice.

Unless these issues are tackled at the outset they are likely to lead to frustration, conflict and disillusion further down the line.

The key issue is, what does the promoting organisation want from the participation process? The most common goals are:

  • Improving the quality of the outcome - the project or programme.
  • Developing the capabilities of the participants.
  • Building working relationships of benefit for the future.
  • Increasing ownership and the acceptability of the outcome.

In preparing a participation process it is important to consider the mix of these desired goals, and whether they are they realistic. In particular, is there the internal commitment within the organisation to bring them about? A group of experienced practitioners who discussed these issues at the Gorbals workshop in November 1993, developed the following checklist.

The internal agenda

  • What does the organisation want to achieve from the participation process?
  • What are the boundaries of the task? What is fixed, and what is still open?
  • What level of participation is appropriate with the different outside interests?
  • Can the organisation respond to the outcomes of the process or are they intending to manipulate the participants towards pre-determined outcomes?
  • What is the `real' agenda? Are there any hidden agendas?
  • What is the history of the issues, and what are the positions of the various parties?
  • Who owns the process within the organisation? Is there more than one owner and if so how will this be managed?
  • Are the senior officers and politicians prepared to make a public commitment and to be accessible to the participants?
  • Who is involved internally? Have they got their internal act together? Are they really committed to the process? Will they stick at it when the going gets tough?
  • What resources are available? How much time is there?
  • How does this measure up to the support or involvement expected by community interests?

If you are acting as the manager of the participation process it is important that the internal `client' understands, agrees and values your role.

In order to achieve this understanding it is a good idea to apply participation techniques to the internal process with the client After this experience they are more likely to understand the techniques you use and support you when you apply them externally.

Understanding key interests

Before starting the formal processes of producing leaflets, calling meetings or running workshops it is important to understand who's who and what outcomes they may be looking for. Here's a checklist of some of the early tasks and issues:

  • Consider the potential obstacles to participation, for example: rigid views, authoritarian cultures, grudges and antagonisms, passive and hard-to-reach interest groups, NlMBYs (Not in My Back Yard), professionals and technicians with poor communication skills, groups defending perceived power and status, or lacking the confidence, skills, or knowledge to participate. How will these be managed?
  • Meet the key agencies and lobbies. Get out and network formally and informally. Open new lines of communication. Meet one-to-one when possible to encourage candid responses.
  • There are four main groups of participants: politicians; decision makers and resource holders; activists; and ordinary people. How will you get beyond the (often self-appointed) activists? How will you pro-actively involve hard-to-reach groups?
  • Not everyone has an equal stake: build in different levels of involvement for different levels of commitment. Not everyone needs to be involved in every issue at every level and at every stage.
  • Help the parties decide how their representatives will relate to their constituencies.
  • Research the availability of additional resources. Bring potential funders into the process.
  • Get back to the client and gain assent to the process design.

Agreeing the approach - a strategy

After discussions with the internal client and external interests, you should be able to develop a strategy for the participation process. The precise nature of the strategy will, of course, depend upon circumstances and the level of participation sought with different interests. These issues are dealt with in more detail in the `How to...' section. Here are some of the main points to cover:

Strategy checklist

As far as possible gain agreement of all parties to the following:

  • The aims of the process and how progress will be evaluated.
  • The `feel' of the process: the style and tone.
  • The groupings, forums and decision cycles to be employed.
  • Precisely what authority is being delegated to whom.
  • The appropriate approaches and techniques, taking into account time scale, objectives, resources, openness of information sharing etc.
  • The ground-rules: how are we going to deal with each other?
  • The resources available and any conditions attached.
  • The technical and administrative services available.
  • The mechanisms for recording and disseminating information.
  • The level of support and resources to be made available.

Some of these issues may have to evolve with the process: it may not be possible to agree everything at the start. If it seems worth the risk, you may just have to get some action off the ground and work out the details as you go along. You should also:

  • Bear in mind that people have limited patience and attention spans: how will you deal with long lead times?
  • Be sure everyone understands the constraints: what the process will not achieve for them. Unrealistic expectations can only lead to disillusionment.
  • Be realistic about what can be achieved with the time and resources available.

See also items in the A-Z on Action plans, Budgets for participation, Communication, Workshops.


During this phase you will be running events, producing printed materials and using a range of methods. The Guidelines on How to... section and A-Z items provide detailed guidance.

The following are some of tips which emerged from brainstorming sessions with experienced practitioners about this phase of the process:

  • Don't underestimate people. Give them tools to manage complexity don't, shield them from it.
  • Divide the issues into bite-sized chunks.
  • Start with people's own concerns and the issues relevant to them. Don't superimpose your own ideas and solutions at the outset.
  • Help people widen their perceptions of the choices available and to clarify the implications of each option.
  • Build in visible early successes to develop the confidence of participants. `Staircase' skills, trust and commitment to the process: offer a progressive range of levels of involvement and help people to move up the ladder.
  • Direct empowerment training for participants may not be appreciated - it may be better to develop skills more organically as part of the process.
  • If at all possible, avoid going for a comprehensive irreversible solution. Set up an iterative learning process, with small, quick, reversible pilots and experiments.
  • Continuously review and widen membership. As new interests groups are discovered how will they be integrated into the process?
  • Help people to build their understanding of complex and remote decision processes which are outside the delegated powers of the participation process but which are affecting the outcomes.
  • Nurture new networks and alliances.
  • Plans must be meaningful and lead to action.
  • Manage the link between the private ability of the various interest groups to deliver on their commitments and the public accountability and control of the implementation.
  • Build in opportunities for reflection and appraisal.
  • Make sure people are having fun!

Continuation - keeping going

The final phase in a participation process. By this time it should be clear how any agreed proposals are going to be taken forward. How this is done will depend very much on the level of participation.

At one level - of consultation - you may have worked through some prepared options with different interests and then agreed to take the results away for evaluation and implementation.

At another level - working together - you may be setting up new partnership organisations.


  • Did we achieve what we set out to do in the process?
  • Were the key interests happy with the level of involvement?
  • Have we reported back to people on the outcomes?
  • Are responsibilities clear for carrying projects forward?
  • Are there major lessons we can learn for the next time?


Groups and organisations, like relationships, go through recognisable stages. The early stages have been described as:

  • Forming: coming together as a group, getting to know each other, deciding what the group's concerns and emphases should be.
  • Storming: coming to terms with differences within the group.
  • Norming: agreeing objectives, priorities, procedures, ways of relating to each other.
  • Performing: getting on with the work, without having to spend a lot of time and energy deciding what needs doing and how it should be done.

All of this is difficult enough in a group which meets frequently, or in a formal organisation. It should be no surprise that it is even more complex in a participation process when so many different interests have to find a common vision. Don't be discouraged!

The next section: Signposts from theory to practice