The magazine Regeneration and Renewal is running a one-day conference next month on Community Consultation and Participation, and I was a bit tempted until I saw the cost and - even more important - the format.
Maybe I could persuade the organisers to let me in at the nonprofit rate of £211.50 instead of the full £468.83. But then I looked at the programme, and wondered how much benefit I could get from something that's all about engagement but will, as far as I can judge, be delivered from the platform.
As you can see from the programme, the topics are very relevant to today's challenges in urban and rural neighhbourhoods, and the speakers impressive. I just wonder how far they can get across to the audience the day-to-day realities of their work in 25 minute plenary presentation slots. There are some workshops, but they look presentational too.
As I've written in other items I think that on the ground effective participation takes place when power holders (like those attending the conference) are open and honest about their plans, engage with people in ways that work for them, and negotiate ways forward that bring benefits for all. That means getting to know each other, building trust, and definitely conversing rather than presenting.
The assumption behind conventional conferences is that these values, attitudes and skills can be transmitted to the audience by one-way talk and slides, and that they will then be able to translate those lessons into ideas and actions they can apply in their work.
That may be the case for, perhaps, accounts, lawyers or engineers picking up the latest 'hard' professional facts and tips. I don't think that it is generally best when the issue is how people can collaborate, and organisations can work together. The case studies usually go over people's heads and the useful stuff happens in the coffee and meal breaks when the 'real' stories are told.
The conference format and attendance is likely to reinforce the misconception that effective participation can be achieved by learning a set of techniques and models from 'people like us'.... those who can afford to attend. It can too easily help underpin the attitude that consultation and participation is something that professions 'do to' other people.... ' the community'. Another example of the dissonance between preaching and practising.
How different the conference would be if the audience were a mix of professionals and people living and working in regeneration neighbourhoods, and the format encouraged conversations about what works (or doesn't) for all parties. Or even if there more flexibility, small group work and opportunity for, well, participation.
The problem there is that those wanting to attend might not be able to convince their managers that it was 'really serious'; the organisers couldn't charge as much; and the design would involve rather more than dividing the time up into presentations, workshops and breaks.
Of course, if the organisers had asked me to do the keynote I could have set them all straight....