A colleague of mine said the other day that "there's more policy directives on community participation than ever before, and more toolkits and consultants ... but somehow it feels as if things are getting worse and people are engaging less". The fact that "try harder" isn't working for participation comes up quite a bit in conversations I have with people in the field - and now there's some research that seems to confirm that, and help explain why.
The question now is: how much more research do we need? What do we do about it?
First the research: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have just published Effective participation in anti-poverty and regeneration work and research, by Peter Beresford and Martin Hoban, with these key findings:
* Powerlessness is central to people's experience of poverty and disadvantage. Conventional bureaucratic and managerial 'top-down' approaches to participation have very limited success.
* Existing experience identifies barriers to people's participation at four levels: personal; political and institutional; economic and cultural; and technical. All need to be addressed for participation to work.
* People are much more likely to get involved in work if they have a strong sense that something tangible and worthwhile will come out of it.
* Supporting independent organisations which people themselves develop and control, at local level and beyond, is a vital building block for effective participation.
* Capacity building to develop people's confidence, self-esteem and understanding supports their empowerment and participation. It is not the same as skill development to equip people to work in the way that agencies traditionally work.
* Such capacity building is particularly helpful in encouraging diverse involvement and ensuring the participation of black and minority ethnic groups.
The authors looked at a number of participatory initiatives relating to poverty and place. They report:
A common theme to emerge from all of these activities was the importance of people working together and developing their own discussions. Linked to this was the value of creating a relaxed and enjoyable experience for participation. Some initiatives provided opportunities for learning and skill development. These were more concerned with 'learning by doing' rather than a formal process of 'training'. They were based on personal reflection, sharing personal and group experiences and concerns, and group working and discussion. As one study reported:
"People living in poverty have been taught to believe their opinions don't count, they may need to go through a long process before feeling confident in articulating their views."
And they add, under Common barriers:
A key message to emerge was that people are only likely to participate when they believe that there may be a positive experience and outcome for them around the issues they are most concerned with. Additional obstacles are created by people's day-to-day struggle for survival, the effort much involvement takes – "it felt like swimming against the tide," as one person said – and many people's long-term sense of powerlessness.
Reflecting on Key lessons:
The participatory initiatives studied highlight both problems arising from traditional ways of doing things and approaches which seem to work. It was widely felt that participation was more often used as a tool to achieve outcomes which had largely been decided already. As a result people's experience was often neither enjoyable nor empowering. Thus participation can actually add to poor people's sense of powerlessness, which one project concluded was 'at the root of poverty' and disadvantage.
The authors then follow up with a number of routes out of inequalities of power, including: Starting with people's own perceptions and experiences; The importance of grassroots organisations; Principles for working together; Including all voices and perspectives....and recommendations for Supporting success. These include: Recognising the importance of capacity building; Reaching out to people rather than expecting them to respond; Starting where people are....
I'm pretty much with the analysis and recommendations, but can't avoid a sense of deja vu. A search for participation topics on the JRF site will reveal a wealth of former research with similar lessons. There's a lot of work around for consultants in community participation, and a lot of work for researchers looking at whether it has worked or not. I've done a few jobs in the field myself and a guide for JRF.
I think we have now reached the point where we question whether to carry on researching and doing things the same old ways, or pause and look at something different.
Conversations with facilitators and consultants that I talk to run along these lines:
Of course we believe that people should have more say, and in ways that work for them. We want to try different methods. However, most of the jobs are done on a tender basis, so you have to put in a proposal that fits the preconceptions of the client.
Once you get started, you often find the problem lies more with the clients - the institutions - than with the public. They haven't got their act together with other agencies, have impossible timescales, and have to meet targets imposed by central government. Community engagement is just another hurdle to get through.
When you talk to people on the ground they are cynical about the exercise, because they know what's happening on the other side of the fence. If their group is getting a grant they'll keep quiet. If not, they may have a bit of fun by being difficult. It isn't an easy climate in which to get real engagement. People just don't trust politicians and their institutions... and they often aren't wrong.
I can't see any reason why institutions and the people that they hire should start making any changes. The good news over the past few years is that government has put lots more funding into supporting community and voluntary organisations - and consultants. The bad news is that most people are now on the payroll and so won't make a fuss. We're all colluding in a system that leads to the problems the recent research sets out so well.
After the sort of conversation I've synthesised above, I sometimes suggest that we should write something like "The Punters Guide to Participation". It would be an other-side-of-the-fence explanation for residents of how to challenge the inadequate participation process too often on offer. Eyes sparkle for a moment, and then dull. It would be fun... but could earn a black mark with the Home Office, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and other patrons of participation by toolkit. Better not risk it.
I think it's time for a bit of citizen/consumer power. Help people find their own voice, maybe using social media, as Steve Thompson is in Teesside. Steve's particularly good because he works well on the ground, and also lets us see what's happening by sharing it online. There are other examples around the country. Maybe JRF would like to provide some encouragement by funding research into citizen empowerment by digital media. Now that's something I could bid for....