Lee Bryant has now blogged a chapter we co-authored for Involve on how the latest web tools may help us re-think and re-energise public participation. Well, if I'm more honest, Lee took some items I've written over the past few months on that theme, together with much more from his substantial knowledge bank, and crafted a really excellent piece that ranks as the best (yet easiest) bit of work I've ever been credited with. Thanks Lee. Here's the intro.
The participation sector has spawned a large amount of research, methodology, and consulting services, but remarkably little new thinking about how to get better results from consultation and participation exercises. In the late 90’s, the Internet and related technologies were seen as a potential solution to these problems, but the majority of early e-government and e-democracy initiatives have been little more than old thinking disseminated using new media. However, the outlines of a new approach are beginning to take shape that draws on recent thinking in online social networks and the emerging culture of the World Wide Web to offer some lessons for the future.
Most research into why participation is not generating the hoped-for results and levels of engagement points to three key groups of issues:
- Conventional 'top-down' approaches to participation do not overcome the feeling of powerlessness that many participants experience, nor the political, economic, cultural and technical barriers to participation.
- People are much more likely to get involved if they think something tangible and worthwhile will come out of it, which is why it is better to support independent organisations run by people themselves.
- Capacity building to support empowerment and participation is lacking, especially among excluded groups - but this does not mean turning people into professional service users.
At the heart of these issues is the question of power and where it lies. Regardless of the quality of techniques employed or facilitation provided, if a participation exercise consists of a powerful body (e.g. a government department) inviting limited submissions on pre-determined questions from the disempowered, then the power imbalance built into the consultation will cast doubt on the results. Power is derived most obviously from being able to choose and frame the questions and the type of language used; but it is also important to consider who is asking the questions, when and how they are asked, and of course who can answer.