Many people’s experience of ‘public participation’ (often but not always in planning) leaves them unhappy and dissatisfied. I don’t suppose it is any consolation to know that many planners feel the same way! My own experience (30 years in local government and another 10 years on the outside looking in), leads me to the conclusion that in part this is because while there are some people in local government who wish the public would go away and let them get on with their job, they are in a minority, many of the rest just see public involvement as a chore to be got through.
When you are on the receiving end of some decision however – and it doesn’t matter if that decision is a new street light outside your bedroom window or the closure of your local hospital – you don’t see it that way. When a decision has an impact on you, you want to know – indeed you have the right to know – how a decision was arrived at and why. Even more importantly you want the chance to influence that process. Effective participation is not a simple technical issue for your local council or health services planner to deal with. It is more – much, much more – than knowing how to use PowerPoint and making sure there are enough cups of tea available when you book the local village hall for a meeting.
Councillors and MPs will say to you that they are elected to take decisions. They are right as far as it goes, but that view hides a very big assumption about the degree to which power and control in society should be concentrated, who sets the agenda, who decides which decisions are needed and which are important. This is a political and philosophical question that has no simple answer. It is a question that goes to the heart of discussions about the format and continued relevance of representative democracy, about devolution and indeed about participation.
To make progress we have to recognise that terms like ‘participation’, ‘involvement’, even ‘public’ are not neutral.
Programmes for social inclusion, community cohesion, civil renewal and regeneration operate at two levels: that of the official policies, targets and consultancy speak; and that of the people living in communities being studied, renewed and evaluated. The easy option for public bodies is to stay in the comfortable setting of the first levels – but more is likely to happen if they support ways of doing things that are part of the second.
Decisions about new housing development, hospitals, even street lights, made purely from the perspective of the organisation responsible for delivering them will be at risk of failure or at best mediocrity.
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.
A great deal of work has been done on techniques. This site http://www.communityplanning.net/ has lots of practical and sensible advice on a range of community involvement tools organised around typical situations facing a local group. Here for example is the section on Town Centres. http://www.communityplanning.net/scenarios/town_centre_upgrade.php
From there you can move to more detailed descriptions of tools like the ‘Open House Event’ http://www.communityplanning.net/methods/open_house_event.php
In practice though, all these tools and techniques are meaningless unless there is a real intention on the part of the relevant organisation making the proposal to listen but more importantly to start talking before they have made their own mind up. It is fatal to say – as one leaflet I received recently effectively did – “we are not doing any more consultation until we have decided on our proposals”.
This sort of approach is often justified – although rarely in public! – by pointing to the complexity of the decisions and arguing that they are beyond the capacity of members of the public because they won’t have the background information, or by suggestions that because everyone will have their own contradictory view it is pointless to ask in the first place.
The first is of course nonsense – and insulting to boot. Councillors and MPs regularly take decisions on matters for which they have no professional training. More to the point if the public at large don’t have the background information it is reasonable to ask why this is so.
The second is equal nonsense. Anyone attending a meeting of any sort will know that a variety of opinions will be expressed and that eventually an agreement will be reached. The situation is no different in the artificial framework of a council committee than it is in a public meeting in your local village hall.
“bottom-up, active participation and collective action is exhausting. It takes time, energy and perseverance. Not everyone who opts to take part is strong and resilient. They may have been struggling with hardship all their lives. Community leaders and other activists are under relentless pressure. They have no supervision, despite working in complex human systems, often with people with extensive personal difficulties. They have no colleagues to share the load when the going gets tough, no working hours, time off or holidays and no development activities built into the role. Also they do not get paid.”
Even so getting the ‘public’ to get actively involved is difficult:
Part of this difficulty is I believe because the professionals running the process tend to see things in terms of conventional formal structures – committees, meetings and more meetings. Local community activists want to see things happen and get frustrated when they are presented with endless meetings that seem to go nowhere. (Sometimes they don’t – interminable meetings are a good tactic for wearing down the opposition!) They want the chance to have their say and can be intimidated by formal committee procedures. Committees are not good places to think out loud or to have conversations.
What’s needed is ways to offer people information, help them communicate and collaborate, tell their stories, get organised – and make their voice heard when something comes up that concerns them. This could be done in large part by mapping the many networks and communities of interest on the estate: friends and families, sports, hobby and church groups, school and work networks. From this is it possible find the natural ‘connectors’ in communities, see where the gaps may be, and develop or enhance channels for communication and engagement.
Ah, said one of the officers, sort of going with the grain of the community, instead of trying to impose more structures? Treat people as individuals instead of consultation fodder. Exactly.
In a related article on the same web site, David talks about the need for ‘more conversations, less committees’ – which seems a worthwhile aim in any context!
(based on an article originally written for the Wiltshire Federation of Community Area Partnerships Newsletter in 2007)