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by Ben Fleming

edited by Phil Bartle, PhD

Participation doesn't always lead to empowerment. It takes a supportive environment in which to nurture people's aspirations and skills for empowerment to ultimately occur. Some means of achieving this are:

  • 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/li>
  • 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! (from «The Guide to effective Participation» by David Wilcox)

Ten Key Ideas about Participation

1. Level of participation

Sherry Arnstein (1969) described a ladder of participation with eight steps. Briefly, these are: 1 Manipulation and 2 Therapy. Non participative. The aim is to cure or educate the participants. The proposed plan is best and the job of participation is to achieve public support by public relations. 3 Informing. A most important first step to legitimate participation. But too frequently the emphasis is on a one way flow of information. No channel for feedback. 4 Consultation. Attitude surveys, neighbourhood meetings and public enquires. But a window dressing ritual. 5 Placation. Co-option of hand-picked 'worthies' onto committees. 6 Partnership. Power redistributed through negotiation between citizens and power holders. Planning and decision-making responsibilities are shared. 7 Delegated power. Citizens holding a clear majority of seats on committees with delegated powers to make decisions. Public now has the power to assure accountability of the program to them. 8 Citizen Control. Have-nots handle the entire job of planning, policy making and managing a program.

2. Initiation and process

Participation doesn't just happen, it is initiated. Someone then manages a process over time, and allows others involved some control over what happens. The process is described during four phases: Initiation - Preparation - Participation - Continuation.

3. Control

The initiator is in a strong position to decide how much control for. This decision is equivalent to taking a stand on the ladder - or adopted a stance about the level of participation.

4. Power and Purpose

Understanding participation involves understanding power: the ability of the different interests to achieve what they want. Power will depend on who has information and money. It will also depend on people's confidence and skills. Many organizations are unwilling to allow people to participate because they fear loss of control. However, there are many situations when working together allows everyone to achieve more than they could on their own. These represent the benefits of participation.

5. Role of the facilitators

Facilitators control much of what happens. It is important they constantly think about the part they are playing.

6. Stakeholders and Community

A stakeholder is anyone who has a stake in what happens. Who will be affected by any project, who controls the information, skills and money needed, who may help and who may hinder?. Everyone affected does not have an equal say. Use the ladder to think about who has most influence.

The community which participates depends on the project as different people are interested in different issues.

7. Partnership

Useful when a number of different interests willingly come together formally or informally to achieve some common purpose. The partners don't have to be equal in skills, funds or even confidence, but they do have to trust each other and share some commitment. Building trust and commitment takes time.

8. Commitment

Commitment is the other side of apathy: committed people want to achieve something, apathetic don't. But what leads to commitment? Not telling people "You ought to care," inviting them to public meetings or bombarding them with glossy leaflets. People care about what they are interested in, and become committed when they feel they can achieve something. Hard selling won't achieve that. If people are apathetic about your proposals, it may simply be that they don't share your interests or concerns.

9. Ownership of ideas

People are most likely to be committed to carry something through if they have a stake in the idea, or allow people to say "We thought of that." In practice that means running brainstorming workshops, helping people think through the practicality of ideas, and negotiating with others a result which is acceptable to as many people as possible. Apathy is directly proportional to the stake people have in ideas and outcomes.

10. Confidence and capacity

Putting ideas into practice depends on people's confidence and skills. Many participation processes involve breaking new ground. It is unrealistic to expect individuals or small groups suddenly to develop the capability to make complex decisions and become involved in major projects. They need training or the opportunity to learn formally and informally, to develop confidence, and trust in each other.

Taken from The Guide to effective Participation. by David Wilcox: http://www.partnerships.org.uk/guide/index.htm

Return to Participatory Assessment and Research mobilizer's training document. See also Gaining Community Ownership

© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
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Last update: 2012.06.08

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