As Involve prepares to close PeopleandParticipation.net in favour of our new platform ParticipationCompass.org, Edward Andersson reflects on the past 5 years and what has changed.
It’s been nearly five years since Involve launched our practitioner site www.peopleandparticipation.net and in a few days time the site will close forever.
It was on the 19th of October 2007 that then Communities Secretary Hazel Blears launched the site as part of the ‘Empowerment Action Plan’. On reflection it has been a good five years; although 2007 feels like a very different time compared to today’s reality. The Government in power was different. The organisations were different (of the three key funders of peopleandparticipation.net -The Sustainable Development Commission, The Ministry of Justice and the Department for Communities and Local Government – one has since folded, one no longer has a remit around democracy and one has seen drastic changes in focus). The budgetary situation was of course vastly different –the operating assumption was that next year’s budget would be bigger than the last.
The buzz word of the day was ‘empowerment’ –the ‘Big Society’ lay three years into the future; Participatory Budgeting was unheard of outside of a few pilot sites and Twitter was a small niche service just over a year old.
Much was different back in 2007 when we set up peopleandparticipation.net, but on the other hand much remains the same. One of these constants is the need that policy makers and Government has for impartial advice around engagement.
Peopleandparticipation.net was one of the first interactive sites which provided people with the ability to find methods that worked for their situation. We’ve since had a number of other good examples like Participedia.
Peopleandparticipation.net has been a great success for the field at large and Involve. We still receive thousands of hits per month and we get a steady stream of positive feedback so it may seem a shame to close the site and redirect the trafic. However over the last years we’ve begun to worry about the site. It was very popular but also beginning to show its age.
The platform it is built on is a wiki –exciting in 2007 but old news in 2012. The design seems a bit old and sadly due to the custom nature of the site the whole thing needed revamping.
The content was also feeling out of date with many case studies referring back to 2007 and earlier. The online community hadn’t really developed in a way where the wiki platform was really useful and the experience of using the site wasn’t great on a mobile device. In 2011 it turned out that due to upgrades to the platform we’d need to invest thousands of pounds in rewriting code in order to keep the sites functionality up and running –an investment just to stand still.
At this point we were approached by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a German Foundation with an interest in democracy who suggested a collaborative venture. Using the information and structure of Peopleandparticipation.net they wanted to create two new German and English language sites. Here we are 8 months later with participationCompass.org.
We launched the English version a few weeks ago and your feedback has been great. There is also a German version.
When it comes to ParticipationCompass.org I am excited by what is new: the mobile app, enhanced video content and real time search; as well as being comforted by what has not changed: the focus on providing impartial advice on Methods, Experts and Resources around participation. See here for a tutorial video.
I will feel some sadness when we pull the plug on peopleandparticipation.net, but I am also excited about the recent launch of ParticipationCompass.org and what we face in future. I can’t help wondering what new platform we’ll be launching in 2017?
The final entry of a three part series, Edward provides a selection of some of the best ‘how to’ guides on engagement and consultation. How To Consult –Great Guides
In two preceding posts I’ve looked at the initial reactions to the Cabinet Office’s new Consultation principles as well as Involve’s take on the new guidance.
Since the new principles are very up front about not being ‘How to’ guidance (they outline the importance of listening to the public but do not tell you how to do it) I thought it would be best if I flag up my pick of the best practical resources for civil servants interested in engagement and consultation. Of course this list of good guides is only indicative; if you know of additional guidance on consultation and engagement please comment below.
A good place to start
I thought I’d start with our new Participation Compass website which was developed in collaboration with the Bertelsmann Foundation. The site contains descriptions of over 30 methods and cases of participation, and links to loads and loads of participatory resources. Participation Compass will contain all the best bits from People and Participation (Our previous and now out of use best practice site) with an interface for a new decade. Participation Compass will even have an App for those of you who need participation information on the go! You can find the original paper publication on which the site is based here: http://www.involve.org.uk/people-and-participation/
Principles for Consultation
Involve developed 9 principles of deliberation (PDF document) with the National Consumer Council a while back; it is a vital resource for understanding the difference between deliberative and other forms of consultation.
The Consultation Institute has developed its Consultation Charter which provides outline good practice principles. These are good resources, but still only provide outline ideas and support. For more detailed support you’ll need to look elsewhere.
Broadening your outlook
A common mistake people make in England is to neglect the great work done in the other parts of the UK. I’ve already mentioned these great Participation Principles from Participation Cymru in Wales.
Communities Scotland have also developed useful National Standards for Community Engagement.
Another useful Scottish resource is this recent toolkit from the Scottish Health Council with a good overview of methods.
For those with an interest in International good practice, the OECD have produced “Citizens as Partners” (PDF document) a Handbook on consultation and engagement.
In my view, Annette Zera has created one of the best practical introductions to creative ways to run meetings. “Getting on Brilliantly” used to be a resource you had to pay for but now it is available for free here and everyone who has to run or design meetings should read it.
Dialogue by Design has produced this “Dialogue Designer” which contains a lot of practical information along with guidance on selecting a good method for your consultation.
For those looking to expand their range of methods Involve’s Not another consultation! Document provides information on how to run events that combine the informality of community fun days with meaningful engagement methods.
For those interested in consulting online there are a number of guides.
One of the best recent ones is The Digital Engagement Guide, developed by Helpful Technology.
New Zealand also has a wealth of experience in online engagement, some of which can be accessed in this guide.
And here is an older, but beautifully designed guide: eDemocracy in Bristol Guide (PDF document).
Guides to Evaluating consultation
RCUK have prepared guidance on how to evaluate public engagement: http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/media/news/2005news/Pages/050323.aspx
Involve also prepared guidelines with Diane Warburton: Making a Difference
Other useful guides
For those civil servants wrestling with the difficult choice of whether or not to pay people to participate, this resource looks at the issue of paying participants.
I’d also like to flag up an American resource (PDF document) which is useful for deliberative approaches.
The National Empowerment Partnership microsite contains numerous briefing papers on engaging with older people, minorities and rural populations.
The former Improvement and Development Agency developed a number of useful guides over the years, including “The ideal empowering authority: an illustrated framework (PDF document)” and “Community Engagement and Empowerment: A Guide for Councillors.” (PDF document)
For those with an interest in Planning the RTPI “Guidelines on Effective Community Involvement and Consultation Good Practice” (PDF document) may be of interest.
The Sciencewise programme has published A “Departmental Dialogue Index” (PDF document) which allows Central Government teams to assess themselves and their Departments to see how they could improve their engagement and consultation.
And finally saving one of the best ones for last Participedia provides a range of in depth information on methods and case studies. The team is led by Academics from Harvard and the quality of information on the site is very high.
The web is awash with good guides to consultation and engagement. Despite this, much consultation misses the mark today. Citizens I speak to about consultation are generally cynical about the very activities that Government undertakes to reduce apathy and disengagement. Clearly the new Consultation principles are important; but they can only be a small part of the solution. We need to increase knowledge and skills, both amongst civil servants, but also amongst stakeholders and citizens.
I’ve shared some of the tools I’ve found valuable through the years. Now I’d be interested to hear which tools you can’t do without? Comment below!
Edward Andersson discusses what digital technology means for engagement and what the strengths and weaknesses are of engaging online. A week ago I gave a talk at Government Digital Services on Digital and face to face engagement. This post is a summary of what I said.
First of all I acknowledge that Involve is different from many others in the digital engagement field; we’re not software producers, we’re not trying to sell software and we focus on engagement as whole rather than digital engagement. Our mission is to make the public sector into better commissioners of dialogue and engagement. I’ll start with the question to what degree digital technology represents a breakthrough?
Two quotes illustrate how differently new technology is interpreted:
“The world is poised on the cusp of an economic and cultural shift as dramatic as that of the Industrial Revolution.”
Steven Levy (Wired journalist)
“The Internet is a telephone system that’s gotten uppity.”
Clifford Stoll (US Author and astronomer)
My view is that both quotes are true, in their own ways. We tend to overestimate changes in the short term (where many people hype up relatively mundane technologies) and underestimate the shifts in the longer term.
There is a tendency among consultants to create artificial distinctions between digital/online engagement and face to face engagement. Human nature is the same in both settings and of course a badly designed online consultation without a clear purpose is just as much a waste of time as a face to face process without a purpose.
I think people get excited about digital for the wrong reasons.
People often think that the key defining characteristics of digital are:
Speed –The internet is making things go faster, but the obvious question is ‘so what?’. The really big qualitative differences in terms of speed of sending messages happened in the 1860s. Nowadays the speed of communication is already faster than human beings can react to.
Scale –The internet does allow a larger number of people to take part than was possible before. It is a great thing but it can also lead people to focus too much on the number of people taking part. Many of the websites or articles which have attracted the most number of hits do so for the wrong reasons; scandals are great for hit rates but not for much else.
Cost–The Internet does have the possibility of reducing the costs of engagement; while this is true it is often oversold by consultants.
There are also very good reasons for shifting to Digital which are often overlooked:
Enabling -Digital technologies allows the third sector and individuals to self-organise and do things that in the past the council would have to do. This opens up tremendous opportunities (if we are willing to give up some control).
Networking –the Internet opens up possibilities of networking people who wouldn’t normally meet, for reasons of time, space and who they are.
Flexible -finally the nature of digital information allows comparison, aggregation, mashing up data, and ability to make it easily accessible. And to make lots of different sorts of outputs which would not be possible using pen and paper.
There are of course areas were online engagement doesn’t work as well as face to face, for example:
But of course it is not an either/or. In many cases face to face and online complement each other; and of course let’s not forget that digital technology can be used in face to face meetings as well.
Adding digital technology to face to face engagement allows:
The award winning Geraldton 2029 process in Western Australia has made use of a wide array of face to face and digital processes in determining the future of the town. 4000 people have been actively involved through world cafés, online surveys, online moderated deliberation, 21st century town hall meetings™, community events to celebrate milestones including BBQs. They have also used the local Newspaper facebook page heavily. What I like about the Geraldton process is how they have understood the strengths of face to face and online and worked with both.
- The Crowdsourced Icelandic constitution has been in the news a lot over the last few months. The Constitutional council has drafted and posted clauses each week open for public comment, and has live streamed their proceedings. The focus has often been on the online elements but it was made possible by in depth face to face deliberation, both from the elected Constitutional Council and a randomly selected national forum.
So to sum up my key points from my presentation:
Edward Andersson considers why it takes a crisis for us to think innovatively about democracy.
With parts of London going up in flame and the Prime Minister cutting his holiday short it seems appropriate to write a blog about crisis and its role in democratic innovation. I wasn’t planning to write about the riots. Instead I wanted to reflect on the Icelandic Constitutional Assembly, a group of 25 elected citizens who have been busy over the past few months drafting what the media is calling ‘the world’s first crowd sourced constitution’.
The Assembly has now handed in their recommended constitution to the Althingi (Icelandic parliament). This has rightly been hailed as a major democratic innovation; Iceland is rapidly establishing itself as a world leader in Open Government and e-Participation. Unlike examples of crowd sourcing we’ve seen elsewhere which have used a simplistic approach (akin to throwing something online, calling for anonymous comments and hoping for the best) the Icelandic Constitutional Assembly has avoided the risk of flame wars and interest group capture by complementing online engagement with face to face deliberation and in depth discussion. Writing a new constitution is serious business and the Icelandic organizers have risen to the challenge admirably.
I would love to see a similar level of inventiveness and boldness from UK policy makers. A similar approach to that taken in Iceland could have made the referendum on electoral reform more meaningful for example. Annie Quick wrote a good piece on why deliberation was vital back then.
The thing is democratic innovation at the moment seems to be largely driven by crisis; game changing innovations follow system shattering events. In Iceland the galvanizing crisis was the financial meltdown in 2008. Known locally as ‘Hrun’ (Icelandic for ‘downfall’) the country found itself owning over ten times its annual GDP, with an almost worthless currency and at the mercy of the IMF. This led to unprecedented uproar in the otherwise stable small nation of 320,000 inhabitants. Protests and demonstrations led to the fall of the government followed by soul searching and a growing realization that something had been systematically wrong in society. This is the background which helps explain Iceland’s efforts to involve citizens in rewriting its constitution. Without the crisis Iceland would probably have muddled through with the constitution they had before.
It is a similar story with many other democratic innovations across the world.
Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre (PDF document), (PDF document) possibly the most quoted (some would argue over quoted) example of democratic innovation in the world. In the celebration over the past decades we easily forget that the innovation only happened in 1989 when city was on verge of bankruptcy. In hindsight politicians are quick to claim that Participatory Budgeting was the result of foresight and genius, whereas at the time it was an act of desperation.
Another rightly celebrated innovation is the 2004 British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on electoral reform. This great example of far reaching deliberation around voting systems only occurred after the 1996 election where the party which won the largest percentage of votes got fewer seats than its main rival and was unable to form a government.
There are also good examples from the UK where long needed innovation only happened after things went badly wrong; for example in 2001 riots in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley led to much needed investment in community cohesion and engagement (hopefully we can expect to see the same thing happen in London post riots). In the same year the general election had a record low turnout which prompted politicians and policy makers to take action on citizenship and democracy. This was an area which had needed attention and investment for a long time, but only received after things clearly went wrong.
So we clearly don’t innovate just because something is important; it has to be urgent as well. Is this a problem? After all, most of us probably procrastinated at school – delaying essays until the night before – and we survived. There’s even a school of thought which celebrates crisis as a driver for change. Rham Emmanuel (Obama’s former chief of staff) famously said “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”.
I think that relying on crisis to provide the impetus for innovation is dangerous and the Obama administration shows why. Buffeted by too many crises that have been allowed to grow too big (including the political gridlock, the downgrade of credit rating and discord around health care reform) the administration is overstretched, underfunded and understaffed. Innovations driven by crisis can be tokenistic, ill conceived and demoralizing.
The wide range of project ideas submitted to NESTA for the Creative Councils programme (PDF document)shows that democratic innovation is alive and well in local government. However, many of these ideas have only become politically possible in the context of the economic crisis, which ironically means that it is hard to fund them. How much more effective could these innovations have been if they had been implemented in a time of economic wealth?
Surely it shouldn’t need to be like this? How do we innovate and democratize without having to see things taken to a crisis point beforehand? There must be a way to pick up on the signals that change is needed before the economy tanks, public trust nosedives or storefronts erupt in flames. Something for me to ponder as I carefully cycle home on streets strewn with crushed glass and shattered trust…
In this economic climate, the value of public engagement needs to be articulated in economic terms. Involve’s toolkit demonstrates that you don’t need specialist skills or knowledge to make the business case for engagement.
Today Involve and Consumer Focus launch our long awaited toolkit for how to make the case for engagement using monetary terms. We’ve had over a hundred people email and ask us for copies before the launch and so we hope that it will be well received. Thank you all for waiting so patiently!
Involve started thinking about the costs and benefits of engagement way back in 2005 (Here’s the original report). Back then there was limited interest; people felt there was little need to justify engagement and participation on economic grounds. Things are very different now. The public sector faces massive cuts across the board. Engagement and consultation are certainly not immune . I know of many posts that have been cut, projects scrapped and organisations that have lost their funding in the field. Making the case for engagement in this environment is difficult. In the past non-monetary benefits were the main arguments for this way of working. Community development workers, youth workers and consultation officers would point out that engagement was good for democracy, good for the self-esteem of the participants and good for social cohesion. Using monetary savings or efficiencies as an argument for a more democratic approach felt wrong. Clearly things have changed. When people are looking high and low for places to cut we cannot shy away from the economic arguments for participation.
The guidebook we launch today is a practical tool for you to make the case for engagement and determine how to measure the value of a project. The document consists of the main report and two excel sheets. One sheet tracks the costs and benefits of a single project and one compares the costs and benefits of two projects with each other.
The toolkit cannot and should not be used to create a false justifcation for projects that do not wokr. What the toolkit allows you to do is to articulate the benefits that you have seen but have lacked the language to speak about in the past.
I’ve had some emails from people who have welcomed the toolkit but worried that it would be difficult and not the toolkit for them. They assume they need specialised education, skills and skills to make this work. I believe that they are wrong and here are my five top tips for how to make the most of the toolkit:
I have been spending a lot of time in Turkey lately, working on projects with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the UNDP. The projects have looked at how citizens can be better involved in local and national decisions. I find that travelling is always an illuminating experience; what at first seems very foreign and different to the UK often ends up shedding new light on work I’m doing back home. So it has been in Turkey, where, despite differences, the future challenges of local democracy aren’t that different after all. Turkey is, much like England, heavily centralised with little room for local decision making.
An interesting case in point is the role of the Muhtar (village headman), an elected post (the closest British equivalent would be parish councillors). Much like parish councillors they are an example both of what is best and worst with democracy at the local level.
On the one hand they are very local and non party political, just like the parish councillors. Despite limited power Muhtars often command a reasonable level of trust in their communities. They are certainly more connected to local residents than the municipal councillors and in part this springs from the fact that the Muhtar role is non-partisan and relatively informal. Any proposals to formalise it or increase their power may undermine these qualities.
On the other hand Muhtars have frustratingly little real power and their role is becoming increasingly irrelevant as some of the tasks they used to perform (administrative duties and census, for example) are now being done remotely via e-government applications. In the worst cases, the post of Muhtar is almost hereditary (with son replacing father), appointed through uncontested elections (with abysmal turnout) and office holder primarily motivated by local prestige. All of these are also criticisms at various points levelled at Parish councillors.
A strange incentive to become a Muhtar is the customary right to carry a gun. In that regard they are quite different from Parish councillors! This is one example of where something which at first sight seemed completely irrelevant to the British case actually turned out to be quite illuminating. The fact that the right to bear arms in some parts of Turkey acts as an incentive to make people stand for office brought home to me the difficulty of dealing with motivations for participation. I was thinking how problematic it is from a British perspective to have armed local representatives and how the prospect of gun ownership might attract the wrong kind of applicant.
Last week I gave a presentation (Together with Richard Wilson from IzWe) for the Home Office and Baroness Newlove, the Government’s Champion for Active, Safer Communities and ended up spending a lot of time talking about what the excellent reports from Pathways through Participation have to say about motivations for participation. I made the point that we need to make sure that the participation gives incentives that tie in to the motivations of citizens and I was challenged by a community activist. She asked why incentives should be necessary at all. Shouldn’t the positive impact on the community be enough on its own? After all that’s why she was involved. There were a lot of nods around the room and many people seemed to be worried that introducing incentives of any kind would lead to the wrong kind of engagement. We often assume that there are good and bad reasons for participating (the good reasons obviously being the ones that compelled us and the bad those that drive our neighbours).
A lot of people find the idea of people participating motivated by personal incentives troubling. In an ideal world everyone would be motivated by doing good for the community rather than personal aggrandisement.
However, I think that assuming that everyone is motivated by the same things is a dangerous path to take. The Campaign Company has done some interesting work looking at what motivates different parts of the population. Clearly for some people (usually those already involved) good deeds are their own reward and they tend to look down on their neighbour who are looking for benefits that accrue to them personally, or indeed those neighbours primarily motivated by negative emotions and fears. Simply discounting these people and their motivations may be good for the sense of moral superiority of the existing activists, but is unlikely to encourage a broader range of people to take part.
Clearly some motivations will always be inappropriate (corruption, racial hatred, etc.), but maybe it is time for all us habitual activists to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror. If we sneer at people who show up for the free food, fancy title or cash incentive; what does that say about us? Because the fact is that people often join in for these reasons, but they end up staying on as activists for very different reasons, the social interactions, the friendships and the sense of local ownership that develops. The trick is to get them in the door in the first place for these social reasons to start playing a role.
So maybe I’m wrong to take exception to people choosing to become Muhtars in Turkey because it comes with status and the right to carry a pistol. Should we worry too much about the initial motive if they end up doing good work and representing their community? It is easy to laugh at the ‘big fish in the small pond’, but maybe we need to abandon our snobbishness and ‘big up’ the offer in order to appeal to some people’s sense of vanity? Should we accept that for some people the gold chain, sitting on prestigious boards, titles (for example being a ‘champion’ or ‘warden’ rather than a ‘volunteer’) and uniforms and tabards and other visual signs of status are very important?
Handing out guns to parish councillors might increase interest in the role, but it is perhaps a step too far. However, the shiny sheriff’s badge might have the same effect. After all, community rehabilitation means making the people who have done something wrong visible to the community, so shouldn’t we be making those who have done something right visible as well?
This blog is a repository for posts I have made over the years at Involve as well as more personal reflections.