Put all of us first: Participation


The best plans, polices and actions in the world, no matter how perfectly formed, can fall flat on their face if the people who will be affected by them are not involved in the process of making them.

Human behaviour is a strange and not fully predictable thing. Some people spend their whole lives researching us, how we act, how we think, how we shop, how we behave, and even they cannot fully predict how we will react to a given situation. (Eat your cereal, after all “tested really well” in the focus groups, didn’t it?)

Anyone involved in advertising, market research, management, political activism, public health, or overseas aid/development, amongst many other fields, will know the value of involving your constituent members in any process that will affect them. Indeed, it is ‘participatory’ democracy itself that has been reawakened in the last two years with the referendum being the initial focal point, but which seems set to continue long after as we all refuse to go back to our collective sofas.

Why? Because participation first of all produces better decisions. (Like scrapping that big new women’s super prison idea … thanks WomenForIndy and many others for campaigning, and thanks Mr Matheson for listening.)  No individual has an infinite supply of knowledge. Involving others in developing a policy means gaining multiple perspectives and the expertise of the many.

Secondly, even ‘good’ policies that do directly benefit people can be rejected out of hand when it feels as if they are imposed from outside, or handed down from above, or if those who would benefit simply feel it is inappropriate to their context.

Nothing about us, without us” is the mantra of the G7+ for example – a group of so-called ‘fragile’ states who got sufficiently tired of donor countries and aid organisations dictating to them how, when and why they should ‘develop’, that they got organised and pushed back. (Leading to the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States amongst other things.) The dialogue continues, and is far from over, and rich country organisations who think they know best how other countries should be run, alas, continue to receive considerable funding, publicity and donor approval.

But the principle is clear: if we do not involve people who will be affected by a policy in the development of that policy, we are not putting All Of Us First.

There are a whole range of tools and methods for enabling participation. From quick and superficial exercises like some online opinions polls and telephone surveys, to more in depth community meetings or focus groups, and even “participatory action research” to meaningfully engage with less visible and more marginalised groups in society. More on all of those another time.

Simply put, no matter how difficult it is to involve a particular group of people, where there is a will (and an open mind) there is a way.

Research methods, however, are full of risks of getting it wrong. Researchers might only listen to the things they want to hear, or subconsciously filter what they hear through their own experiences of gender, colour, ability and class. And those responding to questions about their contexts may at times give the answers they think the researchers want to hear; or at other times give whatever answer they think is most appropriate to ensure their own safety and survival.

“Truth” is as elusive a subject in research as it is anywhere else; but there are tried and tested means of increasing objectivity – such as helping researchers become aware of their own biases, preconceptions and presuppositions before they start; understanding how we frame questions; training people in how to ‘actively listen’; and building trust and respect between communities over time so that we can do research with people, rather than research about or on people.