People and Participation

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People and Participation. By Involve.

Available at


Excerpt from a review by James Burke at

""People & Participation is the first publication of Involve, a new organisation focused on the practical issues of making public participation work. There have been many books and pamphlets about democratic reform. What is unusual about this publication is that it provides much needed practical detail, drawing on the experiences of over a hundred practitioners who have used new methods to involve the public in issues ranging from local planning to nanotechnology. Its starting point is that deepening and strengthening democracy depends on success in learning lessons about why some kinds of participation lead to better and more legitimate decisions, while others do not. The book shows that greater public involvement can greatly help in addressing some of our most pressing problems and countering the risks of distrust and alienation. But it also warns that too much participation today is superficial, an exercise in ticking boxes as opposed to good democratic governance, or is used to to justify decisions that have already been made. Participation works best when people feel that they can make a difference, when they have the time to fully engage with the issues and when there is a healthy relationship of mutual respect with elected representatives. It works worst when it is rushed, ill-informed and vague about the links to formal decision-making, or when it allows the loudest voices to dominate. There are no simple formulae or ‘off the shelf’ solutions to improving participation. Nor is participation a panacea – turning government into a permanent public meeting can get in the way of making difficult decisions. But in general, wider involvement is good for public organisations, improves their relationships with the public and reduces the risk of bad mistakes. As the book shows, there are some clear lessons to be learned about the methods that are more or less likely to work in different circumstances, and we are lucky in the UK in that there are now very many people with the experience and the enthusiasm to make participation work. It is rarely easy or natural for big institutions to open themselves up. But a more educated and demanding public is no longer willing to sit on the sidelines watching passively while the big decisions affecting their lives are made by politicians, experts and officials. We live in a democracy where political authority still resides, rightly, with elected politicians. But any democratic vision which stops at that point, and allows parties and politicians to monopolise discussion and decision making, is unlikely to be very legitimate – or very robust when the going gets tough. To their credit, hundreds of public agencies have taken the lead in trying to involve the public more actively. The priority now is to build on that experience and to build confidence that public involvement can lead to better, and more legitimate, decisions." "Too often, discussion of participation begins and ends with identifying methods. One-off events or individual methods are an important element of participatory processes, but they are only one part. Methods have probably become the main focus for people’s participatory working because they are the front-line for interaction, the ‘set piece’ in which institutions come face to face with those they seek to involve. But as with all front lines, their effectiveness is determined almost wholly by the quality of the planning that precedes such action, especially the planning of how to handle the results from that interaction (the products and wider outcomes), and how to link the initiative with wider decision-making processes and systems, particularly in democratic institutions such as local government. Specific methods thus form just one part of the overall participatory process, which will also need to take into account purpose and context." (