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Words such as Involvement, Consultation and Participation are often used interchangeably but it is important to be clear what kind of process you are planning.

  • Involvement is a general term, covering all the ways in which local people take part in discussions and planning.
  • Consultation occurs when people are asked for their views about a proposal or a project that someone else has developed, or about a service they are using.
  • Participation occurs when people are invited to be involved in planning and developing a project and can help shape it from the start. They may also be invited to help manage the work.

Giving residents a say in matters that affect where they live is simple common sense. They know the real problems and may well have ideas on how to deal with them. It makes sense also for local people to know why participation is happening, and to understand what may be expected of them.

Effective participation is more than just good sense. It can have very specific benefits for developers as well as for communities. While involving people may take time and money, but it can also enable:

  • processes to be speeded up;
  • resources to be used more effectively;
  • product quality and feelings of local ownership to improve;
  • added value to emerge;
  • confidence and skills to increase for all; and
  • conflicts to be more readily resolved.
    (‘Effective participation’ Department of the Environment in 1994)

Working in a tower block has problems and advantages. The problems often relate to people feeling that have been ignored and treated badly by the landlords for years. The advantages are that you know who you need to consult with and (mostly) where they live. It’s easy to send a letter direct to every flat. But do bear in mind that a major refurbishment may also affect people who live nearby and also people who work in and around the block and manage the services.

Problems with participation

Effective participation does happen but participation processes are often ineffective. They don’t give people an adequate opportunity to talk, they don’t pay much attention to the ideas that come forward, and they don’t seem to change anything. As a result people feel they have given their time and energy for nothing. They may feel unhappy or angry and they are less likely to get involved in a similar process in the future.

Participation fails for many reasons that include:

  • a lack of adequate resourcing;
  • a lack of time, and
  • a lack of trust in the process.

Lack of money and resources
Effective participation takes time and costs money. There should be a clear budget, people to run the process, and the budget should be made clear to those being asked to participate.

The RIBA Community Architecture Group suggests that, as a guideline, 1% of the total cost of any development should be allocated for participation in the design and development process. This should be identified in the budgets just as any other activity would be.

Lack of expertise
Those running participation programmes often lack experience and expertise. Just as no-one would be asked to design a house without training, so anyone responsible for community participation should be trained. They should know how to select the right techniques, how to run the process, how to deal with problems that may arise, and how to encourage people to get involved.

Lack of trust
If you are working in a block with many problems and high resident turnover there is likely to be little trust in the process at the start. There’s no easy way to overcome this, but work with any existing resident group – they at least are likely to be prepared to help get things moving.


Tools and techniques for participation

If there are only a few people involved in a process, and it concerns a well-defined issue, then all that may be needed is to sit down together for a few hours. However issues are usually more complicated than that. For this reason a range of special techniques have developed. These are all designed to make the process more effective by encouraging people to say what they really want and think. Theses processes are often run by an independent facilitator. ‘Action Planning’ by Nick Wates (Prince of Wales Institute of Architecture, 1996) remains one of the best guides to techniques.

Most of these techniques can be seen as tools that help people work together. It is always important that the right tool is used for each situation, and that the person running it knows how to use the tool properly.


Making participation work - 12 steps to a successful process.

The guidelines should help anyone launching and running a participative process.
1. Good participation takes time and money. Plan well in advance: work out what resources are needed (staff time, printed materials, room use, expenses etc.) and produce a clear budget. If you can’t get the budget you want, scale the plans down – don’t start something you can’t finish.
2. Work out what techniques may be most appropriate. Seek advice from other people or organisations.
3. Work out who the key groups to involve are. Work with any existing group to make sure that all the relevant people are invited.
4. Identify groups with special needs (e.g. young people, ethnic minority groups, disabled people) and plan ways to encourage them to take part.
5. Send out the information / invitations well in advance, and include enough relevant information so that people can see why what you’re planning is important. Circulate publicity material widely especially where you think stakeholders will see it (foyers, community centres etc.)
6. Meet with existing community leaders in advance of the first public event. Take notice of their concerns and involve them in planning that event.
7. If this is a major development make sure that the key people involved come to the first public event (architects, planners, heads of regeneration agencies, senior councillors etc). Make sure that all relevant documentation is available.
8. Invite interested groups and individuals to help form an advisory group or steering committee for the process if appropriate.
9. Be open and frank at all times. If there are problems explain them as fully as possible. People are far more likely to help solve problems if they think people are being open and honest.
10. Make sure that all events are well publicised, that good clear minutes are taken and are circulated to everyone involved (not just those who attend that meeting).
11. Be clear about what happens after the end of the public participation phase, and make it clear when it does end. Use the last meeting to review the process and agree the key issues that have arisen.
12. If there is a decision to be made then make sure that participants know when and by who that decision is being made. Let everyone who gave their time and energy know what decision was made and why.


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