(8) Enabling effective participation for learning and decision making

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

On this point it seems to me that for resilience to work, all the involved actors should be actively engaged in some part of the project or decision making process. I believe that enabling effective participatory processes would allow maintaining diversity, redundancy, and continuous learning. You have stated participation as a final building block for resilience.

I would emphasise the word “effective”, when talking about participation as a important building block. Participative processes can also hinder resilience, if done incorrectly. Participation, seen as active engagement of relevant stakeholders in the management or governance process, can play a positive role in supporting transparency, knowledge sharing, trust building, the legitimacy of decisions, and learning.

How does participation looks like in practice in management or governance process?

Participation can range from just informing stakeholders to complete change of power division, occurring in some or all stages of a management process, from identifying problems and goals to implementing policies, monitoring results or evaluating outcomes.

Also, as cooperative and collaborative efforts and participatory approaches have become increasingly popular, stakeholder meetings, engaging different actors in workshop settings, have been part of the process in governance.

And, what is expected from the participants? How can they actually contribute to any project or a decision making process?

Participatory processes generally aim to involve actors who can contribute in some way to the management of a project or decision making process, either by providing their knowledge or services, such as information, specific management practices, funding or political support.

One can say that people have elected their political representatives, and have their scientist to do all that work in project implementation or decision making processes. Why would wider participation be so important?

To answer that question, we’d need to see the problem from the resilience perspective. When maintaining the system’s resilience, we need to identify and manage key slow variables and feedbacks to avoid system thresholds. When we can’t avoid them, we need to facilitate systemic transformations.

Understanding slow variables and feedbacks comes from monitoring and reporting changes, and then steering the strength of feedbacks between drivers and impacts on the system.

That can only be done in the environments where knowledge and monitoring exist, and that information comes from the involved actors, with a special emphasis on the local actors. Before, during and after implementing any development project, the success doesn’t come without understanding the local circumstances, and those can only be found out from the local actors.

Therefore designing governance processes that are able to act on knowledge about key feedbacks and slow variables in SES is critical.

Still, you seemed very careful when glorifying participation as a ultimate solution. Why is that? How can participatory process be destructive?

I do think that participation can contribute to enhanced resilience of any project or decision making process. The fact is that accomplishment of enhanced resilience stands on three pillars: the participants, the quality of the participation process, and the social and institutional environment. These factors are interdependent and also context-dependent and, if not well understood, participation can undermine or compromise resilience.

Can you talk about most common negative effects of participation on resilience that we should be aware of?

First that comes to mind is that participation can allow some stakeholders to use their influence at the expense of others, by increasing their power or influence within the system. That is how they mask their personal agendas as a public interest.

Other negative outcome is when participation creates such a high connectivity among different actors in the system, that they start to use the same information gained through those new links, what can result in single mindedness and narrow perspective when approaching the problem. When those new links are created by a source that have their one agenda, to high connectivity can become their invisible and powerful weapon.

Not the other hand, I have witnessed another negative impact of participation with too many participatory schemes. That also leads to degradation of the resilience, community experiences ‘consultation fatigue’ and in that way easily loses the direction.

There is also one unfortunate process that acts, in my opinion, almost as a default in our decision making processes. There is a tendency for the scientists to do the research first, or governmental agencies to develop the agenda first, and then present it to the different groups to incorporate them in already established frameworks. When problem needing collaboration moves into the public arena, stakeholders are already “stuck" in polarised positions, and any real negotiation is almost impossible.

I’m sure you can think of many examples for that, but I’ll point out as important one the division between rich and left political parties. Those “left” and “right” agendas are pre-packed options, not necessarily in any order that is related to logic or values. But in spite of that, they are served to citizens as, most of the time, only options to choose form.

I see now that participation processes can be powerful tool for both enhancing resilience and manipulating the public voice. What advice would you give to any honest institution creating and leading participatory processes?

If we agree that participation functions mainly as a facilitator for learning and collective decision making and actions, before the process starts, we need clear understanding of who participates, under which conditions participation is appropriate, and how participation takes place.

Goals and expectations should be precisely defined. The ‘right’ people should be involved, motivated leaders and facilitators - and for that we need clear understandings of divisions of influence, knowledge and power. Last but not the least, do not start the participatory process without sufficient resources and skills to enable effective participation.

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