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Collective creativity or manipulation of the public voice?

How to avoid four sneaky mistakes in participative planning processes

At this point in my career, after a long list of so-called failures and successes I have experienced, it became clear to me that for any project implementation to really work, all the involved actors should be actively engaged in some part of the planning or decision-making process.

Participation, seen as active engagement of stakeholders in the management or governance process, can play a positive role in harvesting collective creativity, supporting transparency, knowledge sharing, trust-building, and increasing the legitimacy of decisions.

Effective participation is therefore a fundamental building block for building resilience in any project.

I would emphasize the word “effective” here because “ineffective” participative processes can acutely hinder resilience by manipulating the public voice if done incorrectly.

Before I get to disclose the most typical ways that participative processes can go wrong, let’s set the common ground on what they mean, and how they look in practice.

Participation processes in a nutshell

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 actors in workshop settings, have become an essential part of the governance processes.

Talking to politicians and investors

When implementing participative processes, I am almost always asked two fair questions from politicians and investors.

Firstly, they want to be clear about what is exactly expected and gained from the participants.

Secondly, one can say that people have elected their political representatives, and have their scientists to do all that work in project implementation or decision making processes. Why would wider participation be so important, to invest up to 20% percent more time and money into it?

The first one is easy. In participatory processes, we generally target and involve actors who can contribute either by providing their knowledge or services, such as information, experience, needs, specific management practices, funding, or political support.

To answer the second 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 feedback to avoid system thresholds. When we can’t avoid them, we need to facilitate systemic transformations.

Managing slow variables and feedback means monitoring and reporting changes, like shifts in life quality, health, services provision, and then implementing the feedbacks focused on 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 feedback and slow variables is critical and worthy of our time and money.

Participatory process turning in the manipulation of the public voice

Considering all those advantages of participatory processes, we need to be very careful when glorifying participation as an ultimate solution. The participatory process and quickly turn into the tool for manipulation of the public voice.

The accomplishment of enhanced resilience stands on three pillars: the participants, the quality of the participation process, and of the social and institutional environment. These factors are interdependent and also context-dependent and, if not well understood, participation can undermine or compromise resilience.

Here are the most common negative effects of participation on resilience that we should be aware of, and avoid at any cost:

1. Personal agendas masked as a public interest

Participation can allow some stakeholders to use their influence at the expense of others, by increasing their power or influence within the participatory scheme.

2. “Single-mindedness”

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

3. “Consultation fatigue”

On the other hand, I have witnessed another negative impact of participation with too many participatory schemes. Workshops that last too many days, redundancy and overlapping of methods for data gathering, are not just unnecessarily expensive, but also lead to degradation of the resilience. The community then experiences ‘consultation fatigue’ and in that way easily loses interest and direction.

4. “Pre-packaged” solutions

There is also one very 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 a 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 of 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 strictly related to logic or values. In spite of that, they are served to citizens as the only options to choose from.

I hope I have illustrated now how participation processes can be powerful tools for both steering collective creativity and manipulating the public voice.

To any honest institution creating and leading participatory processes, I’d offer few guidelines:

If we agree that participation functions mainly as a facilitator for learning and collective decision making and actions, before the process starts, you need:

  • A clear understanding of who participates,

  • Under which conditions participation is appropriate, and

  • How the participation process takes place.

Goals and expectations should be precisely defined. The ‘right’ people should be involved, motivated leaders and facilitator

s - and for that, you 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, so you can afford to avoid the above-described mistakes.

Do you recognize the above-described mistakes? I invite you to share with me your hero’s journeys with participative processes.

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