The participation continuum

Participation intersects

This is a bit of a sidebar from the strategy / not strategy post here but is also part of a longer contemplation around participation, organisations and democracy – with a bit of digital stuff as well.

I’ve always believed that there is real power in aligning digital/design, participation and democracy practices. Each are fundamentally concerned with how to involve people in the process of decision making and in the process of change – the scale of the change may be different but when combined with systems practice you have a powerful set of tools.

Looking beneath the boundaries of these practices you see common features of research, iteration and multidisciplinary working. These manifest and operate slightly differently in the different spheres but still have some powerful golden threads than either connect them together or become the places where practitioners tussle for ideological ascendency.

Not surprisingly I am looking at how to connect them together.

Another lens on this – and to bring in systems change thinking – is to look at where they are usually deployed:

  • Digital / design within organisations (though of course with user research)
  • Participation with communities
  • Democracy at a societal scale

This is not to say each practice doesn’t reach into different domains – this is a generalisation about their home. There are joins and intersects between each of these; organisational democracy ideas such as holocracy, participatory decision making like PB and increasingly design thinking being used to fuel coproduction in new fields like social imagination but I am also finding disconnects that result in a lack of literature* about the tensions between coproduction and representative democracy for example or the difficulties of connecting a 4/5 year cycle of political renewal with the constant iterative decision making needed for properly agile working. There is some bridging of this in the social movement literature but it still doesn’t scratch the itch that I have about how to do this.

Digging into that tension – and uncomfortably naming it – if you are working inclusively at the community level you will always be bringing in people who didn’t vote for the people who are representing them. This requires real trust in people and processes and I believe is why it’s important that we as officers are part of that coproduction – providing that bridge and supporting the conditions for that coproduction.

Its also why, as well as a systemic need for the larger scale decision making that the democratic process provides, we need to look beyond the constraints of just representative democracy and look to create participative and deliberative forums to support it in order to build that trust and connection between what communities are doing and the decisions which are taken about them.

But not all decisions and actions are coproductions – sometimes we, the council, just need to get on and deliver the best service possible whether this be emptying the bins or managing the planning process or one of the myriad other things we do. In that case we need to use the best of digital/design practice to create services which we can be confident do reflect that way in which our residents want to be served.

Taking step back, and thinking of what can be done in organisations, in communities and in the wider democratic process, the mindful collusion of these practices could help emerge a practice of participation and learning which permeates the system and not just the organisation that is holding it.

This is partly connected to the democracy stack which has been rumbling around for a while – but also part of the blurring of the boundary between organisational design and systems change. Pulling this back into there organisational realm we have a few boundaries and questions to explore for us an organisation:

  • How do we encourage and enable staff to be active citizens of place while respecting and reflecting the democratic mandate that we are working to?
  • And as part of that, how do you address the complexity of context collapse while still enabling people to manage their own boundaries?
  • How do we right size decisions so we maximise community power while again respecting the democratic mandate of place?
  • What role does research and learning play in nurturing a culture of participation?
  • What is the best possible link between the iterative decision making of agile processes and the democratic process (I think the answer to this may be scrutiny but that’s a whole other blog)

I’m going to try and refine these questions a bit – and if you are interested in having a conversation about this then get in touch – all musing, challenge and questions welcome.

*Very happy to be corrected on this so if I am missing something then please tell me.

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