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Summary of the Guide to Effective Participation

Par David Wilcox

I wrote the Guide in 1994 for community activists and professionals seeking to get other people involved in social, economic and environmental projects and programmes. It was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

I hope the Guide may also be useful to people developing electronic community networks who face similar issues of trying to develop understanding and gain commitment among a wide range of interests, and build partnerships. There's more about community networks on the main Communities Online Forum pages.

These pages contain a brief summary of the Guide. The main section and A-Z of Effective Participation are much longer files. The main section is about 140 K and the A-Z is split into four files of about 40-90 K each.

Any comments and references to other work would be most welcome.

David Wilcox dwilcox@pavilion.co.uk

Introduction to the summary

10 key ideas about participation

Turning theory in practice

About the study
Further information

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Community participation and empowerment: putting theory into practice

This is a summary of the Guide to Effective Participation, which offers a comprehensive framework for thinking about involvement, empowerment and partnership. It also provides an A to Z of key issues and practical techniques for effective participation.

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10 key ideas about participation

The Guide to Effective Participation identifies 10 key ideas which aid thinking about community involvement.

Level of participation

The guide proposes a five-rung ladder of participation which relate to the stance an organisation promoting participation may take.

Information: merely telling people what is planned.

Consultation: offering some options, listening to feedback, but not allowing new ideas.

Deciding together: encouraging additional options and ideas, and providing opportunities for joint decision making.

Acting together: not only do different interests decide together on what is best, they form a partnership to carry it out.

Supporting independent community interests: local groups or organisations are offered funds, advice or other support to develop their own agendas within guidelines.

I do not suggest any one stance is better than any other - it is rather a matter of `horses for courses'. Different levels are appropriate at different times to meet the expectations of different interests.

Here's the original Arnstein model.

1 Manipulation and 2 Therapy. Both are non participative. The aim is to cure or educate the participants. The proposed plan is best and the job of participation is to achieve public support by public relations.

3 Informing. A most important first step to legitimate participation. But too frequently the emphasis is on a one way flow of information. No channel for feedback.

4 Consultation. Again a legitimate step - attitude surveys, neighbourhood meetings and public enquiries. But Arnstein still feels this is just a window dressing ritual.

5 Placation. For example, co-option of hand-picked 'worthies' onto committees. It allows citizens to advise or plan ad infinitum but retains for power holders the right to judge the legitimacy or feasibility of the advice.

6 Partnership. Power is in fact redistributed through negotiation between citizens and power holders. Planning and decision-making responsibilities are shared e.g. through joint committees.

7 Delegated power. Citizens holding a clear majority of seats on committees with delegated powers to make decisions. Public now has the power to assure accountability of the programme to them.

8 Citizen Control. Have-nots handle the entire job of planning, policy making and managing a programme e.g. neighbourhood corporation with no intermediaries between it and the source of funds.

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Initiation and process

The guide deals with situations where someone, or some organisation, seeks to involve others at some level: that is, participation doesn't just happen, it is initiated. Someone (here termed a practitioner) then manages a process over time, and allows others involved more or less control over what happens. In the guide the process is described during four phases:

Initiation - Preparation - Participation - Continuation.

Many problems in participation processes develop because of inadequate preparation within the promoting organisation - with the result that when community interest is engaged the organisation cannot deliver on its promises.


The initiator is in a strong position to decide how much or how little control to allow to others - for example, just information, or a major say in what is to happen. This decision is equivalent to taking a stand on the ladder - or adopted a stance about the level of participation.

Power and purpose

Understanding participation involves understanding power: the ability of the different interests to achieve what they want. Power will depend on who has information and money. It will also depend on people's confidence and skills. Many organisations are unwilling to allow people to participate because they fear loss of control: they believe there is only so much power to go around, and giving some to others means losing their own.

However, there are many situations when working together allows everyone to achieve more than they could on their own. These represent the benefits of participation.

The guide emphasises the difference between Power to... and Power over.... People are empowered when they have the power to achieve what they want - their purpose.

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Role of the practitioner

The guide is written mainly for people who are planning or managing participation processes - here termed practitioners. Because these practitioners control much of what happens it is important they constantly think about the part they are playing. It may be difficult for a practitioner both to control access to funds and other resources and to play a neutral role in facilitating a participation process.

Stakeholders and community

The term community often masks a complex range of interests, many of whom will have different priorities. Some may wish to be closely involved in an initiative, other less so. The guide suggests it is more useful to think of stakeholders - that is, anyone who has a stake in what happens. It does not follow that everyone affected has an equal say; the idea of the ladder is to prompt thinking about who has most influence.


Partnership, like community, is a much abused term. It is useful when a number of different interests willingly come together formally or informally to achieve some common purpose. The partners don't have to be equal in skills, funds or even confidence, but they do have to trust each other and share some commitment. This takes time.


Commitment is the other side of apathy: people are committed when they want to achieve something, apathetic when they don't. People care about what they are interested in, and become committed when they feel they can achieve something. If people are apathetic about proposals, it may simply be that they don't share the interests or concerns of those putting forward the plans.

Ownership of ideas

People are most likely to be committed to carry something through if they have a stake in the idea. One of the biggest barriers to action is `not invented here'. The antidote is to allow people to say `we thought of that'. In practice that means running brainstorming workshops, helping people think through the practicality of ideas, and negotiating with others a result which is acceptable to as many people as possible.

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Confidence and capacity

Ideas and wish lists are little use if they cannot be put into practice. The ability to do that depends as much on people's confidence and skills as it does on money. Many participation processes involve breaking new ground - tackling difficult projects and setting up new forms of organisations.

It is unrealistic to expect individuals or small groups suddenly to develop the capability to make complex decisions and become involved in major projects. They need training - or better still the opportunity to learn formally and informally, to develop confidence and trust in each other.

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Turning theory in practice

The guide takes these key ideas and deals with the practical implications by challenging the following 'quick fixes' which may be proposed as ways to tackle participation problems. It also provides more detailed guidance on planning participation process and techniques to use.

`What we need is a public meeting'

Meeting the public is essential, but the conventional set-up with a fixed agenda, platform and rows of chairs is a stage set for conflict. Among the problems are:

As an alternative:

`A good leaflet, video and exhibition will get the message across'

These may well be useful tools, but it is easy to be beguiled by the products and forget what is the purpose of using them.

In developing materials consider:

`Commission a survey'

Questionnaire studies and in-depth discussion groups can be excellent ways to start a participation process, but are seldom enough on their own.

Bear in mind:

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`Appoint a liaison officer'

That may be a useful step, but not if everyone else thinks it is the end of their involvement in the process.

Avoid simply passing the buck, and aim to empower the liaison officer. Consider:

`Work through the voluntary sector'

Voluntary bodies are a major route to communities of interest, and may have people and resources to contribute to the participation process. However, they are not `the community'.

Treat voluntary organisations as another sectoral interest in the community - albeit a particularly important one:

`Set up a consultative committee'

Some focus for decision-making will be necessary in anything beyond simple consultation processes. However:

Consider instead:

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`There's no time to do proper consultation'

While that may be the case if the timetable is imposed externally it should not be used as an excuse to duck difficult questions. These will return more forcefully later.

If the timetable is genuinely tight:

`Run a Planning for Real session'

Special `packaged' techniques can be very powerful ways of getting people involved. However there are horses for courses - no one technique is applicable to all situations.

`Bring in consultants expert in community participation'

There's some truth in the saying that `consultants are people who steal your watch in order to tell you the time'. Often those employing consultants have the answer themselves, and are just trying to avoid grappling with the issue. However, consultants can be useful to assist with a participation process, but are no substitute for the direct involvement of the promoting organisation.

In using consultants:

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About the study

The guide was supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and written by David Wilcox, working with an editorial group of Ann Holmes, Joan Kean, Charles Ritchie and Jerry Smith. Their work initially draw on participation and empowerment studies funded by the Foundation. Further development of the guide involved seminars with experienced practitioners and wide circulation of drafts.

Further information

Copies of The Guide to Effective Participation are available from:

13 Pelham Square
Brighton BN1 4ET, UK
Price 9.95 inc p&p

David Wilcox can be contacted at that address. Telephone + 44 (0)1273 677377, fax +44 (0) 1273 677379. Email dwilcox@pavilion.co.uk.

Pour plus d'informations, contacter:
Partnerships Online

E-Mail - dwilcox@pavilion.co.uk

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