Define your collaborative project

(reblogged from Lifesized)

A UK group called Involve do some great work on collaboration, the highlight being their publication of "People and Participation". This publically funded UK think-tank and research center, is another wonderful example of some of the good work coming out of Europe in this area. I used a lot of the concepts from within their document for a project i have been working on. It translated easily from a government focus to other sectors. Of particular strength was the unification of concepts with case studies in the field of participatory practise/ collaboration.

"People & Participation is the first publication of Involve, a new organisation focused on the practical issues of making public participation work. There have been many books and pamphlets about democratic reform. What is unusual about this publication is that it provides much needed practical detail, drawing on the experiences of over a hundred practitioners who have used new methods to involve the public in issues ranging from local planning to nanotechnology. Its starting point is that deepening and strengthening democracy depends on success in learning lessons about why some kinds of participation lead to better and more legitimate decisions, while others do not. The book shows that greater public involvement can greatly help in addressing some of our most pressing problems and countering the risks of distrust and alienation. But it also warns that too much participation today is superficial, an exercise in ticking boxes as opposed to good democratic governance, or is used to to justify decisions that have already been made. Participation works best when people feel that they can make a difference, when they have the time to fully engage with the issues and when there is a healthy relationship of mutual respect with elected representatives. It works worst when it is rushed, ill-informed and vague about the links to formal decision-making, or when it allows the loudest voices to dominate. There are no simple formulae or ‘off the shelf’ solutions to improving participation. Nor is participation a panacea – turning government into a permanent public meeting can get in the way of making difficult decisions. But in general, wider involvement is good for public organisations, improves their relationships with the public and reduces the risk of bad mistakes. As the book shows, there are some clear lessons to be learned about the methods that are more or less likely to work in different circumstances, and we are lucky in the UK in that there are now very many people with the experience and the enthusiasm to make participation work. It is rarely easy or natural for big institutions to open themselves up. But a more educated and demanding public is no longer willing to sit on the sidelines watching passively while the big decisions affecting their lives are made by politicians, experts and officials. We live in a democracy where political authority still resides, rightly, with elected politicians. But any democratic vision which stops at that point, and allows parties and politicians to monopolise discussion and decision making, is unlikely to be very legitimate – or very robust when the going gets tough. To their credit, hundreds of public agencies have taken the lead in trying to involve the public more actively. The priority now is to build on that experience and to build confidence that public involvement can lead to better, and more legitimate, decisions." "Too often, discussion of participation begins and ends with identifying methods. One-off events or individual methods are an important element of participatory processes, but they are only one part. Methods have probably become the main focus for people’s participatory working because they are the front-line for interaction, the ‘set piece’ in which institutions come face to face with those they seek to involve. But as with all front lines, their effectiveness is determined almost wholly by the quality of the planning that precedes such action, especially the planning of how to handle the results from that interaction (the products and wider outcomes), and how to link the initiative with wider decision-making processes and systems, particularly in democratic institutions such as local government. Specific methods thus form just one part of the overall participatory process, which will also need to take into account purpose and context. In summary, the key factors in participatory working are:

Purpose + Context + Process = Outcome

Purpose: It is essential to be clear what a participatory process aims to achieve. Ideally, the purpose will be explicitly agreed among all participants (“this is what we are trying to do�). Some participatory exercises may have a primary purpose (for example, to influence a particular policy decision), and a secondary purpose (such as to build relationships). The nature of the purpose contributes to the choice of methods.

Context: Every situation is unique, shaped by the issues, the people, history, location, structures of organisations and institutions taking part, wider decision-making processes and systems, and so on. These factors will fundamentally affect what can and cannot be done – and which methods will or will not work. Participatory working always needs to be understood in relation to the wider systems within which it takes place (such as organisational structures and policy priorities), especially external and internal decision-making systems. The nature of the context affects the choice of methods.

Process: The design of the participatory process is about planning how the purpose will be achieved (including which methods should be used and when).
The design of the process should always follow
agreement on purpose
– ‘form follows function’
– and understanding of the context (including how any eventual decisions will be made).
The choice of individual methods is affected by the nature and stage of the overall process.

In summary, therefore, the choice of participation methods has to be made within an overall design for effective participatory processes (however short or long term, specific or comprehensive) and will depend on an understanding of the context, and an understanding of what participation may be able to achieve so that the purpose of any single exercise (or comprehensive approach) can be clear and realistic.

The document has three main sections:
Introducing participation: Some of the issues affecting participation in the UK today (section 2).

Planning for participation: The key steps for ensuring that participation works (section 3).

Methods for participation: The characteristics, advantages and disadvantages of different participation methods (section 4).
This guidance places participation methods in their proper place in participatory working – which is as part of a coherent design with a clear purpose. The overall design will always be different depending on the particular context."

I especially enjoyed discovering the concepts of outcomes, outputs and their relationship to purpose.

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