Power and Participation- sharing what we've learned

Hannah Beardon's picture

Participation is an increasingly popular concept, used as shorthand to refer to a wide range of practices of varying depth and quality. As the popularity increases, what perhaps begins as commitment to a participatory way of doing things can translate into extractive consultation as it becomes part of bureaucratic planning models and institutional policies. Meanwhile, many of the underlying values and motives of participatory processes, and the link with power relations, go unexamined.

As far as I can discern, the quality of preparation, planning, networking and capacity/ relationship building in a process, correlates directly to the quality and sustainability of the outcome. This means that participation and leadership are not two distinct processes. There needs to be clarity of purpose and values, to establish a transparent and equitable partnership between participants or stakeholders. And leadership, while important, must be sensitive and facilitative. I think that clear thinking on our own roles and relationships in the processes in which we participate, our own power and how we use it, and how our tools and skills integrate with mobilisation and capacity building to challenge and transform power, is necessary in any group committed to sustainable social change.

Perhaps we are such a group? A group willing to think and talk about how choices are made, how the control and use of technology can be made more accessible and equal, how people with technological expertise can work in synergy with others, so that collaboration and networking of our knowledge and skills can happen in a way that transforms power and society? If so, then perhaps we will be able to deepen the nature of our discussions, or at least integrate a new thread into the heart of our work?

It seems many of us have useful experiences to share - and a conversation based on this (linking to our workshop and perhaps more tools/ resources) would be useful. Then the big task remaining, I think, is to understand how the discussions and development of tech tools for social action, and that of patterns and processes for developing social change agency, can link up and build on each other. Of course this happens in individual cases, and perhaps by using our own experiences we can examine how?

David Wilcox's picture

Hi Hannah - great you are opening up this crucial discussion. My 2px2:

1. Where participants have some shared aims, values etc success depends substantially on building trust and good relationships. http://snurl.com/3lsz1 Social software may help, but only if people have the skills and (generally) f2f activities are part of the mix.

2. Where participation is institutionalised, it is generally worthless unless power-holding agencies involved commit to listening, acting. Mostly they find it very difficult to do that. Wide-ranging online activities may be a waste of time: perhaps it is better to be focussed, taking the mySociety approach http://snurl.com/22zqy

So ... is "participation" a useful concept if we are looking at social action and empowerment? Is it more helpful to think about the conditions for successful collaborations - or campaigning? "Participants" seldom have much influence.

Pamela McLean's picture

David - Thanks for putting the emphasis on building trust and good relationships.

I am newly encouraged - because really the main thing that I ever bring with me is "trust and good relationships" - and it doesn't usually seem easy to bring it to the fore. Usually when I go to any face-to-face events I feel "identity-less" amongst people who have regular jobs, are doing research projects, or can describe technological things and are somehow clear about where they fit in. When they ask me who I am I never have a good answer. I can give my name - but when it comes to giving my affiliation - job title, all that of thing, I have problems. I am always trying to find an honest answer (which will be short and culturally appropriate) which will somehow say - I'm here for "me n my friends" - because we need to know you, and I believe you may need to know us too."

I am always trying to find a way to say."Please let's see what interests we have in common - because having found them we may be able to collaborate in win-win ways."

So I guess that leads me to statements/questions here on behalf of "me n my friends", related to power and participation.

Very broad statement: We are doing stuff - and it's good stuff - and I can see that it has some overlap with what people in PRADSA are doing. (ICT empowered information flows that enable community development etc)

Question - How can we recognise our overlapping areas of interest?
Question - Once we find them, how can we work together in win-win collaborations?

Those are very general. I can ask some more specific questions as well - once I get to know what kind of Power and Participation people here are interested in. For example I understand that Drupal would be a good tool for "me n my friends" for our online collaborative work. Drupal would help us to do what we already do in a more effective way and would make it easier for more people to join our online community of learning (so I believe that using Drupal would be a positive step both in terms of empowerment and greater participation).

Regarding the use of Drupal I note the mention of Drupal here during the log in process. We also have Drupal (thanks to one of our friends) but he doesn't have time to help us explore it. We are looking at various videos and taking a long time to learn what people who know what they are doing would do very quickly.

Question - How does our Drupal interest - or our community development and/or other interests - overlap the interests of anyone who knows more than we do about Drupal who might be interested in working with us and helping us up our learning curve?

Regarding our implementation of Drupal - We will be empowering community groups in Africa, initially in rural Nigeria, but then we will cascade what works through our contacts elsewhere (cascading first to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Ghana - because those are currently our best trust relationships with good online connections). By the way, I know that if our Drupal-based home on the Internet works well for our closest friends and contacts then they want to include their contacts from beyond Africa as well (so if Africa is not part of you area of interest please don't be put off).

Question - How do our community development interests overlap community development interests of other people?
Question - How can we be empowered to participate with you?
Question - How can we learn to use other techie stuff better so "me n my friends" (who are gradually getting access to better technology) can do more of the kind of stuff people expect to see online now (more like David does)?
Question - Who knows anyone inside or outside of PRADSA who might like to collaborate with us?
Question - Are these the right kind of questions for the Power and Participation workshop?
Pamela McLean

Hannah Beardon's picture

Hi David, thanks for responding so quickly! I agree that participants and participation are difficult terms - vague AND laden. On the one hand, there is perhaps a misunderstanding that EVERYONE needs to participate in EVERYTHING for it to be a valid process. The term has also been used to replace words such as beneficiaries and targets and the like, rendering it even more meaningless... an example of how attempts to challenge the way things are conceived of and done can translate into no more than superficial lignuistic progress!

That is why (and I read your contribution to be saying the same) I think the conversation about participation needs to include power .. and to move away from the (often implicit) assumption or paradigm that projects, programmes and processes originate as policy and need to then somehow include and be owned by other stakeholders. I think we agree that the question "how can we use Web 2.0 or 2.1 or 3.5 or any tool for social action", is one of many which can usefully follow on from the question "what social action, or social change processes are going on?". Others may include "who is involved in them/ driving them?" and "how?", or "who isn't?" and "why?" (as well as the fundamental question "what kind of social action/ change/ vision?" of course!!!)

David Wilcox's picture

Hannah - I think we are on the same wavelength

I agree power is fundamental to considering participation. I've found frameworks for thinking about this usually have four main elements
* How much control power-holding agencies are prepared to concede. Often expressed as a ladder or spectrum of participation based on Arnstein 1969 http://snurl.com/3m6p5
* Different participants/stakeholders, of whom some will have more power/control than others (who)
* Process over time (when)
* Methods (how)

* Context and culture (where)
* Purpose (why)

Fuller description (c 1994:-)

I think social technology makes a difference because
* it introduces new methods which may produce shift in power/control because of their different reach, influence etc. But only, of course, if the methods are accessible, usable
* it potential shifts culture to more open, collaborative

In practice I have rather given up on "participation" as a useful framework for social change because it is based on the assumption that the power-holders invite others to participate, then listen, and then change policies or practice. Does this usually happen? Not in my experience.

I think it is more fruitful to look at
* campaigning - with new methods
* social innovation - directly using new methods to tackle old problems
* collaboration - where stakeholders in a system agree on some common goals, develop trusting relationships, and then learn (community of practice), and/or do things together.

Participation is, unfortunately, mostly a process of disempowerment for the "participants".

Thanks so much for bringing some fresh thinking to the issue. It reminds me why I got so disillusioned with being a participation consultant!

George Por's picture

Hannah wrote:

> I think that clear thinking on our own roles and relationships in the processes in which we participate, our own power and how we use it, and how our tools and skills integrate with mobilisation and capacity building to challenge and transform power, is necessary in any group committed to sustainable social change. Perhaps we are such a group?

That's an inspiring question that grabbed me, didn't let me to take it for a rhetoric one. What if, indeed, we were "a group willing to think and talk about how choices are made... so that collaboration and networking of our knowledge and skills can happen in a way that transforms power and society" as she wrote? What if we were willing to think and talk about not in abstract terms but in a self-reflective way, as if our collective intelligence mattered? What I am really asking is what else could a workshop be besides talking about people and participation in general, and started exploring how to become a community of practice.

Then we could examine our own roles and relationships in the processes of community formation, in which we participate. If I am knocking on open doors, let me know. Is there already such community If yes, where it is in its lifecycle? What are the specific challenges and opportunities it is facing?

Could these questions deepen the nature of our discussions, make it more engaging, immediately practical and, potentially, creating greater value for social innovation and transformation? I believe so because a small group of citizens can make great things happen when united in their open mind, open heart, and open will, they engage together in a learning expedition to presence the future in need of their wise, collaborative action today.

Hannah Beardon's picture

Well it certainly seems that we are all on a wavelength... that participation is an easily misinterpreted word, but the value is valid and we are seeking ways of spreading a certain type of collaborative and respectful practice. In response to both Pam and George (hello George by the way, thanks for logging on with such valuable contributions and hope to see you at the workshop?)I would like to stress that the workshop is intended to explore participation and power in a very reflexive way. In my view participation is not about OTHERS, it is about OURSELVES. I hope that we will be able to facilitate a really good reflection on what it means for us and our own social action...

Now from a very personal perspective I would like to share some disquiet I have felt during my own participation in PRADSA and my hopes for this workshop (and the group). I have participated in various of the PRADSA workshops and online discussions, and have never been quite clear about who we are as a group - what brings us together - our shared values or motivations. While we all presumaby share a commitment to social change (I think that is what social action is about?!) and an interest in technology, I feel that a lack of any common action or process has led to a tendency for discussions to either be quite abstract, or to link to practice in the area of technology rather than the goals of our social action. ALthough technology is clearly part of the complex reality in which we all live and operate, we CAN talk about systems and products and their applications without going into too much detail about the who, how and why. This is why I have been pushing for a more explicit exploration of participation and power, which will allow us to ask what we mean by social action, and what kind of linkages can be made to strengthen existing processes. As the final workshop in the series, I hope that some of the reflections will help us to work out where we want to go as a group, and what we want to do together in the future, if anything. Change the world? I think we will all be doing what we can, in the group and out of it... my hunch is that this group is more useful to support each other in our own social action and change processes.

George Por's picture

hi Hannah,

We're definitely on the same wavelength!

> the workshop is intended to explore participation and power in a very reflexive way.

That confirmed the rightness of the intuition I had when I signed up in spite knowing very little about what will happen. The various social and electronic practices of collective self-reflexivity and collaborative meaning making are pivotal to collective self-actualization (not a sum of the individual ones!) To put it simply, for a group to reach its highest potential contribution social change and the effectiveness of its members as change agents it has to evolve from a community of learners to a community that learns. That includes learning about who we are together, what are group's strengths and weaknesses, and where we are heading.

> this group is more useful to support each other in our own social action and change processes.

If so, wouldn't it be useful if each of us asked a question like:

What would be the question that, if answered (or capability, if developed) would make the biggest positive difference in my effectiveness as an agent of a better world?

Sharing our individual reflection on a question like that cold generate an interesting "issues list" that we could rank together and get a sense of what seems to be the most important and urgent value adding issues to the group as whole, which we could tackle in small group work like world café, case clinic, or appreciative inquiry.

I wouldn't be surprised if you've already thought of all that, in which case I apologize for just voicing the obvious.

Looking forward to C U all 2+O.

David Wilcox's picture

Hannah - following George's suggestion, my question to myself:

How can I best develop the capacity (power) to help others engage (participate) in social change, using a mix of interactive tools online and off.

I'm approaching that through the role of socialreporter

Make sense? What roles do others see themselves as adopting?


Hannah Beardon's picture

George, David... have a bolognese sauce burning downstairs, but yes, those questions and reflective questions in general are really useful. Have you seen the agenda? I think that there is plenty of chance there to be asking ourselves these kinds of questions and, as i said before, working out what we are as a group, as well as who we might be working with and how in our own activities.

AndyDearden's picture

Can a technology be empowering? - That's what we are talking about in Leeds at the moment.
My feeling is that all technology is empowering - but who is empowered, how is power distributed by a technology? Is it concentrated or shared? .... But that's just my view.

AndyDearden's picture

Empowering Technology?
Yesterday, we were discussing the question: “Can a technology be empowering?”.
I think my general position is that technology is always empowering for someone, so when new technologies arrive, they can be adopted in ways that modify power relationships – but this might involve power being distributed to more people or power being concentrated in fewer hands.
This morning I remembered that there is a classic paper in the sociology of technology that deals with this question – Do Artifacts have Politics?, by Langdon Winner (1980). In the paper Winner explains the case of the Long Island Bridges. Long Island is a very pleasant part of New York. To reach the main part of Long Island from the City, you have to travel underneath a set of freeway bridges. However, all these bridges are too low for a bus to get underneath. As a result, the freeway bridges ensure that the only people who can reach Long Island are people who can afford a car. What this case shows is that technology enables people to do things (the freeway allows some people to get from A to B quickly) but the way the technology is configured has different impacts on different people. In our terms, the freeway technology is explicitly disempowering for people who can only afford to travel by bus. In a similar way, the gradual moves over the past 20 years towards out of town supermarkets and shopping areas in the UK are empowering for some users (lower prices and easy parking) but disempowering for people who don’t have or don’t want to use a car.

So what about Information & Communication Technologies. An interesting paper that looks at this in information systems is ‘The Politics of Formalism’ by John Bowers (1992) – but I can’t remember enough of that, so you’ll have to find it and read it yourselves. What examples can we see of empowering & disempowering ICT. Where has new ICT supported the wider sharing of power? Where has new ICT resulted in concentration of power or abuse of power? One interesting thing about the mobile phone, in comparison to landlines – particularly in developing regions – is that a landline has to be built to reach one household or one business. This means there is a high capital cost for each person who wants to connect – they need both a telephone line and a handset, and when these are installed, only they can use the new power. The mobile phone network is different, because if the richer people in an area want to use mobiles, and a phone mast is built, then anyone else can also use that infrastructure – all they need to pay initially is the price of the handset. So mobiles & landlines result is slightly different power relations.

An interesting area to think about at present is the configuration of web 2.0 tools. A lot of really interesting and participatory things that can happen on wikis, blogs and other shared tools. But when we connect our browser to a web 2.0 site, there are different ways the services could be configured. One (server side) approach implies that each time we navigate within the site to a new piece of information, a very large amount of data needs to be downloaded (e.g. a complete page refresh), an alternative possibility is that when we enter the site, we download a bit more data (perhaps some dynamic HTML or some other client side scripts) so that each navigation within the site involves much smaller amounts of data transfer. These different designs have different impacts on power distribution. Designs that involve large amounts of data transfer with each navigation step mean that people with poor connections (e.g. people without broadband, people from developing regions) are effectively excluded from active participation. Once again by configuring the technology in particular ways it can be empowering for some but disempowering for others.

At the same time, technologies can be used to support activities that help people get power. The examples of Labournet using the internet to co-ordinate action with the Liverpool dock workers in the 1980s or of Tees Valley Community Media and the people of Skinningrove using Second Life to highlight the potential that might be realised by renovating their Jetty (URL) illustrate this possibility. I am sure that every member of this hotseat discussion can think of examples of projects where ICT can be used (configured?) to support the processes of sharing power and challenging the concentration of power.

Sorry about the length!, Andy

Leonie Ramondt's picture

design is so important. Second life remains a rich people's technology. it is certainly famous for it's processing requirements. You need fast computers and broadband. I was told recently that an avatar in Second Life uses the same amount of electicity as folks in Brazil. http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2006/12/avatars_consume.php Scarey. I was surprised therefore to discover how little of my download allowance World of Warcraft used on mobile broadband while i was on holidays. It takes up 8gig on the hard drive of course - due to all the pre-designed elements like scenery. I think virtual worlds will increasingly link us with communities of kindred spirits - via technologies in our pockets. think of the difference that could make! there are already technologies that can do that. Alan tells me for example that the last gen Xbox has a heap of capacity. So it was great yesterday to hear from Victoria about brocolab http://www.bricolabs.net/ and to find someone exploiting these "old" technologies creatively http://gieskes.nl/

AndyDearden's picture

I was also tasked to write up some notes from the discussion we had yesterday on 'Physicality and Solidarity'. The discussion was prompted by an exercise we did in the morning in which we stood together and simulated beating corn. Leonie was trying to get us away from being completely in our heads to being more concious of our bodies. Some people noted that doing this kind of physical activity together reminded us of our strength - our power as individuals. This may contrast with the way that when we feel isolated, we lose confidence, perhaps we think we are the only ones who want to change the system. Have changes in working culture, away from physical labour that requires people working (physically) together, towards more 'knowledge work' (and other isolated activities like cleaning) where we may be isolated from each other reduced our sense of solidarity. Marching together in demonstrations can help to motivate each of us in our individual efforts. What can we do to capture that? How might we behave in the digital age to help each other and feed our motivation and our strength? What is the role of technology.

A few things were discussed. Face to face meeting really helps to build trust. We discussed how Facebook has many groups each of which is trying to draw attention to itself, draw people in. But are we perhaps competing with each other for attention & funding rather than encouraging and supporting each other in our collective efforts. Finding out more about the whole person we are working with helps us build collective trust. Alan told us about the Matilda building in Sheffield - which was occupied by community activists, but eventually bulldozed by the University that I work in - there was a tradition in which each small collective took turns to feed everyone who was using the building. That physical, collective experience of problem solving helped to create the sense of shared purpose. Paula told us about a shared meal that was organised by (world wide) users of a gay chat room, where someone gave a recipe out, everyone then collected the ingredients for teh recipe (leading to interesting discussions about the very different cultural settings in which everyone was living), cooked the food, then sat down to join in the chat room whilst eating & drinking together. Again, the experience was a way to build connections, without meeting. If we are more involved together in these human, physical ways - not just in talking/writing/blogging/... does that help us to build a stronger sense of co-operation, participation and power?

Leonie Ramondt's picture

(good workshop- thanks all)
lovely idea to find ways of sharing physical presence virtually ;o). a new thread for my virtual worlds inquiry.

I've certainly noticed that kids who experience little physical play (eg rafts over local weirs, trecking through scrub and woodlands, surfing, dancing etc) also tend to lack confidence to "stand their ground". so i found Andy's reflection interesting - that it was the unions of those who do physical labour that remained strong the longest.

Hannah Beardon's picture

Hi all,
As promised I am back online, although amongst getting my life back in order after our great trip to UK!
Thanks Andy for such stimulating comments. It is great to see how some of the basic concepts explored during the workshop can open up debate in so many areas and ways, all of which I think productive. Andy you have asked whether technology is empowering and Leonie has reminded us that the empowering part is in the design. Who is desgning the technology and who is using it, for what? These kinds of questions, and the answers which may inform our strategies for the type of pestering from the outside that we were talking about, are really productive.

There are also questions about our own power, and how we operate in groups, networks or coalitions - which after all are what can bring about social change. As Andy and Leonie have mentioned, there is an interesting area to explore (and I believe I heard Ann and Clodagh mention a paper they have written with Steve T on this - please do share some arguments or conclusions!) around our physical agency as individuals and our influence or power as users of technology...

I look forward to more notes and thoughts from the workshop over the next week or so!


Pamela McLean's picture

Hi all

Many thanks to all the organisers for arranging PRADSA. For someone like me, who works so much online, it is great be face to face with a group of people that I can exchange ideas with. It was lovely to be with you all.

Special thanks to Paula and Alan for practical hints ref using Drupal. I have written in more detail about the workshop and how it fits in with what I am trying to do and learn at http://learnbydoinguk.blogspot.com/

I hope we will be able to continue connecting about our hopes, ideas, questions and practical action for 21st century.


Hannah Beardon's picture

Interesting, Pam, that for you in an international context the issue of participation ties in closely to the digital divide. The fact that straight forward access to technology infrastructure, cost etc is so uneven. My own work on the area of ICT4D began with research on the potential of the internet and ICTs for empowerment, eduation and development in international development contexts - whether NGOs or grassroots movements and processes.

You feel a great responsibility for being an information intermediary and also frustration at being the bottleneck because of a lack of alternatives for your colleagues in areas of more difficult and expensive connection. You have also mentioned in other contexts the use of other media, such as mobile phone, to overcome such issues.

My own research tested the assumptions that ICT could be of value to poor people in less connected areas (of Uganda, Orissa India and Burundi) and also explored with some rural communities engaged in development or adult education processes the ways in which ICTs could usefully be integrated into their existing knowledge sharing and communication patterns.

Of course, the bottlenecks are there and this is a great power issue - for example in Uganda the women ranked health visitors as a principal source of information, and yet this individual did not have any stated responsibility or accountability to them - the relationship was totally passive on the part of the women. Within families too there are bottlenecks - for example the same women argued that although they have radio sets in their households, they could not control them (switch them on or choose the programme) as they belonged to the men, who even took the batteries out when they travelled. In India, the group we were working with pointed out how their community leaders would keep information from them in order to get a competitive edge when it came to government grants and benefits. So power and the flow of information is really an interesting and important area to explore in order to design relevant and empowering technologies and processes of social change.

However there are also great opportunities, usually below the radar because they do not fit into the business model of ICT and internet expansion... just like your mobile phones, groups and communities have their own means of sharing and learning - whether drama, song, mas rallies etc.

Leonie Ramondt's picture

Vision/Mission group
the vision/mission members of members in our group is;

Empowering people to make decisions in their life
Open knowledge transfer- (education)
All social institutions (gov, health, economics) to support the self-realisation of each person and community to their highest potential
Equity (information, resources, equal opps)
Meaningful work for everybody
Mechanisms for synergising resources

Leonie Ramondt's picture

Talents - unique resources the members of the vision/mission group can contribute:

ability to capture passion/excitement/empowermnt
Deep understanding of participative process
Ability to make links/seeing bigger picture/ identifying patterns
Capacity for unconditional positive regard
Enabling the community to articulate their needs and demanding it from the society/ system
Contributing to creating the conditions to unleash the combined power of change agents and technologies for shifting society into the world we want
Aspiration: to make the whole visible to the components, see the collective psyche (zeitgeist)

George Por's picture

Leonie, isn't the output from the Vision/Mission and Talent groups are too good to let it wither on the vine?
Does anybody else feel that these are times that badly need a new kind of leadership for social transformation?