Participation, inequality and inclusion: the new complexities

Lesley Martin, strategic planner and doctoral researcher, reflects of the challenges and opportunities presented by public engagement and participation.

Lochrin Canal, Edinburgh: image Scottish Canals

Process trumps outcomes?

People may seek a connection but not necessarily active participation; processes are as important to communities as outcomes; and access does not equate to influence. I have been struck by how new studies are uncovering paradoxes and complexities that will continue to make effective participation a challenge. Nick Wright’s interesting case study of his work on community-led planning in Lockerbie is a useful reminder first, that many tools and techniques for community engagement already exist, and second, that there are many ways of becoming ‘involved’.

The public engagement paradox

One issue under more recent scrutiny is the degree to which inequality plays out in participation processes. This has been studied in depth by What Works Scotland in a 2017 evidence review, which analysed 70 studies of the link between community engagement and inequality – surprisingly rare in research studies. In covering dimensions familiar to practitioners: power; partnerships; representation; digital resources; funding; it also confirms ‘hard to shift’ barriers including unrealisable expectations and unrealistic burdens on the few – for example 7% of the Scottish population have volunteered 13 times or more in the previous year under study.

The study also highlights the ’public engagement paradox’, indicating that as participation has grown, so too has inequality. The risk therefore is that unequal societal power, embodied in the ‘rituals’ which are part and parcel of community engagement events, may be reproduced in participative processes.

Nick’s call for resources to support participative processes is echoed in the WWS report which particularly emphasises the need for ‘support to participate’ as a way to equalise opportunity. Jury members are reimbursed for travel expenses, so why should not citizens performing other forms of public service be recognised?

Challenge to linear participation models – embrace the ‘messiness’?

Engagement methods continue to favour ‘rational’ models – popular with strategists and embedded in public policy thinking, yet the essential ‘messiness’ and non-linearity of participative processes seems likely to be an increasing feature in the future.  The toolkits we use may therefore need re-imagining. And the need for training is likely to increase – not just for communities, but for the people who organise and facilitate such processes.

In their work on the need for a ‘culture of kindness’ in public services, the Carnegie Trust explores not just the what, but the ‘how’ of service delivery, arguing that the ‘enabling State’ must rethink the modern model of ‘the public servant’ as someone comfortable about going beyond their role. This raises the question about the direction in which local government may find itself travelling, if the twin aims of efficiency and democracy are to be reconciled.

Co-operation needn’t mean consensus

Although Nick’s article questions whether community-led plans really need to be complicated, the drive to inclusion may indeed make participative processes even more complex and potentially confrontational. Moreover, the diagnosis of problems and suggested solutions will inevitably be interpreted differently by ever more participants. Consensus remains a worthwhile goal but learning to understand – while not necessarily agree with – other perspectives which may appear unjust, perverse or plain daft, is a difficult and time-consuming activity. Co-operation doesn’t have to imply consensus, therefore participative outputs may quite rightly express a range of views.

2018 – a year of experiment

As the planning profession enters an important year of change in the wake of new legislation, the experience of planners, who have been practicing participation longer than most, if not all, other professions, should be at the forefront of new thinking. At least there is the learning from the last half century to go on – and the experience of hundreds of excellent recent exemplars around the country. Nevertheless, the context, framing of the policy issues and the public discourse is unique for our times – and therefore so too must be the responses. 2018 is shaping up to be a fascinating year of experiment.


1. Nick Wright on LinkedIN ‘Real Community Planning in Lockerbie‘ posted 2 January 2018.
2. Lightbody, R. (2017) Hard to reach’ or ‘easy to ignore’? Promoting equality in community engagement, Edinburgh: What Works Scotland.
3. Brotchie, J. (2017) What do Citizens Want? How professional help and support fits into day to day lives, Edinburgh: The Carnegie Trust.

Consultant and Doctoral Researcher

Blog originally posted on LinkedIn on 4th January 2018.