oktober 19

Where to pull most? Participation as a web of interdependencies


A while ago, our team reflected on the status of our participation project.

How is it going? Well, depending on your view and personal responsibilities on the project, you might say: “Well, the marketing with the survey went really well and we had 120 respondents, so that is a good development!” or “We are on track with the process timeline and have moved on to stage 3, data collection”.

But what the above statements hide is that it might have been a tremendous marketing effort to get those 120 responses. Or that hardly anyone is actually joing you in stage 3, data collection. It is good to be focused on what is going on right now, what the next step down the path seems to be. But do you feel effective? Are things somehow slow and not as easy as they might have been a while ago? Why does it cost so much effort to keep on going forward?

And how to react?  In our case, we have been pulling a lot on the corners “Marketing that hooks” and “People, old and new”. Meaning we thought alot about how to package our message and get it in front of many people, plus calling up, one by one, those who have been to past events. Both seemed logical: Not many people were coming, so these seemed the most logical things to pool our energy onto.

Yet, have you looked at the overall picture? During this team reflection, I sketched the below graphic: In the corners are all the aspects popular academic literature on public participation call the “pillars” of effective citizen engagement:

public participation web of interdependency pillars fundament
Public Participation: It is all entangled, like a web. Take one corner out and the web collapses.


So public participation supposedly works best if all these pillars/conditions are fulfilled, all these aspects come together, culminating in engaged and diverse groups of people being enabled to shape their ideas into reality.

If you only pull on three of these and let the other two drag, you may be wondering why your process does not fly, why it does not take off. Why does it not work, even though, you put all your time and effort into this. And you might very well be pouring A LOT of energy into this. Because, and that is an unfortunate caveat: If one of these five aspects is missing, it makes all the other tasks twice as hard.

I would not say that these necessarily have  a hierarchy. Maybe there is an order to them when you start things off. It is like juggling, start with one ball, then two, until at some point, all six are in the air. Just take care not to drop one, it might throw you off so much, that it halts you altogether 🙂 So for ease, I will go through all these aspects in the order in which I would start juggling!

1. Clear trajectory: easy to grasp, quick to walk through

It all starts with planning 🙂 Choosing a length, a scope, and approach, that fits you circumstances well. This is step, in my opinion, that deserves the most attention.

People want to do and say, and express, and imagine, and dream, and change! So give them a trajectory in which thay can do all of that, all the time!

Also, develop two concurent trajectories:

  1. On the individual level: Develop the journey a new individual would go through, no matter when they are intorduced to the topic. Treat each human as someone undertaking their individual journey
  2. On the project level: from broad to vague, to actually building stuff, your project probably has a beginning and an end and lots of fun in between! Choose the length carefully, choose the level of rigidity carefully. Expect people to come with ready to go plans before you are ready for those. How will you handle that without thwarting these people’s energy?

Also, practice telling people about your project! Can you explain it within 30 seconds with the other person not needing to ask further questions but answering: “Awesome, sounds great, where can I get started?” If that is not the case maybe it is time to narrow in and refine what your project is all about. People like to sign up for things they understand quickly!

2. A website and/or marketing material that hook people in

The  simpler your messages, the easier they are to communicate! So with a clear trajectory, established, people know what they sign up for and it is not a struggle to sign up. It is also easier for you to develop marketing material.

The marketing that you do online and face-to-face could employ some “psychological” tricks.

  • Employ “micro-commitments”. When we move even a tiny bit towards action, we are more likely to move through with to the end!
  • This can be as simple as a 2-Step sign up: 1. button says “click here and join the movement”, 2. Pop-up ask for their name and e-mail
  • It could be an online test with the potential to go viral, e.g. “Proper or Careless? What your neighbors are likely thinking of you: Do the test and find out!” where, the results end with a call to action “to link up to your neighbors to work towards a cleaner neighborhood!”
  • We are social beings: Promising sth publicly, e.g. announcing/promising you would go somewhere (verbally, not by ticking a box in Facebook), makes you more likely to go! This is an implicit social contract that we find hard to break.
  • Promise to reveal other respondent’s answers to a survey once the person completed it: Our innate curiosity!

So, these “tricks” get people to engage with you, but for sustainable growth, they must then be pleasantly surprised by every subsequent step they make to engage. And with that we come to ….

3. Engaging and fun interaction (events, workshops, online platform)

And there we reach the next cornerstone! Each interaction should be fun and engaging! Which is of course much easier if you rook care of keeping your trajectory straighforward! And have developed a sequence of easy steps a new person runs through that gives them an immediate positive experience!

You ask people to spare some of their free time. Enable them to be creative and have fun, that way they will come back. By the way, how the “interaction” part of your project looks like is very much dependent on your trajectory design.  In this article (here) I lay out various ways of structuring interaction.

3. Attracting new participants  

All this great marketing material and events is worth nothing however, if you don’t share it, get the message out, have people come to your events. No people, no co-whatever 🙂

So, to get things moving, network! Get the message to travel, you are contacting the key players, and let travel from there, so you can focus on keeping all the other aspects running! If you engage most of your time on attracting new participants, step back, reflect and see which other points might need attanetion first!

4. Keeping existing participants

Ooooh, now we get into the nitty gritty stuff! Are you building a core of participants who have been engaging again and again? No? People are leaving as fast (or faster) as you can recruit new ones? Then something is broken.

Don’t be frustrated at the people! If you think: “But I called them up and asked them and 10 promised to come and only 2 showed up. Why?” or “Well, I want people to take ownership of this so I made them sign up to take on a responsibility, but none of them are doing what they promised to do!” Think again. Those are really big alarm bells going off!

Because what the poepl are thinking in parallel: “Aw, this whole thing feel kinda needy, like they need me to come and help them out, but it ain’t that fun in fact. Not sure I’ll go again. There were people who already shared my opinion anyways. It won’t matter whether I am there or not!”

5. Diversity amongst the participating people

And tadaa, next point! How diverse are the people coming to you meetings?

Maybe you were too careless on one of the earlier points?

  • When marketing, was the message carried forward only by a few key individuals, causing some groups to be overrepresented?
  • Is your trajecotring and marketing more interesting for a certain group while others don’t get attracted and/or don’t find the means of communication or time of meeting convenient?
  • How is the language during the workshop? Do those that make the group more diverse remain to feel like outsiders?

Keep an eye out for these signs, because having a diverse group can take your project to a whole other level!

  • Better discussions: Confronting other people’s views, values, problems is only possible if they vary significantly within the group.
  • Better outcomes: More varied input, more reflection
  • Everything just feels more meaningful for participants! Your events aren’t echo-chambers, they are the spot where the “real” talk is happening! They are glad to come back next time!

6. Networking with decisionmakers to increase chance of implementation

Well, maybe you are in the power position (then this is about really choosing to give some of that power away, let go, give it to the people), but maybe, there are hierarchies above you, other governance levels, other departments, that you need to keep involved and up-to-date in order to convinclingly say to the participating citizens:

“Your work matters! There is a real chance, your proposals will become reailty!”

The more convincingly you can say this, the more impactful everything will feel! From your workshop to you marketing materials to the trajectory an individual travels through! SO keep it up, don’t get distracted by other urgencies or take cooperation for granted! Make sure the citizens feel like their work matters

So what if one drags?

But what if you feel like you don’t have the energy to do it all? In the next article 🙂


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