Power and inclusion in participation

May 18, 2022 by No Comments | Category Guest blog, Participation in action, Social Justice

Back in November 2021 we were lucky enough to be joined by Kelly McBride (Participatory Democracy Lead, TPXimpact), David Reilly (Communications and Network Manager, Poverty Alliance), and Órlaith McAree (Senior Participation Manager, Poverty and Inequality Commission) for Co-production Week Scotland to hear their thoughts on inclusion in participation.

We learned a lot, and wanted to share this knowledge. In this blog we’ve summarised what we heard from Kelly, David and Órlaith. 

If you’re new to co-production we recommend you take a look at our blog Talking co-production in Scottish Government

Why lived experience and co-production is necessary

To begin with, Kelly articulated the many reasons for adopting a co-production approach, including:

  • government commitments to transparency
  • the potential to lead to better, more credible policy outcomes
  • reducing the cost of failure not just in monetary terms but to people’s lives
  • having policy informed by rich and diverse evidence
  • laying the groundwork for approaches that are fit for current and future challenges

These reasons are echoed in the overarching principle of the Poverty and Inequality Commission which Órlaith shared. This is to:

“Amplify the voices of experts by experience to make sure they are part of identifying issues, developing and designing solutions, and scrutinising progress.”

David’s experiences working with a project called Ending Homelessness Together (EHT) illustrates the value that lived experience can bring to policy, which civil servants and other decision-makers have a duty to listen to. The EHT team were able to share that one of the issues for homeless people in accessing temporary accommodation was not being able to take pets in. Once this barrier was removed, it got people off the street. That’s a barrier that someone without experience of homelessness probably wouldn’t have identified.

Recruiting people with lived experience to work with you is a problem that many policy makers face. Órlaith shared the process the Poverty and Inequality Commission went through to recruit members of their lived experience panel. She highlighted how, like many, they wanted the panel to include a wide range of people with varied experiences, who were new to participation. This took time and presented various challenges. Órlaith reflected on the importance of working with grassroots and specialist groups to help reach different people, and of giving people the opportunity to come and talk to you. They worked hard to ensure recruitment information was accessible to a range of people. They took in applications over email, via phone or in the post.

Working with people with lived experience can help planning engagement work too. As Kelly noted, if you are uncertain about how to approach this work, partnerships are really important. Forging good partnerships can provide opportunities for coaching and learning to develop how we think about involving people in decision making. This can benefit everyone. Seeing how co-production can empower the people taking part is often transformative for civil servants. 

Building trust and relationships

Building and maintaining relationships is vital for progressing co-production. It also lays the foundation for true inclusion. Kelly noted that sometimes there can be too much focus on process and methods. More work needs to be done to facilitate spaces where people can get to know each other, build confidence and capacity. 

This mindset is particularly vital when asking people with lived experience to share their experiences with people in power – David reflected that it takes trust and work to get to this point. Building trust needs to be properly resourced and gradual, and without caution can be easily set back. One important aspect of trust is honesty from people with decision-making power about what is in scope for changing and what is not. 

Órlaith shared some of the principles that the Poverty and Inequality Commission use for participation work. These are based on research with people with lived experience of poverty. Adhering to these principles is fundamental for them in building and maintaining trust with their panel:

  • Supported – panel members feel supported in their role and to engage with the commission and each other
  • Accessible – work is as accessible as possible, and accessibility is co-defined and the responsibility of all on the panel
  • Dialogical – discussion is not just about people’s own interests but about mutuality, understanding where other people are coming from, and making decisions for Scotland as a whole
  • Relational the process focuses on building collaborative relationships for dialogue – practices which focus on building relationships, including collaborative groups for dialogue
  • Intersectional – people are encouraged to think about the different oppressions people might face and how they intersect
  • Safe(r) – making a safer space for people, while acknowledging that there may be additional steps needed along the way
  • Creative – the process is creative and people can contribute and participate in different ways according to their preferences and skills
  • Educational – people have as much information as they need or want, and that access to information is access to power

Be aware of the power in the room and how it is maintained

Órlaith made it clear that the people she worked with were not blank slates coming into the co-production process. They were passionate individuals who wanted to change society and address the taboos around poverty and inequality. The process is partly about helping them to achieve these aims through empowering participants. For Órlaith, this means building trust and relationships, and supporting people to build their confidence and self-esteem.

Kelly has a lot of experience navigating power in participation. She talked about how power can be really subtle, and something we’re not always aware of. As civil servants, people can perceive you as having power in a space even if you don’t perceive yourself in the same way. She notes that there is power at play in every step of setting up and running a participatory process; recruitment, research and evaluation, decision making, designing the space, and delivery. 

If you are going to do participation, Kelly suggests you think about who sets the rules of engagement, which can include:

  • how you set up your online and physical spaces
  • interaction dynamics (e.g. turning off mics and chat is not appropriate at an online participatory event)
  • who has set up the space and who has been invited in

She recommends the concept of the powercube as a useful tool to analyse and understand power, and that Arnstein’s ladder of participation is something practitioners should be familiar with.

David had much to say in agreement, urging people to consider the resource needed to create an equal playing field. He notes how often you will be sitting around a table where half the people are paid to be there, and half aren’t. Órlaith reflected that creating spaces for participation takes effort and needs time, money and staffing.

David suggested that at a fundamental level, the question needs to be asked, “Who gets to make decisions?”. For the people participating there is a need for those organising a process to move away from just asking their opinions, to being able to help make those decisions together – taking decisions out from behind closed doors and into the open.

Challenging existing structures and ideas

David, Órlaith and Kelly all reiterated the importance of valuing and respecting the knowledge and expertise that comes from lived experience, which has been marginalised for too long. Knowledge from lived experience needs to be given equal weight to knowledge gained from research and more traditional learning.

This value needs to be reflected in how you interact with people participating in your process, and how you facilitate a space that communicates that value. This can be as simple as ensuring the language you use can be understood by the people you’re engaging with, and if you’re not confident with this then approach partners who can help.

Kelly concludes by saying that honesty, openness and proper resourcing are key for her in doing participation well. While the civil service has done well so far, there is a lot about how we do policy that can be changed. Órlaith asks that we put more effort and thought into creating spaces for participation and building trust. If we’re to make the best decisions around policy, practice and services, then lived experience really needs to be considered. David’s closing remarks reiterate this – participation is worth resourcing. It can take time, money, staff and energy, but it’s worth it for better outcomes.

Find out more

Follow the work of the Poverty and Inequality Commission on Twitter and via the Poverty and Inequality Commission website.

Follow the work of TPXimpact on Twitter and via the TPXimpact website.

Follow the work of the Poverty Alliance on Twitter and via the Poverty Alliance website.

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