Audience Dialogue

Levels of participation

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As stated on our home page, Audience Dialogue's philosophy is one of participation. We try to work with our clients (and their audiences) as opposed to working for them. This preference is for a good reason. Over the years, we've found that when we do research or evaluation projects, the less client participation there is, the less likely that the results will bhe implemented. That's wasteful for the client, as well as frustrating for us. We're far from alone in this conclusion. Development co-operation agencies (aid agencies, as many people call them) have found over the years that without participation, projects are often ineffective. Even the World Bank supports participation now.

But what exactly does "participation" mean? Different people have different ideas of what participation involves. This page defines participation in seven different ways. We find it more useful to think of participation as a scale or range, not just something that happens or doesn't happen.

Another question: who is participating? In our typical work, which involves research for a client organization (usually some kind of media producer), we usually deal with top management. In this context, participation extends into two kinds of role: staff and audience.

So here's a scale of participation, ranging from the token to the intensive. And below the token first level, there's another level: no participation at all. "Provider" here means the organization that is our client, providing services to its audience.

Level Description Typical research approach
Level 1 The lowest level of participation - it's hardly participation at all. Work is done on behalf of the provider organization's staff, who aren't consulted initially. However, some of them get to see the results of the research. If they're really lucky, they're even invited to make comments about the findings - but their comments are usually ignored. Compiling statistics from census or database - no individual opinions
Level 2 A little above level 1. Senior staff get to make a few suggestions, before the data collection goes ahead. Often, their suggestions are not acted on. Perhaps there's a technical reason why the suggestions aren't feasible, but there's often no explanation of this. Sometimes the sugestions are not relevant, because the staff haven't been told the full background to the research. One top manager dictates the questions to go on the questionnaire, and doesn't disseminate the results. Survey with multiple-choice questions.
Level 3 Here the provider's staff are involved with the development of issues, but the problem and agenda aren't negotiable. The audience begins to be involved, offering some verbal input. Survey with some open-ended questions.
Level 4 At this level, the provider's staff and audience have some influence on the problem definition, as well as the specific questions. The research is done in several rounds, with feedback used to steadily sharpen the focus. A series of surveys with open-ended questions
Level 5 The questions are raised as much by the audience as by the provider organization's staff. The focus of questions is not so much on collecting facts as on collecting reasons, in order to understand the facts - which are usually known already, e.g. from surveys. Semi-structured interviews, or focus groups
Level 6 At this level, the whole concept of "facts" is questioned. (What some people see as "facts", others see as assumptions.) Multiple viewpoints are gathered, with an understanding of their origins. Audience members participate in setting the agenda. Consensus groups
Level 7 At the highest level of participation, everybody affected by a project has a chance to contribute to its success. Audiences are actively involved with planning. They not only supply information to the service providers (as in standard surveys), but gather information themselves, to improve the quality of the planning. Co-discovery conference, with continuing dialogue

The above table is adapted from one in the book Participatory Learning and Action: a Trainer's Guide - an excellent manual on the training of facilitators for PRA/PLA, by Jules N Pretty and others (published by the International Institute for Environment and Development, London, 1995).

You'll notice that as the level of participation increases, more time is taken in planning and dissemination. If you want results by next week, you're probably restricted to level 1 or 2. However, more time spent in planning usually means less time spent on implementation, so the apparent speed of low participation is often an illusion. However, despite the extra time required with increased participation levels, the cost of research and evaluation does not usually rise, because participative processes are more efficient in focusing on the end result.

Also, as the participation level rises, there's a transfer of power both within the provider organization (from one manager to many staff), and from the provider group to its audience. Participation involves empowerment, and there's a very practical reason for this. Top managers simply don't have the time to make many detailed decisions on behalf of many others. When power is shared (and goals are agreed on) progress can happen.

One point worth noting is that when large numbers of people (whether staff or audience) are involved, participation doesn't mean that every single person participates. Instead, a sample of people is chosen, with the aim of including a wide range of viewpoints and backgrounds.

Though we at Audience Dialogue believe participation is essential to the success of just about any project, there's still a place for methods such as statistical data collection and multiple-choice surveys. However, by themselves, they show only a small part of the picture.

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