Participation: collective action, not just collecting ideas

A guest blog by John Baxter, CoCreate Adelaide Community Steward and Director of Realise.

I am constantly explaining collective impact to people in government.

We often use similar words to talk about completely different things.  When I say ‘cocreation’, they will say “ah, you do codesign!”  They might talk about a citizens’ jury as ‘empowerment’, while I assume they’re talking about a community development process.

Collective impact vs isolated impact seems to be a really clear proposition in the social sector.

Government is different.

In Australia, government is an all-conquering monolith.  Isolation is a problem, but it’s a very different problem.  Isolation is more about ivory towers than competitive blinkers.

My (least) favourite illustration is a pattern repeated far too many times.  In a genuine but misguided effort to demonstrate responsiveness, governments proudly proclaim

you have opinions

we make things happen

If you assume that government is The Agent for Making Things Happen, then public participation is reduced to government decision making.  The social sector becomes an arm of government.  We forget that voters and consumers are citizens too, and we all play a role shaping our futures.

The biggest shift demanded of governments involved in collective impact isn’t about breaking down isolated silos.  It is about embracing the limits of government capacity, and opening up to being only one agent among many.

The first shift, however, is seeing the fundamental difference between consultation and collective action, and opening up to the reality that we can’t do it all ourselves.  Only once this is clear can we make the decision to step into the work.

I created a tool recently to try to bring some clarity to discussions about engagement and collaboration.  It is simple and unoriginal, perhaps even obvious.  But people seem to like it, and it is definitely proving useful.

If you’ve crossed paths with community engagement then you will know the IAP2 spectrum.

Most engagement practitioners talk to me about frustration at the limitations of the spectrum… but at the same time, it is gospel.  It defines Australian community engagement practice.  It also encapsulates and perpetuates a limiting belief— government is The Agent for Making Things Happen; public participation is (and is only) the involvement of citizens in the decision making of government, citizens have no capacity to act.

It seems obviously false when spelled out like that, but the above screenshot is just one example of how insidious this myth can really be.

So I took the simple step of adding another arm to the spectrum to incorporate what I saw was missing – a spectrum for taking action, not just making decisions.  The result is the participation matrix (more background information can be found here).

The matrix helps us to be clear what we really mean when we are talking about participation, engagement and collaboration.

In a world where genuine collaboration is much rarer than it should be, the matrix forces us to ask who is really taking action.  When making decisions about how to approach a given challenge, we can be clearer about how participants are being involved – and shape our approach accordingly.

Many in government have ambition for the sort of system-shift that requires a collective approach, but apply yet another government-centred project in response.  Hopefully one day this won’t be quite so common.

The participation matrix and the original story behind it was published the April 2014 Cocreation Report, available at realise.jsbaxter.com.au/cr2, also see this July 2014 presentation (7m video) on participation and community engagement.

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