[Guest Post by Patricia Dorsher is the Feedback Labs Launch Editor at Ashoka and James E. Jernberg Public Service Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Feedback Labs is a consortium of like-minded organizations, including Ashoka and Ushahidi, who are committed to citizen engagement in the fields of aid, philanthropy, and development. A previous version of this post was originally published on Feedback Labs on July 31, 2013.]
In feedback loops, not all mechanisms are created equal. You can get useful and accurate information by increasing citizen participation in feedback giving, but the process of eliciting information may be just as important as the data itself.
In a study recently added to the growing bank of literature on Feedback Labs, Kathy S. Quick and Martha S. Feldman examine citizen engagement initiatives undertaken by the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan. They evaluated the initiatives along two distinct dimensions: participation and inclusion. These terms are often used interchangeably, but Quick and Feldman argue that they in fact promote two very different processes.
Participation is distinguished as “efforts to increase public input oriented primarily to the content of programs and policies.” In a development context, this could mean using surveys of residents to solicit broad-based input on where to place water pumps within a community. This is an important step, but could be pushed further.
Inclusion, while often taken to mean special effort to engage members of minority and marginalized populations, is defined here as practices which “entail continuously creating a community involved in coproducing processes, policies, and programs for defining and addressing public issues.” Building on the previous example, this could be working with citizens to frame the discussion around water issues and set the agenda; perhaps part of the community doesn’t see the pumps as their most pressing need, but would rather focus on sanitation. An inclusive process would then let the conversation evolve, acting upon the input received from the community and shifting focus as necessary. Giving space for a community to identify and act upon their issues sets up a precedent for feedback-giving.
Inclusion breaks down common divisions between actors – such as funder verses beneficiary, expert verses experiential knowledge – and allows communities to better address their own needs through focusing on “making connections among people, across issues, and over time.” All these benefits have the potential to spur systems-level change. Closing the feedback loop, allowing citizens to drive the agenda rather than funders and implementers, increasing the sustainability of philanthropy by directing resources to the most pressing needs as identified locally, and creating stronger communities is truly transformational.
Additionally, Grand Rapids showed that inclusion processes led to greater community satisfaction than participation processes. So how can we get more bang for our buck in development? Even if participatory and inclusive processes create the same outcomes at the project level, greater community satisfaction is a true value-add and should be considered a goal worth spending resources on. Using more inclusive mechanisms is one way to get there.
This study serves as an important affirmation for the work that members of Feedback Labs and others in the development community are already doing. Several projects and approaches have been highlighted throughout the Feedback Labs blog, but there is one common thread connecting them to inclusion theory: each is working to create a community of feedback-giving, in which citizens are able to effectively have their voices and priorities heard.
Questions remain over how exactly to implement inclusion processes within different contexts – how do you even start to build these relationships within communities with very legitimate reasons to be distrustful? How do you push forward if local government leadership is weak or feels threatened by citizen engagement? And what about those emergency situations where you just need to act?
Quick and Feldman acknowledge that different techniques are appropriate for different contexts, something we can all recognize to be true. There is no prescription for inclusion building, though the patterns they found included “engag[ing] multiple ways of knowing,” “coproduc[ing] the process and content of decision making,” and maintaining a “temporal openness” that lends the process to iteration. Furthermore, they suggest paying attention to how each discreet engagement process allows citizens to connect with each other and become a community can move participation towards inclusion.
This means it will take well-informed and tuned-in practitioners who are committed to ongoing learning to lead the change and share their successes and failures. Read Quick and Feldman’s full paper, Distinguishing Participation and Inclusion, as originally published in the September 2011 issue of the Journal of Planning Education and Research, to see how this can apply to your work.