[Summary: expanding on scribbled notes from a recent workshop on e-participation]
A few weeks ago I took part in the YouthPart launch workshop in Berlin at the kind invitation of Nadine Karbach. YouthPart is a new project, led by the German International Youth Service exploring e-participation for youth engagement. I was there to give a short 10-minute input on some elements of youth e-participation in the UK (slideshare slides here). During one of the break-out discussions, I was on a table exploring the question “What does successful e-participation look like?”.
At first, the discussion centred on the fact that the success of e-participation should be measured just the same as the success of any participation: for Practical Participation that would mean can we measure what’s changed (doc) for the people involved and for the wider community. But there also developed an interesting thread of questions about the unique success criteria that we could apply to e-participation projects, particularly e-participation for young people. Some of the questions that might point us towards success criteria that I jotted down here:
- Was the platform and process selected appropriate?
Did it set reasonable expectations about the decisions that were being made, and the scope for influencing change? Did it give people the freedom to express their views on the issue at hand? Did it keep discussions adequately focussed? Did it allow you to give participants feedback on what changed as a result of their input? Was it cost effective? Did technical problems get in the way of people participating?
Whilst e-participation isn’t just about the platform, choosing the right platform for the right process matters. It is often tempting for e-participation projects to try and build their own platforms (I’m certainly guilty of going down this route in the past), but more often than not, there are good tried and tested platforms out there: the trick is in finding the right one and pairing it with the right process and facilitation support.
- Did your e-participation tilt the balance of power in favour of young people?
Young people often face significant inequalities of power when it comes to participating in policy making: whether explicit (not being able to vote; not given a shared role in decision making), or implicit (lack of experience makes it tricker to make your point; limited time to engage with an issue because of pressures of school or college make ‘competing’ with full-time lobbyists and advocates difficult etc.).
Good e-participation should address these power imbalances, and should work to rebalance power in young people’s favour.
- Is it inclusive?
Have all the groups affected by the decisions being made been able to input? Have you seen a diverse range of views and opinions? How could you choice of platform or process exclude particular groups? Have you reached out in a range of communities? If you have been reaching out through social networks, how have you checked that you are not just going to easy-to-reach networks?
E-participation often involved disintermediation of the youth participation process: young people are invited to input directly into discussion and decision making, without facilitation in groups or from workers. That can make for a more inclusive process, but it can also leave some people out.
E-participation might need to be part of a blended strategy that involved online and offline working. Reaching out to different groups is just as important online as offline.
- Are the parameters of your e-participation transparent, and open to critique
Lawrence Lessig’s idea that ‘Code is Law‘ highlights that in digital environments the limits we set to what can be done can act as firm, but often invisible, restrictions on our actions. Whereas in a face-to-face workshop that asks people to fill in boxes on a flip-chart with ideas someone can scribble ideas in the margins – outside the set boxes and categories – the digital world often doesn’t offer these opportunities. Whilst in a face-to-face setting someone can more easily question the way of workshop is being facilitated if they feel there is a bias in it – that’s often harder to do when the ‘facilitation’ is coded into an e-participation platform.
Thinking critically about the constraints built into an e-participation platform, and making sure you are sensitive to participants questioning your assumptions about the parameters is important.
- Does this e-participation project increase the chance of the organisation/young people creating change next time?
One of the big observations of workshop participants was that bad participation experiences can put people off civic engagement for life; but that you can’t expect every participation experience to lead to change clearly enough or fast enough to satisfy many young people engaging with a participation opportunity for the first time.
So, if you’re not sure your project will lead to a satisfying and positively reenforcing experience of change for young participants, should you try starting it at all? Or should you avoid building expectations you might risk seeing crushed? Well – one way to guide the design of a project might be to think: it should have the maximum chance of making change this time, but it should also build participants capacity, skills and opportunities to create change in future.