Participation and the swimming pool problem…

[An occasional weeknotes cross-post from Connected by Data]

At a school governors meeting last week, I was reminded of what, when I first got involved in youth council participation in the late 1990s, we used to talk of as ‘The swimming pool problem’. The conversation that triggered this memory went something like this:

Governor 1: “We need to do something about Parent and Pupil Voice.”

Governor 2: “Well, we often ask the kids what they want in the school. But they always come back asking for a swimming pool: and that’s just impossible.* So not sure it’s worth us spending much time on pupil voice right now.”

*There is literally no space on the school site for a pool, and perhaps more importantly, it would take at least 1000x the available budget.

The idea that, because when asked the open question ‘what do you want to see?’ the people consulted come back with an unrealistic suggestion, is a reason not to engage with participatory practice, is one we often had to fight against as youth councillors. Over time, we learnt that instead of responding to “But we can’t build a swimming pool in every park!” with “Why not?” instead we needed to ask “What did you tell the group about your actual budget? Did you share information about what you do have the power to change?”.

This points to a challenge at the heart of any participatory practice: designing processes that are open enough to allow participants to express views rooted in their authentic experience and interests and that are constrained enough to focus discussions on decisions that can be made, and that give real power and influence to participants.

This theme has come up in three different pieces of work this week.

Firstly, in this write-up of my observations on the NHS AI Lab Public Dialogue on Data Stewardship I discuss an example of public dialogue work that sought to equip participants with background information on a complex topic (use of AI to analyse imaging datasets), and then to scaffold a meaningful discussion about models of data governance to be applied to this.

Secondly, in our evaluation of a deliberative engagement exercise commissioned by Justice Lab (the first Justice Data Matters report) we look at the challenges of supporting a diverse group of members of the public to engage with details of how access to machine-readable data from court records should be governed. In particular, we highlight the value of background materials that can provide shared reference points to enable ‘experts’ and ‘non-experts’ to talk effectively about key concepts like open justice, or kinds of court data use.

Lastly, in this write up describes the ‘Discovery’ workshop we held to inform Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s work on developing an insight infrastructure, we talk about how we used a set of example websites (selected based on prior interviews and survey responses) as the anchor for a discussion about ‘what works’ in provision of insight infrastructure. The JRF team have been keen to avoid imposing too strong a notion of what an insight infrastructure might be at the start of the engagement process, conscious of their power as a funder to (intentionally or not) steer discussions in ways that might prematurely close down important avenues of exploration. However, given the term insight infrastructure is under-defined, we also needed starting points concrete enough to allow comments and ideas raised in the workshop to speak to the kinds of programmes or activities JRF might develop.

In reflecting on the development of public dialogue and deliberative workshop approaches over the last few decades, it is good to see that a lot of participation has moved on from simply asking (and then dismissing the answer to) the question: “So what do you want?”. However, I’m also left observing that the seemingly ‘intangibility’ of so many data questions, and the way they are often interrelated with other complex questions (open justice; health economics; the politics of poverty etc.) means that developing materials and methods that will enable both inclusive and powerful citizen voice on data governance is an ongoing challenge.

In other news

Tickets are now available for Gloucestershire Data Day on 26th April – the event I’ve been co-organising with Create Gloucestershire, Active Gloucestershire and Barnwood Trust. It’s shaping up into a great agenda to mix practical and critical conversations on the role of data in community action.

Plus, we’ve got a lovely logo designed by the fantastic Joe Magee, who is more usually found creating films and backdrops for Bill Bailey tours: setting the creative bar high for the day.

Gloucestershire Data Day Logo

Reflections on “Participatory data stewardship: A framework for involving people in the use of data”

I read with interest the new Ada Lovelace report Participatory data stewardship: A framework for involving people in the use of data, not least because it connects two fields I’ve spent a good while exploring: participation & data governance.

Below I’ve shared a few quick notes in a spirit of open reflection (read mostly as ‘Yes, and…‘ rather than ‘No, but’):

The ladder: Arnstein, Hart and Pathways of Participation

Arnstein’s ladder of participation.
RSA ‘Remix’ of Arnstein

The report describes drawing on Sherry Arnstein’s ‘ladder of citizen participation’, but in practice uses an RSA simplification of the ladder into a five-part spectrum that cuts off the critical non-participation layers of Arnstein’s model. In doing this, it removes some of the key critical power of the original ladder as a tool to call out tokenism, and push for organisations to reach the highest appropriate rung that maximises the transfer of power.

I’ve worked with various remixes of Arnstein’s ladder over the years, particularly building on building on Hart’s youth engagement remix) that draws attention to distinction between ‘participant initiated’ vs. ‘organisationally initiated’ decision making. In one remix we put forward with Bill Badham and the NYA Youth Participation Team we set the ladder against the range of methods of participations, and explored the need for any participation architecture to think about the pathways of participation through which individuals grow in their capacity to exercise power over decisions.

It would be great to see further developments of the Ada Lovelace framework consider the mix of participatory methods that are appropriate to certain data use contexts, and how these can be linked together. For example, informing all affected stakeholders about a data use project can be the first rung on the ladder towards a smaller number becoming co-designers, joint decision makers, or evaluators. And to design a meaningful consultation reaching a large proportion of affected stakeholders might require co-design or testing with a smaller group of diverse collaborators first: making sure that questions are framed and explained in legitimate and accessible ways.

Data collection, datasets, and data use

“Well-managed data can support organisations, researchers, governments and corporations to conduct lifesaving health research, reduce environmental harms and produce societal value for individuals and communities. But these benefits are often overshadowed by harms, as current practices in data collection, storage, sharing and use have led to high-profile misuses of personal data, data breaches and sharing scandals.”

It feels to me as though the report falls slightly (though, to be fair, not entirely) into the trap of seeing data as a pre-existing fixed resource, where the main questions to be discussed are who will access a dataset, on what terms and to what end. Yet, data is under constant construction, and in participatory data stewardship there should perhaps be a wider set of questions explicitly on the table such as:

  • Should this data exist at all?
  • How can this data be better collected in ways that respect stakeholders needs?
  • What data is missing that should be here? Are we considering the ‘lost opportunites’ as well as the risks of misuse?
  • Is this data structured in ways that properly represent the interests of all stakeholders?

Personally, I’m particularly interested in the governance role of data standards and structures, and exploring models to increase diverse participation in shaping these foundational parts of data infrastructure.

Decentering the dataset

The report argues that:

“There are currently few examples of participatory approaches to govern access and use of data…”

yet, I wonder if this comes from looking through a narrow lens for projects that are framed as just about the data. I’d hazard that there are numerous social change and public sector improvement projects have drawn upon data-sharing partnerships – albeit framed in terms of service or community change, rather than data-sharing per-se.

In both understanding existing practice, and thinking about the future of participatory data governance practices, I suspect we need to look at how questions about data use are embedded within wider questions about the kinds of change we are seeking to create. For example, if a project is planning to pool data from multiple organisations to identify ‘at risk families’ and to target interventions, a participatory process should take in both questions of data governance and intervention design – as to treat the data process in issolation of the wider use process makes for a less accessible, and potentially substantially biased, process.

Direct participation vs. representatives

One of the things the matrix of (youth) participation model tries to draw out is the distinction between participatory modalities based on ad-hoc individual involvement where stakeholders participate directly, through to those that involve sustained patterns of engagement, but that often move towards models of representative governance. Knowing whether you are aiming for direct or representative-driven participation is an important part of then answering the question ‘Who to involve?’, and being clear on the kind of structures needed to then support meaningful participation.

Where next?

It’s great to see participatory models of data governance on the agenda of groups like Ada Lovelace – although it also feels like there’s a way still to go to see many decades learning from the participation field better connecting with the kinds of technical decisions that affect so many lives.