Open Spaces and Effective Participation: A comparative exploration

At the Youth Summit last this week Steve Moore from Channel 4/Policy Unplugged injected a hour-long 'Open Space' session into the more formal structure of the event. Open space ideas also heavily influenced the session design I developed for a series of recent dialogue events between young people, DfES officials and the Minister for Children and Families (at that point, Parmjit Dhanda) looking at the Local Offer. This has got me thinking about what 'Open Space Technology' has got to offer to participation practitioners, and what factors we need to be thinking of when exploring its use.

[Skip to the conclusions ]

Open space 'pure': Youth Summit

An open space session does not come with a set agenda, but invites participants to set their own topics of conversation, and to self-select the groups they want to work in and the conversations they want to have. As such – it can give rise to unexpected ideas and important discussions that get missed when too much structure is presented. In the open space session at the Youth Summit, we found young people raising questions about monitoring forms and the length of time change takes. Both topics that were not on the 'agenda' for the main event – but important topics.

Elements of open space: 3D Dialogues

In our dyes Dialogue Days (the 3D dialogues as we called them) were heavily facilitated and structured. But included elements that enabled earlier parts of the dialogue to shape the agenda of later parts – and encouraged self-selection of later discussion topics. Each session included three hours of 'dialogue'.

We spent the first hour of each of each sessions on contextualizing activities – using a 'name-game bingo' activity to explore what the local offer is, and then using a facilitated mapping exercise to create discussion about whether the activities young people have a right to under the local offer are actually available to them.

In the second hour, we used a conventional 'idea-storm' activity to invite ideas on ways in which young people wanted to influence the provision of activities in their local areas – and the ways they wanted to hold local government to account for what is provided. This session ended by inviting groups to prioritise the methods of influence and accountability they felt most important to discuss further.

For the first two session, young people tended to work in groups with those they had come to the dialogue event with (we had up to 30 young people at each event from 3 – 8 different regionally dispersed projects).

Over a break, the facilitates picked out four or five key themes emerging from the idea-storm and priorisation, and selected these as themes for the third hour of discussion. In this way, themes emerging from young dialogue participants influenced the agenda – although the facilitates mediated this process, factoring in considerations of which of the prioritized potential discussion would be likely to have the most relevance to policy topics or official present – or which were 'new ideas' which clearly deserved deeper discussion.

In the final hour – during which the Minister and additional officials joined the sessions – the themes were replayed to the group – and individuals encouraged to choose the theme of most interest to them. Recording flip-charts were given to each group to give some structure to discussions on that theme. Young people were encouraged to select and stick-with a theme, although officials and the Minister were enabled to move around the themes according to interest and relevance. All those gathered around a theme were encouraged to dialogue on it – using the questions on the recording flip-charts as a guide.

Some reflections

I believe participation work is about promoting the ability of those affected by decisions and action to influence those decisions and actions. This involves enabling their voices and views to be heard with authenticity, but also enabling them to engage in practical dialogue on a topic at an appropriate level of complexity. I am continually conscious of the tension between providing the context and structure an individual or group may need to be able to engage with complex questions – and ensuring such context and structure does not harm the authenticity of the views expressed (i.e. does not over-prescribe the range of views that can be expressed and so illicit views from people that they do not genuinely hold*).

At first glance, I think open space has potential to be a weight on the authenticity side of the balance. Forcing us to think critically about whether we really need to provide so much structure for young people to be able to participate and engage in effective dialogue. In the first 3D Dialogue session we ran, we had expected to need to facilitate the final hour of thematic discussions, but found that the groups were far more productive self-facilitating – at least in part because they had chosen the topics out of their own interests.

One concern I have, however, about open space methods is that, unlike some of the more structured activities we had developed, they have a strong bias towards enabling the most articulate and confident to direct and control discussions. I'm sure visual tools and on-verbal processes can be introduced into open spaces – but the need for planned and prepared facilitation and activity to enable disadvantaged groups to participate in a dialogue is often an important element of youth participation. Of course, in an idealistic open space process, we might wish that participants self-facilitate and develop tools to ensure all voices are heard and involved – but expecting this to emerge or occur in a short session is, in almost all cases, unrealistic.

Some conclusions

Open space methods can empower young people far more than many conventional participation processes – but don't empower all equally. Open space then, I believe, has a place in the participation practitioners toolbox – but, in most cases, as part of a broader process.

In our 3D dialogues, we could have opened up the third hour more – prepared for the agenda to be more directly set by participants, and equipped participants better to all engage in the dialogue that followed. But we should not abandon the preparation, contextualization and use of creative non-verbal methods that built up to this stage.

And if we are going to use open space tools, we do need to think about where the outcomes go. An open space used as part of a consultation needs to have a clearly defined range of topics – as it is likely to be unhelpful to let conversation range over topics not within the domain of the consultation – and is certainly likely to exacerbate the criticism that many participation processes do not lead to change or even meaninful feedback to those involved.

I'm certainly going to be exploring open spaces more… and I'm sure this isn't the last exploration of its influence on participation that I'll post here…

Youth Summit Live

On Monday and Tuesday next week I'll be at the Youth Summit co-ordinating 'Youth Summit Live' – an online space for capturing input from the conference, and opening up the conference to a wider audience and range of inputs.

The billing for the Youth Summit sets out a big challenge:

The Youth Summit will herald the new era of service provision for young people with emerging priorities from the Government’s ten-year strategy for children and young people and the Comprehensive Spending Review. The event will explore the Government’s ‘youth offer’ and map out the policy landscape for outcome-driven services for young people and their communities. It will hear directly from a wide range of young people as experts by experience.

This two-day event will bring together Government Ministers, senior officials, leading policy makers, service providers and a panel of 100 young people from across England, forging dynamic links between young people, communities and government. Delegates will take an active part in moving from words to action to help ensure improved services and outcomes for young people.

ScreenshotAnd the plan is that Youth Summit Live will create a platform to capture the mapping, whilst also recording and opening up to wider dialogue, plans for action.

The platform itself is a quickly put together Drupal website set-up with four types of content which both those at the summit and interested parties who aren't there on the day can contribute to:

  • Blog posts – inviting narrative and free comment
  • Where are we now? – Assessment of provision for young people at present (linked to the workshop discussions on day 1)
  • Where do we want to be? – Space to identify priorities for action (linked to the workshops on day 2)
  • Supporting Evidence – Additional content which can inform the dialogues at the Summit

The Summit itself is structured around the Every Child Matters (ECM) outcomes framework, with workshops taking place on each of the five ECM outcomes on both the first and second day. Content submitted to Youth Summit Live can therefore be categorised by ECM outcomes and the plan is to pull out all the content under each heading at the end of day 1, and make as much of it as possible physically present in the workshop rooms for day 2.

I'm also on the look out for good visualisations that can be projected up on walls to help the information collected make a big impact straight away. Suggestions on that front welcome. I'm making use of the timeline widget for drupal, and news bubbles, and I'm exploring some RSS screensavers – but I've so far failed to find an easy-to-implement system to convert rss feeds to newsmaps.

One of the challenges we face is that the conference centre WiFi is too expensive to be made available free to delegates, so we have relatively conduits for content input and output. We've got paper versions of some of the 'Where are we now?' and 'Where do we want to be?' input forms – so we can capture content directly from workshops and then convert it into a digital 'live' record – and we'll be running a small blogging station when laptops are not being used by workshop fascilitators – but we are limited in the chanels through which we can invite input and share live feeds of content from the Youth Summit Live site. That said, we will have a team of young roving reporters with us at the event creating an overnight newsletter – so that should provide some extra space sharing the outputs of Youth Summit Live – and I'm off to explore mobile-phone enabling the website…

Whatever the challenges, Monday and Tuesday are certainly set to be really exciting (if exhausting…). We've got over 100 young people taking part in the Youth Summit, and we've got a number of digital and social media activists joining us, including DK from Mediasnackers, Steve Moore from Policy Unplugged, and a group of young people from a radio project linked to the Ministry of Justice. There is a lot to go into the mix – and, as the youth summit billing says, we quite probably are on the edge of “a new era of service provision for young people”

Civicus Assembly in Review

The Civicus Youth Assembly has left its mark on the Civicus World Assembly in this statment, presented to delegates in the closing plenary (as well as in young peoples contributions throughout the event).

At one point – with the TerraViva news reporting a 'Youth Rebelion' , and many of the young delegates at the world assembly disaffected and despondent – it looked like the positive step of inviting young people as active participants to the Civicus World Assembly 2007 was going to be seen as a bad mistake. But, the dedication of a core of young delegates to bring a positive youth voice to the centre of the Assembly, a committment to collaboration that far surpasses that seen between many NGOs, and late nights huddled round a laptop screen meant 2007 can be seen as a significant step forward for Civicus, laying the foundations for further and deeper youth engagement in furture World Assemblies.

This said, the process that led to the young peoples declaration was far from perfect, and throws up crucial learning and a reminder that in all participation, especially young peoples engagement – holding the right principles at the core of all planning is crucial.

The notes below try to explore some of the difficulties youth involvement in the World Assembly faced, and to suggest some possible (but not definitive) approaches to tackling these. The tone is of contructive criticism, and I should start with the strongest celebration and commendation of Civicus's strides forward in making it to this point, bringing together an impressively diverse group of young people and committing to the involovement of developing involvement of younger generations in it's work.


Workshops at speed: going deep enough

The challenges began in the Civicus Youth Assembly – a two day gathering of 130 young people from 65 countries. Day 1 of the programme consisted of near-back-to-back hour long workshops exploring particular issues in development. However, these sessions simply led into a short feedback plenary, and the issues discussed in them were not woven into the later programme in any way. Such short workshops gave neither the space for an introduction to an issue for the unitiated, nor time for in-depth discussion by those already aware of or working on the issues – and without a clear outcome led many participants unsatisfied.

Suggestion: Create a speed-learning series of interactive introduction presentations (given by participants) where a breadth of issues can be covered in 15 minute slots, and then invest two-to-three hours in longer in-depth sessions exploring a limited number of issues in depth – with a clear 'question' for those sessions to consider.

Participation needs principles

The lack of clarity about purpose continued to dog day 2 of the Youth Assembly, and the three-hour session on 'participation' – far from resolving the challenges – deepend the problems and left a legacy of confusion which hampered youth involvement in the rest of the World Assembly. The Participation sessions in the Youth Assembly programme were introduced as a chance to explore three different methods of participative dialogue – and with external fascilitators the group was split arbitarily into three. I can only reflect on the sub-group I was in, but therein the piecemeal issuing of instructions meant that by the end of an hour of break-out time, we 'discovered' that we were to perform a tableaux communicating a bullet pointed 'issue' affecting young people, and that this issue was to feed back into selecting a set of youth priorities out of the Youth Assembly. Not only were the methods chosen inappropriate for the short time available (trying to develop participative drama in 20 minutes with an international group) but we were given no clear idea of where our inputs were to be used.

Comment: All participation should be based on core principles of openness, informed consent and transparency. Where there is not time for a process to be used effectively, it should not be used. Where a question is asked of participants (e.g. 'Identify the key issues facing young people in your area?'), it should be clear how the answers will be used – and what other questions they go towards answering ('E.g. What are the top issues for young people globally?') – and if this isn't possible prior to the first questions being asked, there should be opportunities to modify answers when the 'big picture' is introduced.*

I was greatly disappointed by the Participation Sessions at the Youth Assembly – as they were a real missed opportunity. That the '9 point list' they led to lacked legitimacy was, however, the spark for young people to really come into their own as effective collaborators, salvaging the 9 points and bringing a coherence to them in the World Assembly… and more on that in a moment.

Suggestion: The idea of a set of outcomes from the Youth Assembly needed to be build in from the start, and open to negotiation throughout. Processes suited to the outcomes sought should have been used, and participation made a 'thread' running through the Youth Assembly, not something that can slot into a three-hour session.

The articulate are over-empowered by poor processes

Credit: Steven Giron (I'd welcome other Youth delegates reflections on the story of the declarations development – as I had thrown myself into the wider World Assembly by this point, and was only on the periphery of the declaration drafting)

As confusion about the 9-points developed in the Youth Assembly participation sessions grew during the World Assembly, a number of Youth Delegates began work to redraft the points and work them into a coherent declaration. Without clear meeting space of sceduled contact of youth delegates, the group that formed was relatively ad-hoc, although it was collaborative and sought to include all those who were interested in taking part. This fluid group worked through Thursday and late through the night on Friday – regularly checking in with a wider group of youth delegates to gather suggested changes to the text of the document. The final declaration was an immensly positive product.

However, I have the strong impression that the strongest influences on that text will be the voices of the most articulate in the group – those with the stongest English, and the greatest experience of 'essay writing'. This is not to say that other voices did not impact the declaration – but it does suggest that in the absense of an inclusive and well designed participation process, the articulate and confident voices shape the text.

Comment: Participation processes need to be concious of power and influence and how to be inclusive in light of the way in which language skills, experience and confidence will impact on these. We 'fell back' on creating a declaration, because we didn't create the space to explore other possible products of the Youth Assembly and youth involvement in the World Assembly – and had we really engaged with creative participative processes we may have ended up with a very different mark left by young people on Civicus 2007.

Adults need induction too

“There is a mix of interest, dis-interest, enthusiasm, confusion and resentment about young peoples' presence here.” Whilst young people had a two-day induction to the World Assembly through the Civicus Youth Assembly – 'adult' delegates had little induction to the youth presence. As a result, most delegates were unclear on what young people had to offer to the Assembly. I've considered the different rationales for involving young people in this post here and it strikes me that some induction to help all delegates understand the different forms of and values in intergenerational dialogue would contribute to more effective youth involvement in future.

Suggestions: More 'induction' or scene setting information is needed for all delegates about youth involvement (at least while we are in this transition period before youth involvement is fully mainstream…). That might be as simple as a page in the printed programme giving a welcome, or it might be some specific sessions on youth participation and engagement early on in the World Assembly programme. Perhaps a young-delegate hosted 'youth hub' as a physical space in the delegates lounge would help create a structured meeting of generations that could break-down barriers throughout the assembly…

Briefings are important

I've just found a copy of 'Civil Society Legitimacy and Accountability' in my bag which I picked up from outside a session at the Assembly on one of the last days. After reading just three pages I've already got a far better handle on the accountability focus of the events – on the problems the assembly was addressing. Why didn't I read this before? Well – partly because Youth Assembly delegates were not briefed on the briefings – and when we discovered that reading them would be helpful – we couldn't get hold of them…

Suggestion: Make sure Youth Assembly delegates get clear information about all the briefings and papers that might be relevant – and if if is felt these are too involved to be 'light background reading' – explore whether some of the 'Youth Assembly' induction can be used to unpack key issues before the main Assembly – so that a youth perspective can be input into the discussions of these papers…

Get creative and intercultural

I have a confession. I left the World Assembly a day early. Youth Hostels are great places to stay most of the week… except Fridays… then the singing till 5am can cause tiredness in even the most resilient… and turning up to a really interesting sounding session on two hours sleep, only to find it is three-hours of dry presentations is enough to finish anyone off.

The World Assembly brings together over 100 different nations, and many more cultures – so why is there so little creative space? Space for storytelling, music making, visual arts and craft activities. On Thursday I went on a 'learning exchange' to the Village Story Telling Centre and in the informal space that afforded had some of the best conversations of the whole Assembly, significantly leading to some of the strongest networking I was a part of.

Suggestion: Create creative spaces around the World Assembly. Rooms or corners where people can gather around the arts and share in informal conversations and relationship building that strengthens the bonds of civil society, breaks down cultural and intergenerational barriers, and, um, well, is fun.

Keeping the Conversation Going

I took part in a few discussions on the Civicus Assembly website forum before the event, and I tried to encourage social media use at the Assembly – but by-and-large I've found the Assembly appears, at least from the persepective of a non-member of Civicus, to be a storm of networking activity, in a year of relative calm. Social media could provide a powerful way of laying the foundations of conversations before the event, continueing conversations beyond the event – and helping make sure networking is structured and supported.

Suggestion: If pre-event materials make clear reference to online discussion spaces, or social bookmarking 'tags', and the conference programme re-iterates those messages – then over time a 'social media' aspect to Civicus could emerge as a key element of the communication, discussion and networking mix…


These notes – long as they are – are just a brief summary of reflections… and I'll hopefully be able to develop more points in future posts soon…


*I'm aware I'm guilty of breaching all these principles in a number of participation processes I've planned – and some I've only become adequately aware of through being on the participant side of a poor participation process. Sticking to these principles is challenging – but its a challenge I shall be renewing my committment to meet since by experience in Glasgow.

The challenge of change and network building

I'm currently involved in establishing a network of consultants and practitioners working on embedding youth participation (called The Enfusion Network).

For the network to function at its best, we need to encourage practioners and consultants to engage with an open working style that allows the benefits of a network to emerge.

But as Seth Godin's post on bananas suggests… (and as our experience working to encourage organisations to embed young peoples engagement backs up…) 'selling' and encouraging change is tough.

But if we're serious about the need for Enfusion (which we are). And if we're serious about avoiding 'organisation building' and making sure that we have a responsive network that really serves to aid improved practice and impact in youth engagement (which we are), then we need to stick at it.

We've just had a working weekend to explore the next steps for the network, and from that I think our core challenges are:

  • To keep our vision focussed on creating connections between practioners and consultants focussed on embedding youth engagement in organisations and communities – and to find ways of clearly keeping that focus while being open to allow interdisciplinary connections to emerge…
  • To find creative ways of engaging potential network members in Enfusion – both showing the value of making small changes to working patterns in order to be able to engage through the network, and through creating positive opportunities for connections to be made (developing on from our conference calls and coffee house chats…)
  • To find sources of funding and ways of becoming sustainable that don't rely on 'organisation building' and allow the network to remain agile and effective, responding to the needs in the field for critical discussion space, networking space and reflection space.

We're going to be working on meeting these challenges over the coming months, so all pointers and suggestions most welcome…