Thinking about Participation for Sustainability

Recently, a group of us from the department put our different ideas together to write this paper “Participation as a pathway to pluralism: A critical view over diverse disciplines”. The paper was published in a special collection of the journal Advances in Ecological Research, called “Pluralism in Ecosystem Governance”. This blog post explains why we wrote it, what we did, what we found, and how our findings might be useful.

Participation is often framed as the solution to incorporating diverse social views in decision making

Amongst researchers, practitioners, and really all of us, we recognize that our natural world, our environment, includes people. For example, we often talk about social ecological systems to understand the interactions between people and their environment. We also accept that people are diverse – they have different relationships with the environment, and different priorities for how we interact and manage those interactions. We therefore understand that decision-making needs to somehow address and include people and their plural worldviews. To do so, we hear calls for creating spaces for people to participate in ecosystem governance; in decision-making and actions to deliver sustainability.

For participation to deliver on promises for incorporating social plurality, we need to understand its strengths, pitfalls, and potential roles in ecosystem governance.

Uncritically pushing for participation risks repeating mistakes and failing to meaningfully engage with people. Fortunately, there has been lots of research and practice around participation to learn from. These lessons are, however, spread across multiple areas of research that are not often linked together. As a result, we have different research silos, that are separately creating understandings of participation in different ways. As a group of authors, we wanted to bring these understandings together to see what we can learn from each. We therefore worked with bodies of knowledge that explicitly study participation, and that we also have represented within the department: Development studies and anthropology; Environmental governance, policy and planning; and Transformations and transitions research.

We discovered that there are different spaces for participation within governance systems – participation does not occur in just one form.

Governance is not about one organization making single decisions. We often talk about governance systems – collections of organisations and actors (including, but not limited to government) who make decisions and actions to manage resources and/or places. Decisions can be related to government policy and plans, but also relate to land owners, civil society, the private sector – all make decisions and take action that influence how our world is managed.

In such a governance system, there are multiple spaces for participation. We outline that these spaces are shaped by three dimensions:

  1. The interest boundary – are these participation opportunities related to decision making within a particular place(e.g. a village or a landscape)? Or are they related to a particular resource or topic (e.g. food, energy, water)?
  2. The position relative to state policy – are people participating in state-led decision-making? If so, are people participating in government policy decisions, or is control over decisions and actions given to participants (e.g. community based natural resource management)? Or does participation happen outside of the government framework (e.g. in living labs, grassroots organisations)? And if so, is it intended to be disruptive to the state systems?
  3. The direction of influence – does the participation seek to influence local decisions, or international decisions, or levels inbetween? Does it seek to influence agendas and priorities, or implementation and action? Is there an implied broader change (e.g. local change pushing for broader agenda shifts, or vice versa)?
Spaces of Participation in a Governance System

Meaningful participation must navigate these spaces and provide opportunities that match the dimensions that shape them.

Looking across our bodies of literature, we identify a range of challenges involved in navigating these spaces.

Complexity – people are often participants in multiple topics and places. Yet participating in decision-making for every area that impacts them is often too much. Further, participating at the local level only can miss influencing the broader political, economic and social factors that have already constrained the decisions that can be made locally. However, opportunities to participate directly in broader scale processes are much more limited. The challenge lies in how to juggle demands, availability, needs and opportunities across these spaces.

Inclusion – related to complexity, we need to consider who is present in which spaces of participation. This includes thinking about who has been invited to participate, and how that shapes the scope of discussion. It also includes thinking about accessibility of the format, and how that closes or opens the space to different groups of people.

Conflict – related to inclusion, we need to think about how our participation processes facilitate constructive conflict. Dissensus is unavoidable, and indeed surfacing it is one of the purposes of participation. Participatory processes need to engage with points of disagreement. However, where conflict is destructive it can drive away participants and suppress voices.

Power – related to conflict, inclusion and complexity, we also highlight the challenge of power. Power shapes who is included, and how that is decided. Power shapes conflict by shaping whose voices are heard, and who even feels able to speak. Power shapes how spaces for participation are created, and the scope they have to shape agendas and decisions.

Navigating spaces and challenges through reflexivity

In our paper, we therefore outline that participation needs to navigate these spaces of participation while remaining sensitive to how these challenges are handled. We point to the need for reflexivity in creating and managing participation. Reflexivity means to consider one’s own role and influence in the process, questioning worldviews and problem framings, and shifting actions in response.

We conclude our paper by outlining a set of questions that should guide reflexivity for those involved in participation:

  1. Who is included, and how does this match the participation space?
  2. Who holds power within the process, and how is this shaping the process and its outcomes?
  3. Who can benefit or be harmed by the process or its outcomes?
  4. Who holds power within the broader decision-making context (historical, institutional), and how does that shape answers 1-3?
  5. Where in the governance system does the participation target – what is the participation space?
  6. How does this participation space fit to others within the ecosystem governance, and what complementarities or complexities does that create?
  7. How are we adapting our processes to the answers to these questions?

We offer these points as practical suggestions for researchers and practitioners in participation in creating and steering these processes, in an attempt to avoid prescriptive suggestions.

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