Community Participation Approaches and Techniques (Part 1)

According to the Local Agenda 21, community participation is one of the main goals to achieve healthy communities and sustainable development at a local level. But community participation requires going beyond consultation to enable citizens to become an integral part of the decision making and action process.

Recent global developments, such as Health21, Local Agenda 21 and Healthy Cities, have been influential in putting community participation high on the political and public agendas for local authorities, health authorities and other agencies.

Health and sustainable development are closely related and interconnected concepts and the frameworks offered by Local agenda 21 and Healthy Cities have many things in common.

In summary, both frameworks focus on local action within the context of a global strategy that advocates implementation at the international and local levels; embrace a concern for developing holistic visions and strategic approaches to local governance that integrate environmental, economic and social considerations; and are underpinned by shared principles and processes, including a commitment to equity and social justice, sustainability, intersectoral action and community participation.

The meaning of the term community participation is used so widely that is often unclear. To understand community participation, it is useful to analyse the two concepts separately.

The term community is refer to a group of people who share an interest, a neighbourhood, or a common set of circumstances.

They may or may not, acknowledge membership of a particular community.

Participation implies a process by which people are enabled to become actively and genuinely involved in defining the issues of concern to them, in making decisions about factors that affect their lives, in formulating and implementing policies, in planning, developing and delivering services and in taking action to achieve change.

Community participation implies a number of other terms and concepts, such as consultation, involvement, citizenship, community action, empowerment and community organising. All these concepts make an important contribution to achieving a number of objectives, such as:

- Increasing democracy. Community participation in decision making, planning and action is a human right. An increasing number of citizens are disillusioned with government and want to see more participatory approaches to democracy. It is increasingly being argued that new Styles and structured of governance are needed that transcend people being viewed as passive recipients of services provided by agencies and decided by elected representatives and enable genuine participation, empowerment and citizenship.

- Combating exclusion. Community development and community organising often works with specific groups of the population especially those that are marginalised and disadvantaged. The changing contexts within and between European countries (such as the increase in asylum seekers) can pose special cultural and political challenges and require that workers be equipped with relevant skills, knowledge and attitudes. By giving these communities a voice, community participation can play an important role in combating social exclusion within society.

- Empowering People. Community participation can be both an outcome of empowerment and an effective empowerment strategy. The actual process of participation can inherently empower individuals and communities to understand their own situations and to gain increased control over the factors affecting their lives. This can, in turn, enhance people's sense of wellbeing and quality of life, as highlighted in Health21.

- Mobilising resources and energy. Communities have a wealth of untapped resources and energy that can be harnessed and mobilised through community participation, using a range of practical techniques that can engage people and, where appropriate, train and employ them in community development work. There is a clear tension here between mobilising resources in a way that empowers communities and mobilising to reduce the cost of providing services.

- Developing holistic and integrated approaches.

Untrained people or community members can think from their own perspectives, making valuable contribution to the formulation of holistic and cross - cutting approaches that can meaningfully address the complex issues being faced by towns and cities.


- Achieving better decisions and more effective services.

Involving people in identifying needs, planning and taking action can result in better and more creative decisions being taken and more responsive and appropriate services being provided.

- Ensuring the ownership and sustainability of programs

Community participation is essential if interventions and programmes aimed at promoting health, wellbeing, quality of life and environmental protection are to be widely owned and sustainable. However, such sustainability requires that the community participation process itself be sustainable, with fundamental prerequisites being in place.

Levels of Community Participation

It is important to recognise different degrees or levels of participation. To clarify the concept of participation, a number of scholars have formulated typologies which outline different levels of participation. Two well-known efforts are Sherry Arnstein’s 1969 ladder of citizen participation and Sarah White’s 1996 work on the forms and functions of participation.

The challenge for many people working in local authorities, health authorities and other agencies is to move up the ladder, finding new tools and techniques that promote active and genuine involvement, citizenship and empowerment rather than settling for the more passive processes of providing information and consultation.

Arnstein Ladder of Participation

A ladder of citizen participation’, Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35.4: 216–224

However it is also important to acknowledge that it is not always possible or appropriate to aim for the top rung of the ladder, as Kummeling has highlighted in Healthy Cities.

What the ladder does not show are the actions and barriers to move from one level to the next. Finally, in real-life situations many more levels may exist, and people may move up and down the ladder over time within the same intervention.

In recognition of this, South Lanarkshire Council in Scotland developed the wheel of Participation as a model to assist in community planning. The wheel draws on the ladder of participation and distinguishes objectives related to information, consultation, participation and empowerment.

The importance of a strategic approach to community participation

If community participation is to be sustainable and effective, it must be developed and practised in a coherent, coordinated and strategic way. This means that action to enable community participation must take place in a number of ways at a number of different levels. It should include support for grassroots community- level capacity-building and development, the establishment and strengthening of networks and infrastructures for communities and professionals and a commitment to meaningful organisational development.

1- Community-level work

Resourcing grassroots work and local action with both geographical communities and communities of interest is usually the starting-point in enabling community participation. This process is long term, involving the establishment of trust and mutual respect between communities (especially those often excluded) and professionals, investment in capacity-building and a concern to work with communities to address their priorities.

2- Networking

Developing community participation and increasing its influence requires facilitating the development of community and professional infrastructure. This can enable communities, development workers and professionals within organisations to network - sharing common experiences, learning from each another, strengthening competencies and building alliances.

3- Organisational development.

Organisational development focuses on the recognition and realisation of the potential of people in organisations, working within and between organisations to assist effectiveness, capabilities and adaptability. Within the context of community participation, organisational development is often used with community development to ensure that organisations are able and willing to respond to the views, ideas and needs expressed by local communities and service users and to develop a more broadly based understanding of citizenship. It is often concerned with organisational and professional capacity- building, managing change and developing structures and systems to ensure involvement and accountability.

Community participation techniques and methods

The action planning cycle

Recognising the importance of working within an integrated strategic planning framework such as that characterised by city health development planning, the techniques and methods are broadly categorised according to an action planning model comprising a continuous cycle with five stages: assessing needs and assets, agreeing on a vision, generating ideas and plans for action, enabling action, and monitoring and evaluating.

Assessing needs and assets. Involving communities in assessing their own needs and assets is a key component of the overall planning process, often providing a starting- point by increasing the understanding of both professionals and the community and enabling more responsive and participatory policy-making and service delivery.

Agreeing on a vision. Local Agenda 21 and Healthy Cities demonstrate the importance of agreeing on a common vision of how people want their future to be and using this to guide strategic planning.

Generating ideas and plans for action. Community participation can contribute to generating practical ideas and developing these ideas into high-quality, sustainable plans for action.

Enabling action. Healthy Cities and Local Agenda 21 are both focused on action and on setting priorities that enable plans to be implemented meaningfully. Action may be based on the community or focused on organisational development and change.

Monitoring and evaluating. The processes of monitoring and evaluation are important components of the overall action planning cycle, enabling participants to reflect on and assess plans and action to ensure that lessons are learned and fed back into future planning.

Several important points should be noted before the toolbox is used as a model.

First, the toolbox is indicative and illustrative rather than definitive: one can start at different stages, take the stages in a different order or focus on just some of the stages. Second, the techniques and methods do not fit neatly into the categories indicated by the five stages. Some can be used at several different stages; some can be used to work with a community at each of the five stages moving through the whole cycle; and some fit naturally together with others in moving from one stage to the next. When a technique can readily be used in other stages than that described, this is indicated. Third, the methods described represent just a small selection of the techniques used in the community participation process. Further, many of the methods profiled themselves use well established group-work techniques such as ice-breakers, brainstorming and mind- mapping or draw on specific research tools such as focus groups.

Choosing appropriate techniques and methods: a checklist of questions:

Before techniques and methods are outlined, it is useful to set out a checklist of questions that can assist individuals and organisations involved in community participation in choosing the techniques and methods that are most appropriate to their particular situation.

What is the motivation for and focus of community participation? Why are you engaging in community participation? Are you viewing participation as a means or an end? If it is a means, what is your focus? Do you want to hear stakeholder's views on a specific planning proposal or about a particular issue? Do you want to review service delivery? Or do you want to identify community concerns and agree on an action plan for health and/or sustainable development as a whole? Different methods are likely to be effective for different purposes.

Who is the community? What is the nature of the community itself? Is your focus a specific geographical neighbourhood, a particular population group, the whole local authority population or a range of stakeholders affected by a planned development? Different methods are better suited to working with different sizes and types of community. For instance, methods that rely on a written questionnaire or complex discussion may be inappropriate for engaging community members who are less articulate, educated or confident. By contrast, methods that use arts media (such as video,drama or drawing), modelling, simulations or diagrams are likely to be more accessible to a greater range of people.

What level of participation is appropriate? Community participation can operate on several different levels. The desired level and therefore specific technique or method may differ depending on who is included in the community and the motivation for participation.

How important are quantity and quality?

Some techniques emphasise involving a relatively small number of representative community members as stakeholders in the participation process, often through community and voluntary-sector agencies. Others give priority to and, indeed, gain their legitimacy from the participation of a large proportion of a given community. Being aware of the distinction between stakeholder and more broadly based public participation and deciding the relative importance of the quantity and quality of involvement can guide the choice of techniques.

How much time and how many resources have you got?

It has been stressed that community participation, when practised as part of a comprehensive strategy for community development, is resource intensive and long term. The available time and resources should influence the techniques and methods chosen.