Action research and evaluation on line

Session 5: Achieving participation



This is Session 5 of areol, action research and evaluation on line, a 14-week public course offered as a public service by Southern Cross University and the Southern Cross Institute of Action Research (SCIAR). which some ways of achieving involvement of many stakeholders are discussed, and specific processes for high-quality involvement within meetings are described


Imagine some community or organisational issue affecting you. It might be roadworks which will encroach on your home, perhaps.  Or a change of structure in your organisation that downgrades you.  Now, step back from your situation.  Think about all the others who will be affected in some way by whatever decision is made.  And ask yourself, if you had the decision to make, how might you take all views into account?


In this session:


Sessions 3 and 4 examined issues of participation and involvement.

In session 3, I talked about the importance of beginnings, especially as they relate to entry and contracting.  I expressed a preference for person-to-person relationships with all stakeholders.  I said I preferred relationships which were open and flexible.  (I don't pretend that such relationships are easily achieved.)

In session 4, I examined the nature of clients and stakeholders.  I talked in general terms about how they might be involved.  I offered the view that the researcher or evaluator can choose from many levels of involvement.

This session describes some specific ways in which participation can be achieved in practice.

It is probably time for me to repeat something I said earlier.  I'm not trying in this series to present all views.  The course is built around processes I use.  This also means that they are often at their best when they are used to pursue the goals that I pursue.

But it is not my intention that you should regard this as any attempt to present it as "the best way".  There are many "best" ways.  I think it's a good approach.  I would not use it, otherwise.  But I think it's better for you to develop your own approach.

When the topic is participation there are many options available and many different views.

The view offered below focuses on three aspects of participation.  It describes one representative structure.  It discusses the importance of communication between those directly involved and other stakeholders.  It offers a brief description of an approach for improving the quality of involvement for those directly involved.


The aims of participation

If this on-line course has a theme, it can be summarised as "action research is action and  research".  The various aspects and activities of an action research project can each be designed and run to pursue these joint aims of change (or action, or improvement), and understanding (or research, or learning).

These are the aims, too, of participation and involvement.

For me, there is a third aim.  As in the archived file on community consultation, "comcon", I can describe it as:

  • the provision of maximum access
  • for mixed face to face groups
  • to real decision-making power
  • using non-adversarial (preferably consensual) processes.

When there are few stakeholders this is easily achieved through direct participation.  Involve everyone.  Perhaps invite them to be co-researchers.  On other occasions, numbers may be large and time may be short.  You may then decide that only lower levels of participation are feasible.

Suppose you choose this second option.  Your aim (of maximum access) then becomes two-fold:

  • to provide as much direct participation as possible to as many as possible... 
  • ...while ensuring that those who are less directly involved are given as many opportunities as possible to give and get information.

And in my view, here's the crunch:  The second of these is difficult, and important, and often ignored or done superficially.  Involving indirect participants requires a lot of time, energy, and attention -- at least as much as for those who participant directly, and often more.

I suppose you can use representation as a cheap alternative to direct participation.  But if you do, those you don't involve may later make your life difficult.  I wouldn't want it to take you by surprise.

In other words, I'm recommending the following as a desirable option when you choose representation rather than direct participation ...

  • get the best representative groups that you can
  • ensure that all interest groups are involved (or you may have biased data)
  • at the same time, create effective two-way communication links between these people and those they "represent".

And, I would add, do what you can to encourage them not to act as "representatives".  Urge them to speak for themselves, as individuals, while they act on behalf of all stakeholders.  If they think that they are there only to speak for one interest group the discussions are more likely to become polarised.

Representatives often lock themselves into a position which they can't change without consulting their group.  This may or may not be good for the group.  But real dialogue becomes almost impossible.  Information is distorted to win a point.

Better yet, allow enough time for them to act as intermediaries between all stakeholders and the research team.  Their task, then, is not to make decisions.  It's to inform the other stakeholders and to engage them in decision-making.


Interest groups and structure

A process for planning and developing stakeholder involvement might look something like this:

  • Define the interest groups.  Sometimes you have the information to do this;  mostly you don't.  Sometimes there are people in the community or organisation who have it (though often they don't)
    Otherwise, do some preliminary work (for instance through interviewing) to collect the information
  • Decide what level of participation is feasible
    If direct participation for all stakeholders is achievable, then your task is easy.  (Well, not really.  None of these processes are easy.  Some are easier than others.)  Find a time when all can convene.  Negotiate the processes to be used to plan and implement the project
    As my colleague Alan Davies says, the easiest way to resolve problems or agree on change is to get everyone affected into the same room at the same time.

Often, numbers will be large and time and resources will be short.  You may then have to adopt a representative approach.  If so, add these steps:

  • Identify appropriate representatives
  • Work out the smallest number of groups which will give adequate representation and involvement, and sufficiently complete information
  • Set up the groups.  Offer them some preliminary help in setting initial goals, building relationships, and agreeing on norms of cooperative directness and openness
  • Help them plan how they are going to stay in touch with the groups they are drawn from, and with each other

And, as I've said previously, I strongly encourage you not to skimp on the last of these. 


An example of a structure

Here is an example of a structure which allows reasonably high levels of participation even with large numbers...

  • The researcher or evaluator works most directly with a "steering committee".  The committee's task is to oversee the project. 
  • In the early stages of the project the steering committee is directly engaged in diagnostic work.  As issues are identified, it sets up "working parties" which do the hands-on work.  The working parties consist of people who are direct stakeholders in the issue being addressed.

I've used this to good effect in both community and organisational settings.  To enhance its effectiveness further, a number of other steps can be taken:

  • The steering committee identifies the issues.  For each, it sets up a working party consisting of those directly affected.  It helps to brief and resource the working parties.  It specifies the "givens" or limits; beyond that it has no authority over the working parties.
  • For coordination, each working party contains a member of the steering committee.  But not as chair.  The intention is to create a communication hierarchy without it becoming a power or control hierarchy. 
  • In some settings I've had success in teaching some facilitation skills to the steering committee members.  They then act in a process-only role on the working parties.

Then there are processes which can be used to keep the committees and working parties in touch with the wider group of stakeholders.

  • There is a risk that the steering committee will perceive itself as an elite.  Even if you avoid this initially it may still become an issue over time. 
  • To keep it in touch with the community or organisation a slow turnover of members can be adopted.  Half of its members can be replaced every six months or so.  This achieves a balance between change and continuity.
  • The steering committee isn't intended as a decision-making body.  Its task is to find some way of channelling appropriate information between different stakeholders.

Sometimes there are too many stakeholders to allow much contact.  You can then carry out other activities to improve communication between the steering committee and the wider group of stakeholders.

Mass media can be used to keep the stakeholders informed.  In community settings I like to have the editor of the local newspaper on the steering committee.

Market research techniques can be used to keep the steering committee informed.  Interviewing, phone interviewing and focus groups can work well.  Sometimes, written surveys can be efficient and useful.  These need not be expensive.

In organisations there are often existing mass media which can be used.  Whether or not there are, it is often worth creating a newsletter for the change program.

In any setting I encourage the steering committee to notify those directly affected by its plans.  I recommend that they report only achievements in detail to those less directly affected.    In other words, don't make too much of a song and dance about what you are going to do.  You otherwise risk raising expectations which won't be satisfied.

I think it is desirable to report plans for change, especially where it is hard to know who should be involved.  But it does not have to be in great detail.

In short, you choose those people who together can influence and be influenced by all the stakeholders.  You set up some activities to bring these people together face to face.  You set up other activities to ensure good two-way communication between these people and the other stakeholders.

Let me add that this is one way only of doing this.  In general, I think you'll get the best results by choosing a process and structure in negotiation with the stakeholders.  You can take the above description as a starting point if it helps.


Increasing involvement in activities

A lot can be done, through thoughtful process design, to increase involvement.  Suppose, for example, that your primary aim is to collect information from large numbers of people.

A written survey is a common way of doing this.  However, response rates to written surveys are notoriously low.  This doesn't involve a lot of people.  Further, you often don't know if the views of those who respond resemble the views of those who don't.  It's sometimes a reasonable guess that they do not.

Provided numbers are not too large, you can switch to group surveys using group feedback analysis.  Those invited to take part are more likely to do so.  The response rate is therefore higher.  You can be more assured that the information reflects the views of all or most of the stakeholders.

Group feedback analysis typically uses a pre-compiled questionnaire which participants respond to.  After the researcher collates the replies, participants help with interpretation and with planning for improvement.

This can be further enhanced by using a more involving process.  Participants can ask the questions as well as answer them.

Neighbourhood meetings (see "Archived resources" below) tend to attract even more people to take part.  By involving the "silent majority" they provide a middle ground and tend to generate wider commitment.  They can yield data giving a more accurate picture of the views of the whole community or organisation.


Group activities

Within most group activities there are ways in which you can enhance the quality of involvement.

The depth of involvement depends upon what you involve the participants in.  This is derived in turn from the information you give and get, and the issues addressed by that information.

As discussed in the previous session the involvement may range from a little to a lot.  There may be relatively shallow consultation about the issues.  Or it may involve participants as co-researchers.  Or the participants may do it all.

The processes you use can also influence the extent of involvement.  I expect that you can recollect discussions where it was difficult to speak, and speaking didn't guarantee that you were heard.  Direct participation isn't necessarily quality participation.

Instead, consider a situation where the following approach is adopted:

  • Participants are briefly but clearly notified of:
    • the purpose of the study
    • the motives of those who initiated it
    • the identity and motives of the researcher
    • the use that will be made of the outcomes
    • the safeguards about anonymity and the like

    and are then encouraged to renegotiate this if it is not entirely satisfactory.

  • The process to be used is briefly described.  Again renegotiation is encouraged.  (Alternatively, if the participants are sufficiently skilled, or there is time to take them through a detailed design activity, the process is designed in collaboration with them.)
  • Most steps in the process cycle through the following stages:
    • the purpose of that step is described, and confusions are clarified;
    • participants are given "thinking time", and encouraged to take notes, before discussion begins;
    • if they wish, participants are then given some time in twos or threes to speak about their ideas in a small group before they are asked to speak in a larger group;
  • processes are used which allow everyone a voice, and which encourage listening and understanding.

I would find this a process which offered the possibility of high-quality involvement.  I suspect you would, also.


Archived resources

If a file has been placed on the Southern Cross University archive, it is available in hypertext at

or as a text file at

(Replace "filename" with the actual name of the file.)

Don't worry if this is a bit confusing.  I give specific URLs (electronic addresses, in effect) for each file below.

There is an overview of a number of methods for high involvement in the file "consulpro".  After discussing issues of involvement in community settings, it briefly describes a number of specific methods.  These include:  interviews, written surveys, small group surveys, panels and juries, neighbourhood meetings, search, and delphi, among others.

I've already mentioned the file "focus" on the arlist archive.  It is an example of a redesigned focus group.  It allows you to involve participants more directly in interpreting the information discussed.

Another group technique (briefly mentioned above as an alternative to written surveys) is group feedback analysis.  There is a description of a participative version in the file "gfa" on the arlist archive.

Neighbourhood meetings are described in the file "localmeet".


Other reading

In general, the literature on organisation development and community development contains descriptions of processes which are participative.  Assuring the quality of your data and your interpretations is less well covered -- you may want to give attention to these aspects.

There is also relevant material in some material on self-directed work teams, group facilitation, and adult learning.  Ask a friendly librarian.

An example from the organisation development literature, written from an action research perspective, is

French, W.  and Bell, C.H.  (1995) Organisation development: behavioural science interventions for organisational improvement, fifth edition.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall.

For an approach to evaluation which is very similar to that of participative action research, try

Guba, E.G.  and Lincoln, Y.S.  (1989) Fourth generation evaluation.  Newbury Park, Ca.: Sage.

Some of you, I suspect, will find their philosophy an appealing part of the approach.  For those who don't, I don't believe you have to subscribe to all of their philosophy to be able to use their processes.



A thought experiment

You are in a group of strangers.  List the factors which would make it easier for you to speak openly and directly.  List the factors which would inhibit you.

Taking your answers into account, what could a facilitator or researcher do to encourage your participation and openness?


An individual activity

In session 3, entry and contracting, there was an activity using the workbook in the archived file "valwb". Return to this activity.

Note the times when your thoughts and feelings were not expressed to the other person(s).  What inhibited you?  What could be done about it?

When these inhibitions existed, what were the results on:  your commitment to any decisions taken?  the accuracy of the data available to the group?


For your learning group

On the archive you will find the file "dtuwb".  This contains a 9-step process to help a small group discover what makes information undiscussable.  Do this activity in your learning group.

(If you are in an email learning group, you may have to put together your answer based on experience in a face-to-face group you have experienced.)




In summary...

Imagine that you are a researcher or evaluator.  You are working with a large and varied client group.  You wish to involve as many people to as great an extent as you can.

I've suggested that there are many questions to be answered, three in particular.  Who do you involve in any smaller group or committee?  How do you involve them?  How do you ensure communication in both directions between that group and the other stakeholders?

I've also suggested that in each of these there are issues of both adequacy of data and commitment to change.

The emphasis of this and the preceding two sessions has been on participation and involvement.  The next session is on rigour in data collection and interpretation.  See you then.  -- Bob


Let's practice action research on areol.  What ideas do you have for improving this session? What didn't you understand? What examples and resources can you provide from your own experience? What else? If you are subscribed to the email version, send your comments to the discussion list. Otherwise, send them to Bob Dick


Copyright (c) Bob Dick 2002.  May be copied provided it is not included in material sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are shown.

This document may be cited as follows:

Dick, B.  (2002) Achieving participation.  Session 5 of Areol - action research and evaluation on line. URL





Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 11.02w; last revised 20020712

A text version of this file is available at: