Salim Vohra
Can differentials in power and influence be overcome by community involvement practice?
Posted on July 3rd, 2011

“With great power comes great responsibility.”
Yes and no.

No, because differentials in economic, political and social power are present in all policy and decision-making processes including those which have community involvement as an integral part of their processes. Saying that these differentials can be fully overcome by any kind of community involvement practice is dangerous and self-deluding as it tends to lead to mistrust, anger and disengagement in less powerful stakeholders because this is not their direct lived experience of such societal interactions.

Yes, because what good community involvement practice does, and can do very well, is to reduce these differentials to such a degree that stakeholders with less power and influence can be heard and their views, values and aspirations taken into account. In an ideal world this would mean that their wishes are fully acted upon. More realistically any given community is made up of stakeholders that have a range of different, and often conflicting, needs, wants and desires. Therefore the aim of good community involvement practice is to lead to a process where all the various sides can sit down together, literally and metaphorically, and work out a compromise which ensures that the dignity, self-respect and ideals of the various peoples and organisations involved are, at the very least, conserved if not enhanced.

This kind of value-based, honest and open dialogue and participation can ensure that, even when stakeholders don’t get everything that they want, they still walk away with a feeling of being valued, cared for and understood. This is why being transparent about the limitations of involvement processes is as important as emphasising their strengths in improving local and societal policy and decision-making.

For powerful stakeholders involvement has key positive benefits because by working with, listening to and understanding communities they can develop mutually trusting and constructive long-term relationships. Relationships and interactions, furthermore, which enable communities to also begin to understand and respect developers, local authorities and governments visions, goals and constraints.

From my own research, there seems to be three strands to understanding communities and other stakeholders concerns during policy and decision-making processes: direct, process and symbolic. In particular, by being aware of the symbolic concerns that stakeholders have, in terms of power, values and identity, powerful stakeholder can realise that they have the power to impact adversely on the lives of local and national communities. Generating considerable anger, hurt and a real sense of injustice in the process. Community involvement practice is one important way for powerful stakeholders to demonstrate practically their respect and value for individuals and communities. In terms of values, community involvement practice can highlight and make explicit key ethical values like justice, fairness, openness, and respect for others. Finally, in terms of identity, it can help grapple with people’s sense of individual and community identities by making explicit what people value about their communities and so help conserve these cherished aspects. Hence creating a sense of trust, confidence and participation which can reduce the worry, fear and uncertainty that stakeholders can feel when their organisations, neighbourhoods and societies undergo change.

Genuine community involvement is therefore one of the most powerful ways of reducing and overcoming societal differences in power and influence so that successful and sustainable policies and decisions are developed that meets the aspirations and needs of all stakeholders.

“Go to the people, live among them
Start with what they know, build on what they have
But of the best leaders, when their task is accomplished, their work is done
The people all remark we have done it ourselves”
Chinese Aphorism, New Public Health, John Ashton

PS: I came across this piece of writing today while adding material to this website. I wrote this in 2002 as part of a job application and almost 10 years on, and with a much wider range of staekholder involvement experiences, this still resonates very strongly with me.

Posted in not categorized    Tagged with involvement, engagement, societal decision-making, community, consultation, power


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