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Scaling up: Large scale participatory projects

One of the challenges for participatory research is how to involve large numbers of people.  More often than not, however,  participatory projects are focused on a single group because of resource constraints. This makes Geoff Mead’s* experience all the more important – a researcher responsible for setting up and coordinating a project with over 20 participatory groups.

Public Service Leaders & Action Inquiry Groups

Mead was involved in a program to assist in the development of public service leaders in the UK.  He launched his first eight groups after a presentation on the principles of action research and encouraged them to be guided by a simple question – “how can I/we improve my/our practice as public service leaders”.  Unfortunately, it didn’t go to plan…

“As I entered the room, the participants’ frustration was evident: “This all seems very woolly.  What exactly are you asking us to do? queried a spokesman.  There followed an hour of fairly unsatisfactory and heated discussion ending with my encouragement to them to ‘find their own way'”.

It got worse.  Some facilitators resigned, stakeholders became twitchy and commissioned an external evaluation of the scheme.  The initial reluctance by participants to “engage in formally constituted cooperative inquiries” was a complete surprise.  Mead argues, however, that after this initial turbulence the groups started to come together but for different reasons that those originally envisaged.  The funders (a statutory agency) had hoped for some very tangible results but for participants the benefits included increased self-confidence and awareness and the development of a consultative and partnership working approach.  Even then, it wasn’t plain sailing.  The process involved not only convincing the sponsors to agree to different evaluative criteria of the project but also dealing with “slumps” in participant energy and enthusiasm.

Large-scale project Take-aways

Mead lists 10 capacities and qualities for a leader managing a large-scale action research project that reflect the challenges of leading in a complex environment.  I suspect, however, that there might be other learnings here too.

  1. The reluctance of the participants to engage in a formal process of cooperative inquiry might be worth reflecting on.  The voluntary aspect of participation, or lack of, may have a direct influence on outputs as well as motivation.
  2. The make-up of each group may be important.  Here group members (8-10 people) were connected by geography so that they could more easily arrange meetings, but might this have ignored existing networks, communities of practice, that were not based on geographical lines?  How important is ‘chemistry’, that group members enjoy each others company?
  3. The initial framing of each group’s agenda may have had some significant implications.  The intention was for it to be “broad” to open up the possibility of wide-ranging discussions.  However, it resulted in some considerable initial confusion and I wonder if it resulted in a missed opportunity.  The agenda was steered towards a focus on existing practices and their improvement rather than using the collective experience of all the groups to develop innovative approaches to public leadership or concentrate on a particular problem that they had collectively identified. It could be that this was impossible for political reasons but it might have been worth the risk as the reported group outcomes seem to show evidence of real individual and small group benefits but collectively the results could be interpreted as introverted and safe.  Put another way, should we expect more from a research process that after 2 years involving over 250 top public service leaders from the civil service, local government, National Health Service and other agencies, that points only to outcomes that begin with “increasing, encouraging, developing, broadening” rather than “organizing, changing, replacing, introducing”?

Mead’s account reveals the complexity of large-scale participatory projects and his openness to share the “muddling through” process enables the reader to not only see the tensions between the different stakeholders, participants and facilitators but also some practical difficulties in encouraging people to participate (countering the assumption that individuals brought together will somehow naturally engage in collective thought and action). If large scale projects are to fulfill their potential in generating significant social change then further exploration of the conditions that facilitate participation and then generate action in these settings will be essential.

Mead, G. (2008 ) Muddling through: Facing the challenges of managing a large-scale action research project. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.) The SAGE handbook of action research: participative inquiry and practice (628-642). Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE.


5 Responses

  1. I’m not surprised there was reluctance to share and to become an instant community. When we want projects we help the leaders by giving them project manager skills. I believe the same goes for creating communities; there is a set of skills in assessing, creating, nurturing and sustaining the type of relationships that were wanted here.
    I think your questions have covered some of the key issues as well.
    Some of these I’ve covered in my blog on http://www.spreadgoodpractice.blogspot.com


  2. Thanks Sarah – appreciate your comment. Will definitely check out your blog!

  3. i think this is a well done article and i have learnt alot from this information regarding scaling. thank u very much Sarah

  4. I’m struggling to find further information or examples of PAR where there has been a scaling up to multiple stakeholders, rather than a defined group or groups of people. Do you have any suggestions of examples where this has been applied?

  5. Hi – that’s a really good question and I need to search around. From my limited knowledge PAR seems more orientated towards assisting a marginalized group to draw on their collective experiences and take action. Ultimately, that must mean an engagement with different stakeholders – although I suspect there would be a range of different approaches here as to the degree these different interests engage with a PAR process (eg very peripheral to integral).
    A google search on PAR and multi-stakeholders took me to one resource that might be worth a quick scan. I think I would start looking at issues that demand multi-stakeholder approaches (eg crisis in a community around illegal drug use) and how PAR might be used as a vehicle to bring different interests together. A few other links on Google – forest interest groups – and conservation .
    Is there an area that you are particularly interested in? Sorry not to be more helpful.

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