Increasing participation has been a rising trend in public policy and decision making. It has also been topical in foresight for some time: participation is described as one of the key characteristics in foresight aimed at informing or influencing public policy and decision making as well as in the newest “wave” of corporate foresight. Participation in foresight is also the theme in the first “Foresight Friday” organised by Finnish national foresight network on 10th of April. The official topic is “Citizen participation and societal foresight: threat or possibility for decision making?” But while participation in foresight is essential, what sometimes receives less attention in all the hype is the nature of that participation. As Andy Stirling put it in his keynote in the 5th FTA conference, the question that we should be asking is “who is participating with whom about what and how?” To this list of questions one could also add when and why. Answering these questions opens up a whole spectrum of participation.
Who is participating with whom?
The “who-question” is often the focus in much of the talk about participation: who should be invited to answer a survey or to attend a workshop? Is it enough to ask “the usual suspects” – such as domain experts, think tanks, researchers – or should other stakeholders somehow be identified? Often the focus is on identifying “experts”. Anu Kettunen notices in her recent dissertation the tendency to highlight how many and how “high quality” experts were included in the foresight process as an indication of how good the results must be. Meanwhile, who should be included or who was left out is not discussed in the foresight process descriptions.
Scoping the foresight exercise is an important phase that has a significant influence on the outcome. Often the scoping – that is defining the topic of foresight – is done by the owners or initiators of the foresight exercise and subsequently locked out from broader audience. Even though the topic might be relatively broad, there might be some implicit assumptions which restrict the exercise in terms of how well the participants can relate to it. Examples of such assumptions are the concept of growth and progress, which crosscut many contemporary foresight exercises, even though growth as it is understood currently is thought to be unsustainable. In other words, in addition to who gets to decide the topic, a key question is how flexible the topic is.
How locked the topic is relates also to when the participation takes place. Intensive and broad participation at the start of the process requires and also allows the topic to be opened up. In contrast, taking the views of different stakeholders into account is harder at the end of the process, where participation is more about validating the outcomes of the process. The role of participation thus varies during the process, from the agenda setting at the start through exploration and priority setting to validation and implementation at the end (my thanks to Heidi Auvinen for pointing this out).
The way through which participation takes place influences the nature of participation as well as its outcomes. A series of workshops allows for more interactive discussion, listening to and building upon the ideas of others and eventually the creation of shared vision. However, this interaction is restricted to a selected set of stakeholders. Through a survey more stakeholders can be reached, but with less interaction between the stakeholders. The key thing is being aware of the influence of the medium of participation and designing the foresight process so that the input from for example a survey will be taken into account with an open-minded smaller group.
While participation is currently popular and even framed as a foundation of democratic society, it is still worth specifying why it is done in a particular foresight process. What are the aims and benefits of participation in any given case? IAP2 has a useful spectrum of participation describing different roles participation can have in a process. They all point out different linkages to the decision making process, and that is the key thing – articulating how the participators will influence the decision or policy making through a specific foresight process. Without a clear answer to the why question, participation is just an add-on for keeping the stakeholders happy.
Finding the answer to the questions
Designing the right type of participation depends of course on the context and intentions. The questions I have described here illustrate different aspects of participation and could be used as a quick checklist. In the next post I will describe three common types of participation in foresight in order to give some examples of how to answer these questions. However, the key take-away message is to be more aware of the different aspects of participation and how the process is connected to the overall context.