Participation pathways - designing for effective engagement

Tim Davies

Tim Davies

This post was originally written to follow up a workshop of the Data Trusts Initiative, and is cross-posted from the Data Trusts Initiative blog.

How can the individuals and communities affected by decisions about data be more engaged in shaping and making those decisions?

New institutions of data governance, such as data co-operatives and data trusts provide an important framework for enabling data stewardship to be better aligned with community or public interest (by contrast, for example, to corporate structures oriented towards prioritising shareholder interests). However, even with trusts or co-ops, for interest alignment to actually take place, there is a need for ongoing and in-depth participatory practice.

This can often present data stewards with a number of challenges:

  1. What kind of engagement model to adopt? For example, should members of a data trust vote directly on proposals? Or should key decisions be made by a board with member representatives?
  2. How to maximise meaningful discussion on complicated issues? For example, deciding whether or not certain datasets should be linked and shared might involve a range of technical, legal and practical considerations, and often appears to require significant background knowledge.
  3. How to create open and inclusive participation? Engaging in governance takes time and resources: if it happens on an opt-in basis, there is a risk that those who get involved in making decisions about data will be un-representative of the communities affected by those decisions.
  4. How to maintain a connection with authentic community voices? Staff responsible for participation are often concerned that people who get engaged become ‘co-opted’ over time, aligned with the interests of the organisation or its leaders, rather than effectively representing community interests and insights into the governance process. This is sometimes described as a problem of ‘professional participants’ and introduces questions about how to regularly renew engagement practice.

These challenges are not unique to data governance. In particular, they have received a lot of attention in the context of child and youth participation, where the concept of the ‘evolving capacity’ provides a useful framework for thinking about progressive opportunities to get involved and take on a share in decision making.

Critically, meeting these challenges involves thinking not about isolated opportunities for stakeholders to be involved in data governance, but about how to develop participation pathways that build capacity, connect different levels of decision making, and support more inclusive and diverse participation in decision making.

Mapping the pathways

Let us imagine, for example, a climate data co-operative (to borrow a hypothetical example from the Ada Lovelace Institute’s work) that pools energy use data from participants across the world, and considers requests to share access for climate-focussed research and development projects. What pathways could exist for different stakeholders to engage in co-operative governance?

In mapping the opportunities to build better participation pathways it can help to first look at the core decision making structures and work outwards. If ultimate responsibility rests with a board, then are there clear routes for different stakeholders to select, or be elected to, the board? Are places reserved for those whose data is being governed? Has thought been given to removing barriers to board participation, and to proactive outreach to recruit members from diverse backgrounds?

Then consider, how are board or operational decisions informed? If there are key operating principles, are they published and open for comment and regular review? Do staff have mechanisms to consult with community members when exploring key decisions? Are there certain decisions which are put to the community to advise on, or that are delegated for the community to make?

Then look for other engagement touchpoints. Are there existing feedback mechanisms where stakeholder voices may be heard? Are there any regular surveys or listening exercises? Do groups of stakeholders have self-organised discussion spaces that it would be appropriate to engage with? Are there stakeholders outside the co-operative who have views on what it does?

Having reached the outer edges of engagement, we can turn our focus around and look at two critical participation pathways. Firstly, is there a clear path through which views and interests communicated through ad-hoc, informal or light-touch participation opportunities are fed into the decisions that get made through more formal parts of the governance system? Second, are there pathways by which individuals can progress from light-touch engagement, to deeper forms of participation in governance - supported to develop their engagement and capacity along the way?

In thinking about any pathway, particular attention should be given to issues of accessibility and inclusion. Can the path be made intentionally more welcoming, and easier to travel for those who are commonly marginalised, or more directly affected, by data decision making?

Pathways in practice

To return to our hypothetical climate data co-operative example, we could imagine a user from a low-income community who is invited to participate in a short feedback survey. The survey reveals a particular concern amongst lower-income co-operative members about how data might be used, and so a small group of low-income members are invited to speak to the staff team about this, and are given support (and paid for their time) to do so. In gaining exposure to some of the decisions the co-operative has to make, they become interested in being more involved, but have low confidence in doing so. The co-operative organises an open governance training workshop along with a number of other similar organisations. With encouragement from an existing board champion, an individual from this group joins a voluntary working group, and later stands for election to the board. In time, they become a board champion supporting others to get involved in governance.

We could also imagine another individual who, feeling strongly about data-sharing with a firm that also has links to a fossil fuel company, starts a forum discussion on the topic. A community manager from the organisation spots the discussion, but highlights that the current principles of the co-op don’t prohibit this, and suggests that there are options to either campaign to change the principles, or to campaign for the third-party to drop its fossil fuel partnerships. The community manager provides signposting to resources around how to develop a campaign, and encourages debate on the issues, inviting expert inputs to the discussion. A summary of the discussion is featured in the organisation members newsletter. The discussions result in two small groups forming: one which proposes a change to the principles, and the other which develops an independent campaign to write to the third-party. While neither is immediately successful, the participants have followed pathways of participation that have built their advocacy skills and understanding of the issues. At least one of these paths has taken them beyond the boundaries of the organisation they originally engaged with.

The organisational journey

Developing effective pathways of participation also often involves a journey of development for organisations: even young institutions like Data Trusts and Co-operatives.

Harry Shiers’ Pathways to Participation (developed in the context of child and youth participation) builds on the ladder of participation, to look at how organisations develop their ability to share power and responsibility for decision making. Shiers’ pathway starts from listening, and moves through providing support for stakeholders to express their views, to taking those views into account, to involving stakeholders in decision-making processes, and ultimately to sharing power with stakeholders. At each point on this pathway, there may be openings (a willingness to listen or share decision-making for example), opportunities (a procedure or process that allows engagement to happen), and obligations (a requirement that locks-in engagement practice). Critically, reaching the point of sharing power does not mean that there is no longer a need to retain a focus on earlier stages such as supporting stakeholders in expressing their views. To mix our metaphors a little: it’s important not to pull up the ladder of participation behind as the organisation’s participation practice matures.

Embedding participation

Recent years have seen a significant rise in the number of citizen’s assemblies, deliberative dialogues and citizen’s juries looking at data issues. These have generally been one-off activities, designed to garner a representative citizens’ voice on particular data collection, management or sharing. While they can be valuable exercises, they have often been divorced from wider pathways of participation, creating temporary mini-publics that are not part of ongoing interaction. There are, however, promising signs of mini-publics being woven into ongoing practice: for example, with Camden’s Data Charter being used to review data decision making by a residents panel.

At Connected by Data, we’ve been starting to map out the ways in which different participation models and methods can be effectively applied to discussions about data. Our upcoming case database will show the way different projects have put together surveys, boards, dialogues, accountability processes, and other participation tools in order to help ensure the way data is governed can better reflect public expectations and views. In doing this, we’re drawing on a wealth of existing work that explores participatory practice in other settings, such as the Participatory Methods resources on participatory international development research, Organizing Engagement work on inclusive participatory practice in school and community settings, and Participedia methods section exploring a wide range of democratic innovations.

Participatory practice around data involves innovation in so far as it explores citizen voice in a relatively new domain, with novel configurations of technology and power to unpack, and technology can offer a range of new participatory tools. However, there are already some established pathways to start out on.

Ultimately, developing effective pathways of participation, and ensuring the voice of stakeholders can shape both big picture and day-to-day decision making around data involves both embedding a culture of participation, and developing the right toolbox of approaches to deploy.