Category Archives for "Community Development"

Participative Methods 4: World Café

Whilst I want to encourage the use of participative methods, I don’t want to imply they are easy.  These posts about community development draw attention to a variety of participatory methods.  My message is experiment, acknowledge your limitations and you will improve over time.  Share leadership and work with others when you can.

People at table in a world cafe session.

A view of typical “paraphernalia” from a World Cafe session I helped facilitate a few years ago.

World Cafe can be more flexible and straightforward than open space technology.  Broadly people sit in small groups around tables, discuss a topic which might be the same for each table or vary from table to table.  From time to time people move around, leaving one person behind to introduce new people to what was discussed earlier  This mixes insights from several tables.

Some Issues to Consider

Furniture and Paraphernalia

The main difficulty (apart from actually being participative!) is resources.  You need to accommodate everyone in a single large room around small tables, 4 at each table is ideal.  You also need flipchart paper and various flowers, sweets, toys, information sheets to encourage the right sort of atmosphere (You don’t need all this stuff but it helps some people).  One advantage of working with churches is there is no shortage of large rooms.  The ubiquitous trestle tables can be a bit of a problem but the method can work quite well with them.  Round tables optimise distance and so help with hearing and of course look better.


Hearing can be a problem.  If tables are close together and there are a lot of them, background noise can be a real problem for some people.  (Me included!)  The size of tables is relevant: groups of 12 around vast tables are impossible because everyone has to shout to be heard.  Use the loop or PA system to clearly set the task and ask people to make sure everyone has a say.  Large sheets of flipchart paper where participants can record the conversation, can help with hearing (and will help more people than you think).

Keeping Track

With large sheets of paper and plenty of pens, people can share ideas and they serve as an aide memoire when people move around.  They can be pinned to walls to share conclusions at the end.  If you can’t manage all the other paraphernalia, do make sure pens and large A1 sheets are available.

For more information, take a look at my previous post about World Cafe that includes some resources.

Some people relate to issues by thinking about them, others through emotions or design and others by playing with things.  Have you experience of ideas springing from these different approaches?

Participative Methods 3: Open Space Technology

I first encountered Open Space Technology in the early 2000s through the Primary Care Trust in East Rotherham.  They introduced it as a method used for a couple of hours in a community setting.  I used it a few times, with various groups engaged with community planning.

Open Space Technology appealed to me because I knew about several other participative approaches.  Also, it worked well with local people.  As is often the case with participative methods, it is professionals who struggle with it!

Longer Conferences

Audience in rows with keynote speakers

Some conferences prefer keynote speakers!

Open Space Technology is effective for longer conferences: one day conferences work and apparently a 2 to 3 day residentials can be particularly effective.  I’ve found Open Space Technology more problematic over 24 hour sessions.  This may be accounted for by  audiences of professional people and maybe 24 hours is not long enough for the benefits to become clear.

With longer conferences, I learned a few hard truths.  Open Space Technology


  • is difficult to facilitate.  It can take up to 45 minutes to set up a session and this can be tedious,
  • really needs to be run with people who agree to take part in advance.  It is difficult to communicate the benefits and the spirit to an unprepared group.
  • is easily undermined by dominant people.  I remember one session where a senior person wouldn’t let me start a session after I’d set it up because he claimed everyone wanted to do a particular workshop.  He asked me to tell them all to do the workshop even though I was about to ask them to choose what they wanted to do!  I pointed out this contradiction to him afterwards and I think he saw it.
  • with short sessions it seems to work quite well but with a long session, it is perhaps best to go for 2 or 3 days.  One day produces useful and insightful information but does not allow time to move those taking part to action planning.  This has cost implications and some people find it hard to commit to 3 days without keynote speakers!
  • if you have resident experts, you should not use them as keynote speakers, they can offer workshops like everyone else!


I’ve found whilst people in neighbourhoods find Open Space Technology liberating, professional people with agendas find freedom to explore issues profoundly threatening.

Open Space Technology is a powerful method when people contract to use it in advance.  It is less effective with unprepared participants.  The challenge is to find contexts where it works well.

Perhaps my previous account of Open Space Technology is a little more optimistic about its use. The older post includes a link to a book about the method. For community organisations the practicalities of running very long sessions may be prohibitive. However, it can be used effectively in a couple of hours, particularly if participants are familiar with the approach.

Have you found participatory methods appeal more to local activists than they do to professionals?  Why do you think that is? Have you been able to use it for short sessions? For sessions covering a day or more?

Participative Methods 2: Participatory Appraisal

PictureThe picture shows a PRA ranking exercise conducted by Kamal Kar. The participants were women members of a Farmer Field School organised by CARE.

Picture taken by APB-CMX, Bangladesh, 2004. The picture shows a PRA ranking exercise conducted by Kamal Kar. The participants were women members of a Farmer Field School organised by CARE.

Participatory appraisal (PA) developed in Africa where it was known as participatory rural appraisal and so it is sometimes called PRA.  Someone experienced PRA in Africa and brought it back to Humberside during the nineties and developed it into PA, an approach for urban communities in the UK.  It is essentially an approach that combines research with community development, recruiting everyone into building, owning and controlling their own information about their neighbourhoods.

Its big advantage is flexibility.  PA can be used indoors or outdoors, with small or large groups, informally (eg table to table in a pub or café or on the street) or formally at a meeting designed for the purpose.  It can be used with people of all ages and I’ve yet to find a minimum or maximum age!

The main disadvantage is you need training for your facilitators and they need lots of experience to do it properly.  They need to understand the tendency for groups drift away from a participatory approach, despite their best intentions. Think of PA as a video game.  Game over means you can restart and use what you have learned to progress further next time.  Very few of us really understand participation and so we learn by doing and reflecting.

Initial training typically takes five full days. I have posted about PA and courses available in the UK. The news is not good at present and I am not aware of any courses I can recommend.

Leaders tend to dominate meetings and impose their views upon others.  This applies to everyone including the practitioners of PA.  Therefore practitioners need to be alert to their own practice and when they start to be directive.  For this reason practitioners rarely work alone, so that at least one other can observe what is happening and discuss it afterwards.

I remember working with children in a class at a school.  A woman who was a powerful leader in her own community partnered me and we asked the children to draw a map of their neighbourhood.  We agreed I would interrogate the map.  When the children were ready my partner grabbed the pens and started to interrogate the map.  There was little I could do other than take on the observer support role.  At the end of the session my partner asked me what I thought of her performance.  I told her and gave examples of where she had been directive.  She was not impressed.  A couple of days later, at the end of the training course, she told me she had reflected on what I said and it had been helpful.

I tell this story to illustrate the honesty and trust required to make PA work but it is worth it.

The thing that attracts many people to PA is its tools.  These are approaches to helping people voice their concerns and ideas.  You can also develop your own tools.  Most tools use large sheets of flipchart paper and the idea is to make sure everyone has access to pens and uses them.  Some people claim they can’t draw and ask others to draw on their behalf.  I’ve generally found that once people get started they’ll get into it and then almost nothing will stop them.

The thing that will stop them is a dominant person, who can impose their authority on a group in seconds.  “We know the answer to that.”  So, the third essential following training and tools is experience.  You need to be able to see when people are domineering (and they’re often charming people) and work out ways to neutralise their effect.  So, in the classroom I mentioned earlier, one of the practitioners asked the teacher to draw a map.  We agreed this in advance.  The teacher claimed to know exactly what was going on but co-operated because it did stop her interfering and she wanted to hear the results as much as we did.  But note without our intervention she might have walked around the class and made comments.  We showed her how to be most helpful.  Some dominant people are sensitive and some aren’t.  Good luck!

Personally I like going out in the freezing cold with flipchart paper and pens and asking people to map their area.  For some reason I find it hard to persuade others to join me.  I don’t think it’s the cold that puts them off.  Listening to people is costly to start with but infinitely rewarding.

Most participative methods can be wrecked by charming leaders.  How have you helped them stand aside?  Are you aware of courses you can recommend?

Participative Methods 1: General Principles

Of the three functions:

the first is most important.  If you cannot hear residents’ views, community development cannot happen.  Ask residents to express their views through conversations, mediated through spoken words, writing or pictures.  Participative methods enable recorded conversations in non-directive environments.  Whilst structured meetings are important, sometimes agendas set aside help people find space to express their concerns.

Facilitation of participative conversations, using any method, requires an understanding of some basic principles and a feel for what is genuine participation.

You need experience and so experiment!  How?

  • Accept you will get it wrong frequently and when experienced, from time to time.
  • Wherever possible work with a partner.  Give each other permission to point out where you fail to work participatively.
  • Watch others at work, take part in events and take whatever training is on offer.
People working in small groups around tables with pens and paper.

Setting up small groups around tables is not so difficult. You will be surprised how many can be accommodated!

General Principles

Information about these methods is hard to find practitioners pass them on through training.  Whilst this may be frustrating it is good to heed their warnings.  Here are a few things to consider when you set out to work participatively.

  • Community groups often have inspirational and engaging leaders, who do not work participatively.  You need to prepare for any event by explaining what you are trying to do.  It is not worth going to the trouble of organising anything participative if the leaders do not understand and support it.  They can wreck an event in seconds and will do so if they do not support it.
  • Rearranging furniture can make a big difference, eg a move from chairs in rows (an arrangement which enables control of a meeting) to chairs around small tables.
  • But don’t stop there; think through changes to the ways of you work with this layout.  What do you need on each table to help sharing ideas?  Paper, pens, background information, models …
  • Plan a programme that moves between different approaches depending on participants’ emerging needs.
  • Working with a team means you can have a team member on each table.  They can explain each stage and report back about how you can improve participation.
  • Sometimes experienced resource people dominate a table but you can hold them in reserve.  When people ask, they can go to a table and contribute their expertise.
  • The information generated needs to be recorded.   Work out how to do this before the meeting.
  • Make sure the participants understand their information belongs to them, will be available to them and can be withdrawn at their request.

Helpful Links

I have previously written posts about participatory methods. Over the next few weeks I shall revisit them, considering how each is used in typical UK community development contexts.  These links are to the earlier posts.

Participative Methods

What is your experience using participative methods?  What difficulties have you met and what tips do you have for participative meetings?

Delivery Organisations

In my last post, I continued describing my three function model by looking at planning.  In this post, which completes this sequence introducing my three function model, I shall move onto the third function:

Things to understand about delivery.  It is:

  • most demanding in terms of time and resources compared with representation and planning
  • likely to be carried out by several organisations, not all necessarily community based
  • there may be competition for service delivery between a variety of organisations, some may be local and others might be professional voluntary, private or public sector organisations
  • accountable in different ways but primarily to customers and prospective customers.  Locally, people excluded for various reasons may need to be heard.
  • a necessary voice in the local planning process.  Why?   Because delivery organisations know what can and cannot be achieved.  Sometimes they might need to be pushed to reconsider but generally they know what is possible.  It may not be practical for every planning organisation to be present at the table for community planning and for some their contribution relevant to a few topics only.  It is important though that where delivery organisations have an interest, their views are heard.  If they can be present where they have an interest it may be beneficial although care needs to be taken there is no conflict of interest.

The last bullet may be easier if the delivery organisation is home-grown.  External delivery organisations can be very good but some can be tied to binding contracts (often not public documents) and so their potential contribution may be limited or possibly not trusted.

Vestry Hall

The Vestry Hall in Burngreave, Sheffield was derelict for many years. Redeveloped by New Deal, it delivers training for local residents.

If a number of groups are likely to be invited to tender for implementation of a plan, they may not have been a part of the planning process.  The planning group will need to design a tendering process that tests them against the plan.  Make it known you want tenders that meet basic criteria and add value to it.

What are your experiences of project delivery and how have you approached local accountability?  Let me know through the comments.  I’d be happy to expand on some of the issues raised in this post, just let me know which ones interest you.

So far, I’ve offered a model that presents an ideal picture of what can be done locally to be effective in development work and local regeneration.  The representative function is most important for communities; get it right and the rest should be easier to follow through.  In the next post  I shall return to the topic of participatory methods for representative organisations.


My last post about community planning, completed a sequence about the representation function of my three function model and so it is time to move onto the second:

The last post about Community Planning emphasised why it is important not to confuse your local plan with the plan agreed with your partners.

formal planning meetings can be daunting

Some formal planning meetings are somewhat daunting!

When you meet with partners from the local authority, police, NHS, local schools, local businesses and so on, they will each have their own plans.  Their plans are worth no more than your local plan, although they might have spent more money on it and so may like to think theirs is more important.

So your role is negotiation, aiming for agreement to as much of your plan as possible.  Remember you won’t get all of it or even necessarily the parts you would most like.  Perhaps the people of Maltby would have prioritised a by-pass over everything else.  They were never going to get a by-pass but other chapters in their plan were very successful.

So, you need to think about how you can increase your plan’s credibility.  First, consider your methods.  How did you write the plan?  How many people did you involve in the planning?  I estimate the Maltby plan included material from over 400 people.  The plan itself included by-lines from people who didn’t necessarily agree with the main argument.  An uneven plan can be more credible because it shows the plan is not the product of one small group of people.

Think about how you’re going to present your local plan.  Negotiations may involve several meetings with partners.  Who will take part and how will you support them?

Some groups send different people to each meeting.  This may show wide support for the plan but it sacrifices continuity.  Consider a small group that meets between the meetings with partners to debrief the last meeting and prepare for the next.  You can then send one or two members of the group to each meeting.  Thus you preserve continuity whilst demonstrating wider support.

I would normally send at least two people to meetings with partners.  More than two might be difficult to accommodate.  With two people present, one can be the main representative and the other take notes and make suggestions from a less pressured perspective.  They can rotate these two roles.

Such arrangements, so long as they are not too complex, can appear impressive.  A consistent line represented over several meetings by a small group may appear more credible than the same line represented by one spokesperson.

Remember you won’t have a lot of money or assets compared with other partners so you need to show you are an organised and disciplined group.

Pay attention to the plans of your other partners; get hold of copies and read them.  In your planning group, divide their proposals into four groups. Proposals that

  1. support what is in your local plan.
  2. address issues not covered in your local plan.
  3. could be tweaked to line them up with your plan (or where your plan could be tweaked to line up with their proposals).
  4. you cannot agree to.

Work out what you want to support, what you think could be changed and what you oppose.  Some things you may oppose but be willing to trade for other parts of your plan.

Keep your powder dry!  Don’t go in and simply state what you support or don’t support.  You may be able to gain support for your priorities from partners who appreciate your support for theirs.  You’re likely to lose some arguments and so plan ahead!

And finally, don’t sacrifice your integrity, be consistent and don’t walk out if you can possibly avoid it.

These negotiations can be fraught with difficulty.  I’d love to hear your stories about how they’ve worked out, positive or disastrous!

Representation 3: Community Planning

Last Wednesday, I continued describing my three functions model for community development, with a second post about representation:

  • Representation
  • Planning
  • Delivery

This is the third of three posts about representation:

  1. Provide a meeting place
  2. Generate and record deep conversations
  3. Agree a community plan

The Maltby Community Plan

Community planning in Rotherham started after the 2000 Local Government Act, which set up Area Assemblies (the name of these varied from place to place – does anywhere still have them?) and directed all Local Authorities to prepare a community plan for their borough.  This was to be used by the Local Strategic Partnership to govern planning across the Local Authority area.  (If you think calling a borough-wide plan a community plan is misleading, I agree!)

In Rotherham, the Local Authority decided to base their community plan on local plans and they identified 60 distinct communities within the borough.  I’ve no idea whether they actually achieved this but full marks for ambition.

The Local Authority plan and the local plans were different types of document.  The former had authority and set the framework for local partnerships.  The local plans expressed as far as possible a local consensus for developments in their neighbourhood.  The Local Authority decided what to include from the local plans in its borough plan.  Residents could still work from their own plans at partnership meetings.

The Maltby By-Pass

Maltby High Street during a quiet period!

Shops in High Street, Maltby (during a quiet period!) (David Martin) / CC BY-SA 2.0

I developed the first of Rotherham’s local plans (this is what most people would call a community plan) in a small market town called Maltby.  One incident  illustrates the confusion between local and borough plans.  I circulated a draft local plan, which included a well-argued case for a by-pass to take heavy traffic off the town’s high street.

An irate phone call, from the Council’s Highways Department, complained they had not agreed a by-pass for Maltby.  They were annoyed because the chapter was well argued and they wanted to know who had written it.  I was reluctant to tell them the author was the owner of a chip shop on the high street!

Highways had misunderstood the purpose of the local plan.  It would be filleted by the local authority to contribute to their borough plan at a later stage.  The plan expressed the consensus of the local people and it is relevant to know they want a by-pass and why they want it.  How the strategic partnership might respond to their plan is another matter entirely.

The Power of the Community Plan

It is equally important for local people to understand the status of their plan.  No external organisation can be bound by what amounts to a sophisticated wish list.  The power of the local plan is in the extent to which it represents the views of residents.  If local people meet and discuss the issues that affect their community then their local plan carries more weight with partners.  I estimated we consulted with at least 400 people to prepare the plan.  Out of a 10 000 population, do you think that is a credible sample?  We could show it was a diverse group of people.

Without a plan it is hard for local representatives to make a credible case to potential partners.  It provides a mandate for community activists but it has no authority for anyone else.  As such a community plan is essential for residents if they want a say in local planning.  The next post will explore negotiation of local plans.

Leave a comment if you have prepared a community plan.  How do you use it?

Representation 2: Deep Conversations

Last Wednesday, I started to develop my three functions model, by exploring representation in-depth.

  • Representation
  • Planning
  • Delivery

This is the second of three posts about representation:

  1. Provide a meeting place
  2. Generate and record deep conversations
  3. Agree a community plan

Many groups have problems encouraging conversations even though they can get people together. Understanding conversations is essential for community development online as well as off and so I have written about them in some detail.

With BCAF (Burngreave Community Action Forum) we managed to bring over 60 people together once a quarter for many years.  Why did they attend these meetings?  They cared about their neighbourhood and its development.  They also turned up to socialise and share in a good free lunch.

So, what did BCAF do?  In the early days, we sat people in rows and invited decision-makers to address the meeting.  They were willing to come out on a Saturday morning because they knew they would get a good-sized audience.  But these meetings became tedious.  They often went on for far too long because everyone wanted a say following each presentation.

The problem was conversations were not taking place in any depth.  Contributions from the floor were often a view already formulated before the presentation.  Other people came to complain about something and introduced it when they could, unrelated to the presentations’ contents.

Eventually we worked out people needed time to talk in groups and after experimenting with buzz groups and break out groups we eventually worked out we would be better off sitting people in groups for the entire meeting.  This reduced time moving between groups and helped buzz issues between presentations.  (Tables also provided somewhere to balance plates of food!)  There are drawbacks, most notably difficulties for the hard of hearing but on balance it’s the best way we found.

Groups can be supplied with hand-outs and flipchart paper with pens.  The latter allows for written as well as verbal feedback.

A lot more can be written about this approach and I’d like to hear whether you have used it and with what results.

Conversations in a Community Cafe

Group in conversation in a cafeBut what about conversations in a community café?

The first thing to note is conversations will take place all the time.   People can be invited to complete a brief form with contact details and a brief account of their issue, idea or concern.  This may be something they bring to the café to share as a concern.  Or maybe something arising from general conversation and that’s worth sharing.

If you have a local concern and want to canvass views, it can be outlined on notice boards or a stall.  People might be invited to complete a questionnaire or leave their contact details if they wish to support a campaign.  People might be invited to discuss an issue at their tables at publicised times .  This would be an opportunity for key people to listen to conversations.  Or key people can circulate at any time and ask a table if they would be willing to discuss their issue.

Participative appraisal (PA) is a helpful approach. It is a number of tools, mostly pen and paper, with a philosophy of deep listening.  This enables any participant to ask questions and involves everyone; their voices not drowned by the more vocal.

The layout and history of your centre will help you work out how to canvass views; simply try things to find out what works.  But what if you want to take things further and agree a community plan?

Leave a comment and tell me about your experience of community planning.  I’ll offer some tips next time.

Representation 1: Unstructured Meeting Space

In my last post, I described my three functions model.  The next step is to explore the three functions.  Here they are:

  • Representation
  • Planning
  • Delivery

You need to do three things (covered in this and the next two posts) to develop representation in a neighbourhood.

  1. Provide an unstructured meeting space
  2. Generate and record deep conversations
  3. Agree a community plan

For over 10 years the area where I live had a Forum.  It was called Burngreave Community Action Forum or BCAF.  It met once a quarter on a Saturday mornings and at least 60 people turned up.

This approach has financial costs if you’re going to do it properly.  You need to pay for a leaflet through every door, backed up by posters and announcements in local papers, etc.  A free lunch also helps, it is an opportunity to socialise and maybe some people turn up for the lunch who wouldn’t otherwise.  BCAF also provided childcare and a translation service.

Wyverstone Community Cafe

Wyverstone Community Cafe

Any neighbourhood wishing to develop community needs a meeting place.  Quarterly meetings are one possibility.  Another might be a community centre with a café.

Think in terms of “unstructured meeting spaces”, where people can meet without an agenda.  Some community centres offer rooms for hire but no space where people can grow community.  Even more worrying are neighbourhoods with no meeting spaces at all.

Roles for Unstructured Meeting Spaces

So, what might you aim for?  It’s likely your centre will need to pay its way and so I’ve included some suggestions for paid activities.

  • A space for people to call in and hang around.
  • A coffee bar, offering snacks and drinks.
  • Toilets are essential in any neighbourhood and get people through the doors.
  • Child care activities
  • Noticeboard and / or a TV screen for local events.
  • Information can be placed on tables or in racks.
  • If the centre is well used, small businesses  or charities might pay to have an occasional stall (or you might donate a slot to charities).
  • Exhibitions are a good way to draw people in and some can be commercial to bring income into a centre.
  • Local artists could display their work for sale, perhaps paying for the period they’re on view or a proportion of sales.
  • Rooms for hire in the building can help generate income in various ways.  Meetings will draw people into the building and they may need refreshments.  Public meetings might ask people in the café if they are interested in joining them.
  • Entertainment should be publicised in advance whether it is free so that customers know what to expect
  • If a church runs this service they might consider a quiet space (any centre could do this) or prayer or meditation groups.

So far, I’m describing how a neighbourhood might bring residents together.  But how do you generate and record deep conversations in a coffee bar or indeed any meeting?  Let me know what you think and I’ll offer my suggestions in my next post.

My Three Function Model

My key community development model: equilaterla triangle, each side labelled. Base = Representation, left = planning, right = delivery

My key community development model.

In last Wednesday’s post about how to use models, I promised this time I would introduce my key three function model.   I’ve found it simple to use and effective.   How do you use it?   You find out where and how these three functions are taking place in your neighbourhood.

No two places are the same and you find sometimes several organisations share a single function or it is absent.   Sometimes one organisation is responsible for all three.   Once you know who is responsible for these three functions, you can find out how they work together.

In general, I seek a clear separation between these roles, encouraging them to be delivered from different organisations. However, some organisations are able to carry out all three and if that is what is happening, the next step is to ask how it’s working and how to improve the ways in which they interact.  It is usually not a good idea to impose changes so the model fits better, remember all models are descriptive, not prescriptive.

The Three Functions

  1. I usually put Representation along the base of the triangle because it is the foundation for everything else.  You need some means of bringing people together and helping them discuss and develop their ideas.
  2. Planning is an activity distinct from representation and so do not confuse the two.  Planning is a partnership activity.  If partners are not present, you are not planning.  What you are probably doing, and this accounts for the confusion, is preparing for your planning.  If you are going to plan for real change in your area, you need a community plan because all your partners, the local authority, the police, the NHS – whoever they are – will have their own plans.  Maybe planning would be better labelled ‘negotiation’ but I insist on leaving it as planning because that is what you do when you sit down with partners who, like you, have their own plans.
  3. And delivery is implementation of ideas from your planning.  If you want lasting change, delivery should emerge from negotiated plans.

Using the Three Function Model

The power of this model is in the way you circle it.   Circle clockwise and it is a development process.   So,

  • Representation feeds ideas into planning.
  • Planning designs projects for delivery.
  • Strengthen representation through participation in delivery.

Circle anti-clockwise and you have accountability.  So,

  • The representative body evaluates delivery, perhaps by providing feedback to the delivery bodies (or voting with their feet!)
  • Delivery bodies bring a realistic appraisal of what is possible to the planning process.  They will have insights into what is and is not possible in a particular neighbourhood.
  • The partners in the planning process validate the representative body.  The extent to which they address local plans, and recognise the representative body can validate or challenge its claims to be representative.

Either of these flows can be blocked in various ways and the development worker’s challenge is to name blockages and help others see them too.  That should keep you busy!

Can you think of examples where you can apply this model?   What did you learn and how did it help?