Participation – new ways, new people

Participation is a term that means a lot to me as a community engagement professional. Here’s a fresh way of looking at it.

New ways, new people

Today many water companies and local governments are grappling with sharing their business planning:
•    in new ways
•    with new people
as Victoria’s Independent Economic Regulator, the Essential Services Commission increasingly directs them towards understanding the community’s views.

A conference presentation posted online by Justine Hyde of the Victorian State Library has got me thinking. She describes participation as shaping, creating and learning to share spaces and resources in new ways, with new people.

Room waiting for participation

Ideas about participation in my field are often shaped by terms like Inform, Consult, Collaborate (IAP2 spectrum).

What does it feel like?

Thinking in categories can lead to blind spots. This is a real issue if it’s something important to participants.  “What does participation feel like?” Hyde asks.

Here’s her great list:

•    participation feels involving and engaging
•    it is the act of sharing, taking part, and it implies being an equal, and being respected
•    participation feels like being invited to be part of something bigger than yourself
•    it feels like a supportive and nurturing environment
•    it feels active, which by deduction means it can’t be passive
•    it feels positive, which means there is a benefit or value to it and it is enjoyable
•    to participate in something you have to be present – in body and mind!

Hyde asks: if it feels like that, then what does it look like in the organisation in question.

Social, cultural, staff & personal participation

I’ve seen many great organisational approaches to participation in recent work, and I’ve put them into Hyde’s frame.

•    Social participation: the water companies with which I’ve recently worked through Insync, Gippsland and East Gippsland Water, have given customers an opportunity to have a voice in the economics of water supply. The discussions focus on value. What do customers value about their water supply? How much do they value do they put on service? It was clear, say at a pop up outside the Coles in Morwell, that people felt included in something bigger than themselves. We certainly hope that this contributed in a small way to building a more civil society.

•    Cultural participation: having seen the thorough work East Gippsland Water has done engaging with place and people, I would think that there will be East Gippsland Water people at NAIDOC week celebrations in Gippsland. City of Darebin’s 2016 flag-raising event for NAIDOC really highlighted partnerships across the municipality, with National Disability Insurance, Police, Fire Brigade, local employment providers, and a major hotel group all involved.

•    Staff participation: hearing the voice of staff makes all the difference to quality services and engagement. Like the State Library where Hyde works, Sydney Water has used design thinking to ensure that staff insights to the customer journey are well understood.

•    Personal participation: Hyde highlights what you as an individual bring to your organisation, your team, your profession and yourself. Being present, attentive, positive, active, supportive, generous and respectful. I see this professionalism and personal interest in my clients all the time. As Hyde suggests, it builds a valuable collective confidence for organisations setting out to create participation experiences that feel good.

Speaking on water

[Setting: Readings Bookshop, Carlton]

[Event: Launch of ‘Plastic Water, the social and material life of bottled water’ by Gay Hawkins, Emily Potter and Kane Race, MIT Press, 2015]

Emily Potter:

Annie is the perfect person to launch this book. She is someone who has been intimately involved in the multiple lives of water for many years, as a scholar and artist, through stakeholder engagement and community consultation. She has worked with water as a material force, as technical object, and as cultural matter.

Annie Bolitho:

It’s an honour to be here to launch ‘Plastic Water, the social and material life of bottled water’ on behalf of its authors Gay Hawkins, Emily Potter and Kane Race. I do have a longstanding interest in the subject. One context from my working life I’d like to mention is my association with the University of Melbourne’s fabulous interdisciplinary Master of Environment. In one of their core units, many students engage with water as an urban ‘flow’. Their projects are situated in a rapidly changing environment, and must be long ranging. Future leaders like these will really benefit from the insights in this book.

Right now I’d like us to get together around the book! Isn’t it a beautiful production?  It’s the product of seven years’ work. It’s a huge collaborative achievement.

The book started life as an Australian Research Council project. None of the authors imagined they’d be working on it for so long. Yet their stick-with-it-ness’ rewards us with a complex, often mesmerising study, which follows the object of the plastic bottle into multiple unanticipated scenarios.

Back Camera

Gay has consolidated her empirical and theoretical work on everyday practices of sustainability. Emily and Kane note with appreciation Gay’s insistence on the empirical. They’ll take this into future work. All the authors identify with different disciplines, as well as Cultural Studies. Nonetheless I’d like to take the occasion of this launch as celebrate the contribution of cultural studies as a discipline. It’s how I connect with the authors. It’s where I find some of my favourite theory, for example by Isabelle Stengers.

Back Camera

But most importantly Cultural Studies as a discipline doesn’t organise itself slavishly around method. This causes alarm to many!  However we see in this book, an unusually close examination of a cultural institution, say the accelerating habit of what the authors term ‘frequent sipping’ and all that makes it so.  Say the corporation Evian or Coca Cola Amatil, generally speaking seen as a brand. Perhaps a brand with ethical overtones. The authors bring these corporations to light as a plethora of social and material embodiments: their PET bottles, their labels, research programs to provide authoritative content for website marketing, corporate executives and operational staff, in-house purification plants, investment in ‘disadvantage’, as well as our society’s ‘attachment to a cluster of promises’ (Isabelle Stengers quoted in the book).

The UK commentator and sociologist John Brewer highlights the way today a narrow impact research agenda pushes people’s attention away from the very issues and complexity we need to be dealing with in our society. That is not the case here. We are invited into engagement with complexity and wonder, in a diffuse global transnational context.

A frequent criticism of Cultural Studies is that it fails to connect beyond the academy. One reading of the chapter on the Northern Territory Intervention knocks that on the head. The material on hydration reminds us of the relatively short period in which we have come to see ourselves as ‘me, me, me’ biological subjects. Think about it. We urban humans did not run before the 1970 New York Marathon, prior to its unprecedented media coverage. We run because of Gatorade. Read the book to find out more. The material on South and South East Asia brings forward what Simon During terms ‘a vernacular globalisation’. A great achievement.

Let’s raise our glasses to the authors, and launch this book. Cheers!

Hear more about this project in an interview with Emily Potter on ABC Radio.