navbar 4Resource papers in action research

Case study 2

A planned community participation


This is a resource file which supports the regular public program "areol" (action research and evaluation on line) offered twice a year beginning in mid-February and mid-July.  For details email Bob Dick

...  in which action research approaches are used for a highly participative approach to consultation with a large and varied group of people

Valeria Aleksandrova has provided a Polish translation of this file at: .



This case contrasts with that described as case study 1.  It demonstrates a process intended to achieve high levels of participation.  This is despite the many and varied people who have an interest in the project.  It also illustrates that at each step, you need only enough information to decide the next step.  The process can go forward by informed trial and error.

As you read the case study, notice the frequent changes of mind, and the methods used to achieve reasonably wide participation.  Note, too, that I've taken some pains to make my own allegiances clear.  As before, you can assume that my goals are to achieve both change and understanding in such a way that each reinforces the other.

As I don't have permission to identify the organisation I have taken some care to disguise it.  Some of the content details are changed.  The process, however, is accurately reported.

The study was subdivided into three main phases

Phase 1 consisted of preparatory work.  An important part of it was negotiating my role.  A working party was then to be set up.  The intention was that they would take over most of the responsibility for the project.  It was planned that at least one member of the working party would have skills at designing and facilitating processes.  This first phase is the phase discussed in most detail below.

The second phase was to use interviewing and mass media to define the issues and inform all those who have a stake in the issues.  The purpose of this phase was to bring all the issues to the notice of stakeholders.  I assumed it was important to allow stakeholders time to get used to the issues.  This was to set the foundation for the third phase, when the move towards consensus was to be attempted.  1

The third phase had two major components ...

One was a series of meetings with opinion leaders.  People who are influential within the various interest groups were to meet face to face.  The process was to be structured to encourage listening and understanding.  We (the head office team and I) hoped that the resulting decisions would take account of the needs and wishes of everyone affected by the project.

The other component consisted of the use of mass media and other means to keep the opinion leaders and the groups they are drawn from in contact.  The operation of this was not planned in detail at the beginning.  Planning was to be postponed until other stakeholders were involved.

Here is another way of thinking about the design.  The working party was to have four major responsibilities, two in the second phase and two in the third.

The responsibilities were, in phase 2, to ...

  • define the issues which are most prominent for different groups
  • bring these to the attention of all stakeholders; do this in such a way that people develop understanding of the different needs and interests

and in phase 3, to ...

  • bring opinion leaders from different interest groups face to face; help them to reach decisions which, as far as possible, meet all needs and interest
  • maintain communication between opinion leaders and the groups they are drawn from, so that opinion leaders are well informed and other people develop commitment to the decisions which are made.

It was accepted that achieving this would also require a lot of work to identify the various stakeholder groups, opinion leaders and key issues.

Entry and contracting

I met initially with three people, two of whom in theory probably have the authority to introduce some structural changes in the network of organisations they help to manage.  They are clear about the changes they prefer.  But at this first meeting they were also clear that they would honour whatever decisions were made by the stakeholders as a whole.  (I'll refer to them as the "head office team".)

For me, then, the key issues were threefold.

First, there were many stakeholders, and probably many with strong feelings about the issues.  Full participation by all stakeholders was probably not feasible.  Yet, because of the strong feelings, it was going to be hard to achieve good outcomes without high participation.

Second, different stakeholders had very different interests in the situation.  A mutually-satisfying outcome would not easily be reached.  If it were reached, it would be only after attitude change on the part of at least some key stakeholders.

Third, some stakeholders potentially had quite a lot to lose.  Feelings could be expected to run high.  Good processes were needed if real listening and understanding were to occur.

The implication of this, I thought, was that high participation was necessary.  So was the use of face-to-face procedures -- I think that it is when people meet face to face that substantial attitude change can most often be achieved.  It seemed to me, too, that allowing time for people to adjust to the changes might be useful.

I was encouraged that the head office team seemed accepting of these conditions.

I offered to write a detailed proposal.  In the proposal, I suggested setting up a small working party.  I suggested that it be broadly representative of the different groups of interested people.

With the help of a colleague (I prefer co-facilitation, for better critical reflection) I would then help the working party build good relationships and set clear goals.  It would then be the task of the working party to carry out most of the work.

I framed the proposal as action research.  Accordingly, the amount of detail in the proposal was greater in the earlier stages than the later stages.  I was encouraged that my initial clients again accepted this as realistic.

I was also encouraged by their reaction to another statement of mine.  I said that I was only interested in the work if I could treat all stakeholders as my clients: paying my fees didn't buy my allegiance.  They accepted this as desirable.

Developing the early plans in more detail

The four of us (the head office team and I) had a second meeting to decide how to set up the working party.  I wanted a group small enough to function easily, and large enough to represent the various interest groups.

When it seemed unlikely that we would achieve both of these, we changed our plans.  We have now planned two groups instead of one.  A small working party would do the work.  A somewhat larger "reference group" would give us access to the various interest groups and their views.

We discussed the composition and functions of working party and reference group.  It was important that these groups functioned well, as the overall process depended on what they did.

Below, in more detail, is the step-by-step process we then agreed to use.  You will notice that a number of choice points are already built into the process, so that it could be responsive to information as it emerged.

1) Select the first member of the working party -- this was to be the member with facilitation skills.  The head office team were to do this by contacting people they knew to have facilitation skills, asking who was suitable.  When a name had been independently given by a number of people, this person was to be approached.

2) This facilitator was then to be given the task of assembling the rest of the working party.  The goal was to assemble a small group of people who were broadly representative of all the stakeholders, were capable of acting for the benefit of all, and could work well together.  A colleague and I were to negotiate our roles with this group, and also help them build effective relationships and determine clear goals and processes.

3) The working party was then to assemble a reference group.  This was to be a larger group of people (our guess was about 15) who were an adequate sample of the different stakeholder groups.  Our intention was to aim for as diverse a sample as we could assemble without the group becoming so large as to be cumbersome.  (This would not rule out larger assemblies for specific purposes, if this seemed desirable.)

My colleague and I were then to work with working party and reference group to define roles (ours and theirs), and again establish agreed goals and processes.

4) The working party, with help from the reference group, were then to move into phase two of the overall process.  The working party were to do most of this, but were to meet regularly with the reference group to review progress and decide future directions.

The reference group will help the working party make sense of the data it is collecting.  Together, the working party and reference group will also identify what other information has to be collected.

Our intention was that the working party, both alone and when meeting with the reference group, would use an action research approach to guide their planning and actions.  We would give them whatever help they need to do this.  We expected the three phases to overlap.

To recruit suitable people for the working party would require the facilitator to talk to a wide sample of stakeholders.  This would already begin to provide the information about the social networks and the issues -- information which is valuable for a working party when they assemble the reference group.

We realised that identifying reference group members would require the working party to interview many people.  This,we thought, would begin to provide the information they would later need to identify the opinion leaders for subsequent work in both phase 1 and 2.

By the time phase 2 neared completion, we expected, it was likely that the working party and reference group would be well informed about the key players and their position on key issues.  This would help greatly in setting up the face-to-face processes of phase 3.


In the event, the exercise was abandoned.  Those who thought they had most to lose declined to cooperate.  The head office team, who could have forced matters, backed away from the confrontation that this would entail.

To me, this was disappointing.  In some of the meetings it emerged that there was little trust in the organisation.  Some of the key players were privileged, in my view.  My guess is that they thought that there would be pressure on them to surrender some of this privilege.  Yet if it had proceeded, I believe it would have been possible to build trust.  With this as a foundation, it would have been possible to negotiate outcomes which met enough of everyone's needs.


  1. Some of the techniques proposed for this phase were trialed in an earlier exercise in which I was helped by some members of the Australian and New Zealand Psychodrama Association, especially Peter Rennie and Andrew Gunner.  Peter has since further used the techniques in other situations, with promising results.  I hope the activity might proceed in the future.



Copyright (c) Bob Dick 1997.  This document may be copied if it is not included in documents sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are included.

This document can be cited as follows:

Dick, B.  (1997) Case study 2: a planned community participation activity.  Available at

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Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 1.04w last revised 20140510