In this Lab Exchange Series, Chelsea (Public Policy Lab, NYC), Stephane (La 27e Région, Paris) and Carolyn (TACSI, Adelaide) talk with Rachel (Social Lab, Hong Kong) and Marco (SIX, London) about participatory approaches and what kind of mindset they bring when working with the community. This conversation was part of Social Lab Symposium in Hong Kong.
Working with the community
Rachel Yan (Hong Kong): In social labs we run, civil servants, designers, engineers, the community, residents all come together. It’s about recognising we are all human beings — all the users of public service.
Chelsea Mauldin (NYC): I don’t know that one has to always co-create with all of the stakeholders simultaneously. We certainly do not do that as a practice most of the time. When we are working on particular projects for particular ends, there will be co-creation activities which occur with members of the public, with frontline providers, with operations managers, with policymakers. But, the synthesis of the insights that come from those activities will be done by the core team on the project.
We rarely do co-creative or collaborative activities with groups of members of the public, because we prefer to not expose what I would think of as almost our most naive participants to the pressure or discomfort of doing the strange activities that we are asking them to do in front of other people. Also particularly perhaps because we are so often working on projects that have to do with people in profound conditions of disadvantage and vulnerability.
Carolyn Curtis (Adelaide): I think that’s why our participatory approaches are much more about going in and being in people’s space where they are as opposed to asking them to come into our space. So we spend a lot of time on couches, caravan parks, cafes, street corners. And we are trying to understand their world through their eyes in their context. I think the thing that we would find more concerning is when the rhetoric of co-design and co-creation is used and that’s sort of just getting some tokenistic people in your workshop where you feel comfortable, so you’ve ticked that box of co-creation or co-design, and they’ll go home that day and they’ll never hear about it again.
We’re building more and more peer research teams. So actually having people from within the community form part of the team. But if they’re not, circling back to them and say, “hey, you shared this with us, and this is what that meant and this is what’s now happened as a result of what you’ve shared”. So they know the value and what’s happened with their story and with that information. We call them “story gatherers”.
CM: I respect that a lot and I aspire to that more. We struggle a lot with the logistical challenges of that. The transience and the lack of persistent availability of people with whom we do activities.
Stephane Vincent (Paris): We are working on youth policy at the moment. We took a group of disadvantaged students. We trained them in journalism — interviewing, note taking, asking the right questions. And we gave 12 young people the authorisation to investigate inside the government. At the end of the week, we presented an exhibition of their insights in the middle of the government. So you got the beneficiaries – or the supposed beneficiaries – doing themselves the research, so they feel engaged in it, they feel legitimate. It’s a value for them to do that. And then you get their feedback directly and then you also get the direct dialogue with the civil servant in charge of youth policy.
The ethics of participatory research
CC: We recently did this piece in Victoria with the South Sudanese community, who are experiencing some profound challenges in Australia at the moment. So we recruited a team of around six members of the South Sudanese community. And similarly, we trained them up, we call them “story gatherers” and designed a learning experience for them around how to gather stories both from some of the services that we’re interacting with south sudanese community, but also within their own community, because we found they were able to get a richness and depth because there’s existing trust from within their own community that we wouldn’t. The other philosophy we have, because a lot of these people we’re engaging often are profoundly disadvantaged, we pay them.
So we employ this team for a month as story gatherers and effectively have a joint team with us and them. And they did some amazing work and we had actually then turned into a documentary and they won an award for this. And for this community, which is just facing such horrendous coverage in the media which was terrible, it was just such a remarkable experience.
I think more authentic participatory approaches and peer research teams and things like this are really, really powerful, but I think the thing you have to also acknowledge is that it is an intervention in itself. You have to think about the ethics of it, and so if some of these community members have endured some really significant trauma, we had to have an ethics lens wrapped around it as well to ensure that we were not putting anyone at greater risk. But the richness that came out of that work was just second to none.
CM: Did you teach them to take consent from people who they were interviewing? So they were getting informed consent from their respondents?
CC: Yes, and we actually spent so much time designing on consent and designing a way that people really understand. And the other thing that’s so profoundly hard is paying people. So the last thing we want to do is pay them so they’ll lose benefits. So we’ve had to do all sorts of investigations to understand how we pay them, how much we pay them. But the sort of confidence boost and the potential unlocks within people to actually not just see them as passive people to just spill out their story open, but then actually to play a role in thinking about the “so what?” and what the solution is is profoundly powerful. And I think a real opportunity for social innovation.