Playing Around with PARTICIPOLOGY

By Alister Scott

Alister Scott (biography)

Have you ever wanted a new way to engage with stakeholders that is more engaging, fun and effective? PARTICIPOLOGY is a set of open-access web resources and associated guidance that sets out to achieve these aims. It uses a board game format where players encounter questions and challenges as a dice throw dictates. The board, questions and rules of the game can be designed from scratch or existing templates can be adapted to the specific goals you have in mind. The game was designed to be used in participatory forums about land use options, but the principles can be more widely applied to all kinds of participatory processes.

There are five key findings from developing and using these resources.

First, there is no such thing as a quick participatory fix. Sufficient time must be invested upfront to plan, deliver and evaluate actions to maximise success. We have identified the following good practice principles to any participative exercise:

  • Clarity (identify and agree aims, remit and scope with your audience)
  • Bounding (define the boundaries of the exercise and identify non-negotiables)
  • Inclusivity (involve all relevant interests, going beyond usual suspects where appropriate)
  • Appropriateness (suit the technique to the situation in a proportionate manner to the task )
  • Timing (involve people as early as possible and go beyond a simple tick-box exercise)
  • Informing (provide ongoing communication about the initiative and how you are using collected information)
  • Effective (be pragmatic and flexible, measuring how well you are doing and learn lessons)
  • Recording (record the outcomes of any exercise in a manner suitable to the intended purpose and audience)
  • So What? (How are the results going to be used to inform a given plan, policy, project or programme? What happens next and how do you keep the audience informed and involved?)

Second, the game format can facilitate and stimulate engagement by breaking down silo-thinking and mediating between different interests and positions. By using a random “dice” element, people confront different issues. By using different play formats (eg. role play using our detailed role descriptors), the game can become an effective catalyst for more holistic and strategic thinking which gets sufficient distance from existing loggerhead or entrenched views.

Third, using a team of academic, policy and practice partners working together, we successfully co-designed and co-produced an effective participatory resource kit. The end product punches well above its academic and policy weight. We used a managed and deliberative process to provide “safe” opportunities and spaces to enable our partners to maximise knowledge exchange and social learning. From sharing lessons learnt in initial workshops; to developing and agreeing collectively a suitable resource kit framework; to testing it selectively on real life projects and modifying it in light of these experiences, we produced a robust and “oven ready” resource that has significant buy in across the policy and practice community. Our partners involved universities, schools, local charities, local authorities, networks and partnerships, and government departments, with participants from across England, Wales and Scotland, Australia, Sweden and the USA.

Fourth, a key advantage of PARTICIPOLOGY is that users can tailor it to their own purposes rather than being restricted to a specific participatory product and set of rules. Indeed in our testing phases we found that people involved in the process of designing a given board and questions secured multiple benefits and ownership before even playing the game. By combining the two aspects (design and play) for a given group there were significant gains in buy in and enthusiasm. For an example see the PARTICIPOLOGY case study from Queen Mary Grammar School Walsall. Flexibility and adaptability are key to meeting partner needs.

Finally, policy and practice champions have a key role to disseminate PARTICIPOLOGY and support its wider application for maximum impact. By enabling our partners to test the tool in their own real work programmes as part of the research process they have become embedded in the outcomes and hopefully inspired to carry out their own further work and knowledge exchange. This is further facilitated by developing an interactive forum in the PARTICIPOLOGY toolkit and enabling further uploads of material to keep it as a live resource for potential users.

Designing a research project where the outcome was unknown and would only emerge through the co-production process is a challenging task. However by allowing the project to evolve organically and not predefining the output, we argue that we have produced a powerful and sustainable research model. We’d love to hear about your experiences using it.

More information can be found at:

The tool was originally called Rufopoly. PARTICIPOLOGY was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council Project number ES/M006522/1.

Biography: Alister Scott is Professor of Environment and Spatial Planning at Birmingham City University. He is a chartered member of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and is an interdisciplinary champion. Alister is concerned with frontiers and edges of disciplines and policy spaces and works in a range of academic, policy and practice partnerships to co-produce strategies to manage messy and wicked policy problems facing our built and natural environments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: