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What do government officials, social movement activists, artists, designers, charities and researchers have in common? They are all developing and testing out new forms of public participation – such as direct action, public art, online platforms, and participatory research – often in response either to perceived inequalities, the limitations of top down forms of public organisation or the fracturing of traditional forms of belonging.

Participation Now is an Open University research project that aims to facilitate debate and mutual learning among the many different actors involved, so that we better understand these new forms of public participation in the broader social and political context in which they are situated. This page provides a platform for contributions to this debate. Read on...

Meet the researchers | Meet the participants | Meet the practitioners

Meet the participants

Meet the practitioners

Meet the researchers

When is citizen participation transformative?
Hilde C. Stephansen, Leah A. Lievrouw and Nick Mahony

The democratic potential of activist performance
Samir Dayal

Researching austerity: participatory engagement
Janet Newman

Bradford’s Community University: co-producing knowledge for a change
Jenny Pearce

Participation Now: patterns, possibilities, politics
Hilde C. Stephansen and Nick Mahony

Pondering participation
Mike Mowbray

Researching Occupy London
Paul-François Tremlett



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    The Quantified Self community, lifelogging and the making of “smart” publics

    Gary Wolf, co-founder, suggests that self-tracking and life-logging data may be about us, but they should also be ours to generate, harvest, access, manipulate, interpret, and use - even sell. 

    You take the high road, I'll take the low road, and we'll see who's more democratic when we get to the other end…

    Whilst there are many apparent similarities between the rhetoric of ‘Localism’ in England and that of ‘Community Empowerment’ in Scotland, a closer look reveals striking contrasts in the ways that these policies have been developed and what they mean in practice.

    Journey into participation: a viewpoint from the Science Museum, London

    Many institutions, including London's Science Museum, are now looking to invite their audiences to take a more active role in engaging with their sites and collections, rather than being the traditional passive consumers of culture.

    Creating a culture of participation

    As part of our series of interviews with practitioners and activists, Participation Now researcher Hilde C. Stephansen spoke to Mikey Weinkove of The People Speak, an artists’ collective that creates ‘tools for the world to take over itself’. Their many projects include Talkaoke, a mobile talk show, and Who Wants To Be?, an ask-the-audience game show.

    Building relationships through participatory budgeting

    As part of our series of interviews with practitioners involved in public participation initiatives, Participation Now researcher Hilde C. Stephansen spoke to Alison Lamb at Newcastle City Council about Udecide, a participatory budgeting scheme that has been running since 2006.

    From Occupy to online democracy: the Loomio story

    Flexibility was important, with people being able to change their position if their mind was changed by a persuasive argument or new information. Democracy is a skill we can practice with people wherever we are. 

    Engaging EU citizens in policy making

    As part of our series of interviews with practitioners involved in public participation initiatives, Participation Now researcher Hilde C. Stephansen spoke to Deirdre Lee at Insight-NUI Galway, about Puzzled by Policy, a European Commission funded project that aimed to engage citizens in the policy making process.

    Taking responsibility for Friern Barnet Community Library

    “Barnet claims to know what people want.  But if you go into some of the libraries in Barnet, I would have to say that they probably don’t know what people want.” Nick Mahony talks to the Chair of Trustees of a library saved by occupation for the community in north London.

    Complaints Choir: what is it?

    "This project stays dynamic when people take the Complaints Choir as a tool and make use of it in their own context and modify it. That’s the spirit of open source." Hilde C. Stephansen interviews the founders of the choir for Participation Now.

    Changing public opinion through direct action

    “Starbucks felt so pressured by the public that they felt obliged to pay £20,000,000 to the HMRC.” Our series of interviews with activists and practitioners who organise public participation initiatives speaks next to Sarah Kwei from UK Uncut, the direct action group that works to raise awareness of tax avoidance and austerity cuts through creative forms of protest.

    Organising today: stewarding and responding to ‘the people’

    38 degrees aims to bring people together to take action on the issues that matter to them. As part of our series of interviews with practitioners, Participation Now researcher Nick Mahony talked to Becky Jarvis and Rebecca Falcon at the 38 Degrees office in London about their work.

    Introducing ‘Participation Now: meet the practitioners’

    Participation Now is a new Open University web platform that hosts an accessible and expanding collection of over 120 of the most creative examples of contemporary public participation and engagement initiatives. Meet 'the Practitioners'.

    Democratizing inequalities

    Participation has become a necessary basis for institutional authority in an era of declining social mobility and government retrenchment. It has become a tool for sustaining hierarchies as much as a tool for transcending them. 

    The myth of the keyboard warrior: public participation and 38 Degrees

    Preliminary findings after completing an ethnographic study of 38 Degrees suggest that this is a new type of organisation.

    Building the middle ground

    For my colleagues, nothing short of complete people-driven management would do. On the other hand, the government colleagues I befriended and worked with perceived participation as a necessary evil.

    Science outreach in schools

    There were so many questions that I had to stop taking them so that the children could finish school on time.

    Raymond Williams and 'The emerging landscape of thought and practice'

    The potential for this project to tap into the many and diverse informal ‘education-for-social-purpose’ groups and activities could extend ‘back to the future’ readings and reflections, making the essential links and connections with the best that is available in established institutions.

    The democratic potential of activist performance

    One could hardly imagine a better illustration than Putin’s regime for the idea that the Presidency is itself a performative performance, ritualized but only too brutally effective, in contrast with the impotence of the demos.

    Public engagement, a social priority?

    Living in a perpetual state of fear, people prefer to isolate themselves from what they perceive as the “ineffective” mechanisms of public participation; creating and perpetuating a negative vicious circle. 

    Insider knowledge

    While the literal meaning of utopia is ‘no place’, an OU-topia could be almost any place. Even when physically isolated, an Open University student, engaged in studying, could be part of a ‘public’, involved in learning through dialogue. 

    Introducing Bill McKibben: social movement creation today

    Is one of America’s most prominent environmentalists, Bill McKibben, heading up a leaderless movement? If not, what kind of leader is he? Book review.

    Participation Now: patterns, possibilities, politics

    At one end of this spectrum we have started to place initiatives that offer to rationalise public engagement and make the participatory self-organisation of publics more efficient. At the other end, initiatives seem more focused on enriching processes of engagement and participation.

    When is citizen participation transformative?

    When is participation empowering and transformative? What is the relationship between ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ modes of participation? At a conference on the theme of ‘Participatory Cultural Citizenship’ in Aarhus, last November, keynote speaker Leah Lievrouw shared her thoughts on this with Participation Now. Interview.

    Volatile, stable and extractive participation

    At a conference on the theme of ‘Participatory Cultural Citizenship’ in Aarhus, Denmark last November, Participation Now asked keynote speaker Chris Kelty about questions posed by his current research project: Who gets to decide what participation should be like? Who should be deciding? How might they decide this? Interview.

    Pondering participation

    Is there a profound contradiction between subjective expression and effective political deliberation, such that the first type of participation should be described as superficial? 

    Alternative horizons - understanding Occupy's politics

    Occupy is to be assessed, firstly, in terms of the alternative public space that it creates and the mutual recognition between individuals that (in however fragile a fashion) it brings into existence. 

    Inspired by the public

    Experimenting with public participation at the Kröller-Müller Museum, 2010-2014.

    Bradford’s Community University: co-producing knowledge for a change

    This is a year-long experiment in knowledge exchange and co-production, aimed at exploring what emerges when academics and community participants try to learn from each other.

    Participatory public engagement: reshaping what it means to be public?

    In exactly what ways can participation and public engagement address the contemporary crises of democracy, expertise and legitimacy? Participation Now will provide a public platform for researchers, practitioners, students and citizens interested in finding out.

    Could volunteering be bad for our health?

    Discussions of volunteering in British health-care organisations rarely discuss the possible downside. But we need awkward outsiders.

    Knowing your citizens, making publics

    What sets public participation techniques apart from other ways for governments to know about citizens is the emphasis on deliberation between a small number of participants. Take fracking…

    Researching austerity: participatory engagement

    Any research that seeks to make positive interventions as well as produce ‘objective’ data, must foster new kinds of dialogue that support and engage those directly involved.

    Researching Occupy London

    Those few cold months camped outside St Pauls were a fragile attempt to create a political subject beyond the terrain of politics as usual.

    Keyword: public

    In our current moment, we are witnessing a global, if contradictory, conversation about what public-ness might mean.

    PPE in Oxford: people’s political economy

    Wanted: more insight into effective community organisation, particularly in the field of education and political economy education.

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