Unintended irony

It is an irony, perhaps, that enthusiasm for children and young people’s consultation and participation coincides with a period in which their scope for independent choice and action has in practice been so thoroughly compromised.

Whether we look at the erosion of their ability to be independently mobile or their capacity to exercise judgment about what they do in their free time, children and young people’s opportunities to make substantive choices might be said to be politically and institutionally impaired.

The national and local state is highly implicated in this constriction of young people’s freedom. If for only this reason, a sceptical eye needs to be cast over professed commitments to participation.

The Government principle on participation appears less than full-hearted:

Children and young people’s involvement is valued

  • children and young people are treated honestly. That means their expectations are managed and that they are helped to understand any practical, legal or political boundaries of their involvement
  • the contributions of children and young people proportionate to their age and maturity, are taken seriously and acted upon, and feedback from children and young people confirms this
  • feedback on the impact of children and young people’s involvement is timely and clear

In some adult hands at least, this could be construed merely as an invitation to children to participate more fully in their own marginalisation. Or at least to be assisted in developing a lively sense of their own limitations and the limitations of the institutions with which, to a significant degree, they are required to engage. For it is of course adults who will manage expectations and who will judge the value of contributions in proportion to youngsters’ age and maturity. The principle therefore alludes to, but does not make explicit, the relationship of power to participation, and in the void thus created muddle ensues.

The principle, as given, suggests hesitancy and nervousness, a sense that an inner voice is whispering ‘let’s not go too far with this, now’. Contrast this with Sweden’s opening sentences in its ‘Curriculum for the compulsory school system: the pre-school and leisure centre’

‘Fundamental values and tasks of the school
Democracy forms the basis of the national school system. The Education Act (1985:1100) stipulates that all school activity should be carried out in accordance with fundamental democratic values and that each and everyone working in the school should encourage respect for the intrinsic value of each person as well as for the environment we all share.’

Here at least, the democratic impulse appears to be at work. The opening statement asserts the equality of ‘all’ – adults and children – thereby orientating possible responses to questions of ‘age and maturity’ in a particular way.

Democratic engagement versus managerialism

Participation and consultation are said to be beneficial for reasons that include, but are not limited to: promoting citizenship; empowerment; evoking a sense of ‘ownership; connecting with local knowledge as part of getting closer to the ‘customer’ or service user – part of the ‘choice’ agenda.

A key source of muddle is the apparent conflation of two separate sets of ideas, or forms of justification, deployed in support of participatory practice:

  • the first, based on utility, function and management: participation is a good thing because it creates, for example, a sense of ownership among project participants and this, it is said, will lead to a reduction in vandalism
  • the second: participation is a good thing in itself, an aspect of democratic engagement.

One may agree with both sets of ideas, only one, or neither. What does not follow, however, is that the two sets of ideas necessarily support each other, point in the same beneficial direction, or are intrinsically connected to each other.

There are many reasons for believing that democracy is a good idea. But whether it is or not, democracy is not simply one good idea among many. Rather, it is a fundamental value infusing the very nature and meaning of our engagements one with another, with the national and local state, with agencies and institutions. To that extent, utility is not a sufficient or even necessary criterion for making judgments about the validity of our democratic ideals and practices. Simply because democracies cannot guarantee that the trains will run on time, is not an argument for fascism.

Similarly, from the perspective of democratic ideals, it should matter not a jot whether youngster and adult participation in the design of this or that space contributes to their sense of ‘ownership’ of the space created. From the perspective of democratic values, the functional or utilitarian justification for engaging with people in, say, design, is simply crudely reductive or, worse, an invitation to create the grounds for questioning people’s ‘readiness’ for democracy if it appears not to ‘work’. When, for example, ‘ownership’ is neither provoked nor maintained notwithstanding ardent efforts by participation workers.


The time may have come to abandon, or at least curtail our enthusiasm for, notions of ‘ownership’. Instead we might think about ‘belonging’ and what a ‘sense of belonging’ might imply.

Ownership suggests territory, possessiveness and the rigidities of boundary. We may, on reflection, think it an ugly idea, reducing matters of value to those of possession. It is understood that the term is not designed to be literal – no leases or mortgages are granted to youngsters using the local youth shelter. But the metaphors we come to use do not fall randomly from above, they have meanings that point to or reveal modes of thinking and orientation. Ones that may, on consideration, make us feel uncomfortable. Or should.

Belonging suggests connectedness, being part of something greater than oneself, of which the individual ‘me’ is an indispensable part. Belonging provokes and nurtures loyalty – multiple loyalties – and a sense of trust and warmth. Belonging implies mutuality, fluidity, give and take, reciprocal relationships and moral agency. Something larger, we might add, than an inter-generational project, valuable though they may be.

Ideas about belonging direct our attention to the wider question of the nature of the relationship between adults and the next generation - and here, it seems to me, adults have reason to be both ashamed and saddened.

Good faith

From the perspective of democratic values, to act in good faith is to value for itself a ‘certain way’ of engaging with others. This certain way embraces, for example, a conversational ethos, a capacity to share informally shared space, and understanding the limitations inherent in formal and quasi-formal modes of engagement. Put another way, the formal structures and tricks of the participatory trade (see numerous ‘toolkits’) cannot alone counter the negative aspects of a political and social culture that appear to value participation primarily in terms of managing situations and prospective utility. The degree to which participatory practice is valued for its utilitarian benefit, is perhaps the extent to which support for such practice is ‘on loan’ from power-holders, likely to be withdrawn or marginalised in the absence of ‘evidence’ that it ‘works’.


Notions of ‘choice’, its putative connection to ideas about empowerment, bear examination. ‘Choice’ can be understood as:

  • on the one hand, a form of consumer rights: a consumer’s entitlement to buy their chicken tikka from Save-A-Lot or Waitrose
  • and on the other, the right of potential service users to make choices about, say, ‘their’ play space, park or community centre.

What’s marked here is the distinction between the responsibilities and obligations individuals, conceived as consumers, have towards themselves – broadly they are entitled to act as witness and judge in determining their own predilections and interests. And the responsibilities and obligations individuals have towards each other when ‘participating’ in decisions designed to create a common, shared good.

In the latter case, a consumerist perspective limits and distorts the nature of the decisions that need to be made. Those who permit themselves to be drawn into participative decision-making are not consumers. Rather, they fulfil a role akin to that of being a trustee – their decisions are decisions-in-trust for this and future generations. To fulfil this role, deciders-in-trust are obliged to be or to become informed decision-makers.

Ritual behaviour

In pursuance of participation children and young people have drawn hundreds of pictures about wished-for play spaces, built any number of models, flicked through the pages of umpteen play equipment catalogues, taken endless photographs and responded to countless questionnaires, some ‘child-friendly’, some no doubt only so in aspiration. Adults and ‘communities’ have not escaped, for their views are sought via facilitated exercises, with flip chart, whiteboard, post-it slips, and model-building.

Too often this amounts to no more than the performance of empty rituals, clumsy attempts at authentic engagement. This is not to disparage or devalue the very many genuine engagements conducted in good faith by any number of projects and organisations. It is to pose questions about the wider context within which such activity occurs.

Displacement activity

Much participatory rhetoric, and associated participatory practice, can perhaps best be understood as a form of displacement activity, shunting the possibility of authentic democratic engagement into the sidings of quasi-parliamentary forums (school councils, youth forums, and the like) supported by officially endorsed toolkits replete with the latest participatory technical aids – disposable cameras, post-it notes, video recordings, and the rest. Action in bad faith is an ever present possibility as a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report seems to bear out:

‘They talked about partnerships and whatever. There was never a partnership. The community was used for consultation purposes. You just had to stay and fight your corner.’

The report found:

‘It was widely felt that participation was more often used as a tool to achieve outcomes which had largely been decided already. As a result people’s experience was often neither enjoyable nor empowering.’

Displacement activity, too, as young people’s’ control over their use of time and space becomes ever more tenuous, their autonomy curtailed, hived off into bounded, rule-governed institutions notionally designed for their benefit. Treated with fear or suspicion in our streets and shared common spaces, deprived thereby of opportunities for easy, informal congress, artificial eyes monitor the degraded public spaces where life should be.

It comes as no surprise, then, that there is need to ameliorate the consequences of young people’s containment, to create for them a masquerade of choice within the confines of their captive childhoods. Our now orthodox commitment to participation too often simply masks society’s inability to address that sense of unease afflicting our relations one with another, within and across generations. Hence our ever more desperate search for examples of ‘good practice’ in participation, reducing questions of qualities and value to those of technique.

We’re in it together: surveillance, supervision and participation

Two motifs present themselves: on the one hand young people subject to an incessant adult gaze, whether on the street or in the charge of regulated, inspected supervising adults; on the other, a prodigality of effort directed towards ensuring young people’s participation in decision-making structures and processes. The case is not proven that our current commitment to participation is born of a democratic impulse, or is merely a method for managing the consequences of containment.

Freedom is indivisible: in constraining yours, I am thereby constrained. To the degree that we constrain, corral and monitor young people, so society pays itself back in the same debased currency, nurturing mutual fear and suspicion of each other.


This article was written a few months ago, though published only now. Readers may find cause either to rejoice or weep at the following extract from The Guardian, Friday 23 March 2007:

‘Teenagers who break a proposed new law making them stay in education or training after 16 could face £50 fixed penalty fines or Asbo-style attendance orders under radical plans outlined yesterday to raise the school leaving age in England.
‘The education secretary, Alan Johnson, said only “a very hard core” of young people who refused to obey new laws to be phased in from 2013 would face criminal proceedings, but the “right carrots and sticks” had to be in place to ensure they were obeyed.’

Fools and horses

The Chambers English Dictionary explains that one root meaning of ‘to manage’ derives from "to train by exercise, as a horse: to handle: to wield: to conduct: to control". Carrots and sticks come to mind as useful tools of trade.

This article ends where it began, with an extract from ‘Learning to Listen: core principles for the involvement of children and young people’ published by the Children and Young People’s Unit, HM Government:

‘Children and young people’s involvement is valued:
children and young people are treated honestly. That means their expectations are managed’

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  1. The terms ‘children and young people’ will be used interchangeably as will the terms ‘consultation’ and ‘participation’.
  2. For example, children and young people though not compelled by law to attend a range of institutions are often compelled by circumstance that in practice allows them little leeway for dissent, for example, attending an out of school club where parents or carers have determined this is necessary. Young people are of course required to attend school between the ages of 5 – 16 years. There are also attempts to restrict the movement, and limit the presence, of young people in our streets.
  3. Emphasis added.
  4. Source: ‘Learning to Listen: core principles for the involvement of children and young people’ published by the Children and Young People’s Unit, HM Government.
  5. The question of variation in purchasing power is not addressed here. Suffice to say that choice here may be illusory – perhaps a necessary illusion. As has been said, the law allows both the rich and the poor to sleep beneath railway bridges.
  6. If only for the simple fact that capital investments are designed to bring benefit over ten to fifteen years and more. Long after the children and young people consulted have grown up or moved on.
  7. ‘Effective participation in anti-poverty and regeneration work’, by Peter Beresford and Martin Hoban, 2005