Community Planning: Principles A-Z
Principles A-Z
  • A -Z
  • participation matrix
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Accept different agendas
People will want to be involved for a variety of reasons, for instance: academic enquiry, altruism, curiosity, fear of change, financial gain, neighbourliness, professional duty, protection of interests, socialising. This need not be a problem but it helps to be aware of people’s different agendas.

Accept limitations
No community planning activity can solve all the world’s problems. But that is not a reason for holding back. Limited practical improvements will almost always result, and community planning activity can often act as a catalyst for more fundamental change.

Accept varied commitment
Far too much energy is wasted complaining that certain people do not participate when the opportunity is provided. All of us could spend our lives many times over working to improve the local environment. Everyone has their own priorities in life and these should be respected. If people do not participate it is likely to be because they are happy to let others get on with it, they are busy with things which are more important to them or the process has not been made sufficiently interesting.

Agree rules and boundaries
There should be a common understanding by all main interest groups of the approach adopted. Particularly in communities where there is fear – for instance that others may be trying to gain territorial advantage – it is vital that the rules and boundaries are clearly understood and agreed. In particular it is important to be clear about what can and cannot be changed as a result of any community involvement.

Avoid jargon
Use plain language. Jargon prevents people from engaging and is usually a smokescreen to hide incompetence, ignorance or arrogance.

Be honest
Be open and straightforward about the nature of any activity. People will generally participate more enthusiastically if they know that something can be achieved through their participation (eg if there is a budget for a capital project). But they may be quite prepared to participate ‘at risk’ providing they know the odds. If there is only a small chance of positive change as a result of people participating, say so. Avoid hidden agendas.

Be transparent
The objectives and people’s roles should be clear and transparent at events. For instance, it may seem trivial but the importance of name badges to prevent events being the preserve of the ‘in-crowd’ can never be stressed enough.

Be visionary yet realistic
Nothing much is likely to be achieved without raising expectations. Yet dwelling entirely on the utopian can be frustrating. Strike a balance between setting visionary utopian goals and being realistic about the practical options available.

Build local capacity
Long-term community sustainability depends on developing human and social capital. Take every opportunity to develop local skills and capacity. Involve local people in surveying their own situation, running their own programmes and managing local assets. Help people to understand how planning processes work and how they can be influenced. Communications and cultural activities are particularly effective at building capacity.
(Source: part APaNGO project)

Use all available media to let people know what you are doing and how they can get involved. Community newspapers or broadsheets in particular are invaluable. Community newspapers and, increasingly, websites are invaluable. Information provision is a vital element of all participatory activities
(Source: part APaNGO project).

Encourage collaboration
Create partnerships wherever possible between the various interest groups involved and with potential contributors such as financial institutions.

Be prepared to modify processes as circumstances dictate. Avoid inflexible methods and strategies.

Focus on attitudes
Behaviour and attitude are just as, if not more, important than methods. Encourage self-critical awareness, handing over control, personal responsibility and sharing.

Focus on existing interests
Start participatory working with a focus on the existing interests and motivations of local people. They will then see the relevance of being involved.
(Source: APaNGO project)

Follow up
Lack of follow-up is the most common failing, usually due to a failure to plan and budget for it. Make sure you set aside time and resources for documenting, publicising and acting on the results of any community planning initiative.

Go at the right pace
Rushing can lead to problems. On the other hand, without deadlines things can drift. Using experienced external advisors may speed up the process but often at the expense of developing local capacity. Get the balance right.

Go for it
This is the phrase used most by people who have experienced community planning when asked what their advice would be to others. You are bound to have doubts, it is usually a leap in the dark. But you are unlikely to regret taking the plunge.

Have fun
Getting involved in creating and managing the environment should not be a chore. It can be a great opportunity to meet people and have fun. The most interesting and sustainable environments have been produced where people have enjoyed creating them. Community planning requires humour. Use cartoons, jokes and games whenever possible.

Human scale
Work in communities of a manageable scale. This is usually where people at least recognise each other. Where possible, break up larger areas into a series of smaller ones and translate regional issues to a local scale. Working on regional planning issues requires a high level of coordination between community and interest groups and the use of specific methods.
(Source: part APaNGO project)

Integrate with decision-making
Community planning activity needs to be integrated with government decision-making processes. Participatory processes are undermined if there is no clear link to decision-making.
(Source: APaNGO project)

Involve all those affected
Community planning works best if all parties are committed to it. Involve all the main interested parties as early as possible, preferably in the planning of the process. Activities in which key players (such as landowners or planners) sit on the sidelines are all too common and rarely achieve their objectives completely. Time spent winning over cynics before you start is well worthwhile. If there are people or groups who cannot be convinced at the outset, keep them informed and give them the option of joining in later on.

Involve all sections of the community
People of different ages, gender, backgrounds and cultures almost invariably have different perspectives. Ensure that a full spectrum of the community is involved. This is usually far more important than involving large numbers.

Learn from others
There is no need to re-invent the wheel. One of the best sources of information is people who have done it before. Don’t think you know it all. No one does. Be open to new approaches. Get in touch with people from elsewhere who have relevant experience. Go and visit them and see their projects; seeing is believing. Do not be afraid of experienced ‘consultants’ but choose and brief them carefully.

Local ownership of the process
The community planning process should be ‘owned’ by local people. Even though consultants or national organisations may be providing advice and taking responsibility for certain activities, the local community should take responsibility for the overall process.

Maintain momentum
Regularly monitor progress to ensure that initiatives are built on and objectives achieved. Development processes are invariably lengthy, the participation process needs to stay the course. If there has to be a break, start again from where you left off, not from the beginning. Periodic review sessions can be very valuable to maintain momentum and community involvement.

Mixture of methods
Use a variety of involvement methods as different people will want to take part in different ways. For instance, some will be happy to write letters, others will prefer to make comments at an exhibition or take part in workshop sessions.

Now is the right time
The best time to start involving people is at the beginning of any programme. The earlier the better. But if programmes have already begun, participation should be introduced as soon as possible. Start now.

Ongoing involvement
Community involvement in planning issues needs to be an ongoing and continuous activity and be supported accordingly. One-off consultations with tight deadlines only have limited value.
(Source: APaNGO project)

Personal initiative
Virtually all community planning initiatives have happened only because an individual has taken the initiative. Don’t wait for others. That individual could be you!

Plan your own process carefully
Careful planning of the process is vital. Avoid rushing into any one approach. Look at alternatives. Design a process to suit the circumstances. This may well involve combining a range of methods or devising new ones.

Plan for the local context
Develop unique strategies for each neighbourhood. Understand local characteristics and vernacular traditions and use them as a starting point for planning. Encourage regional and local diversity.

Prepare properly
The most successful activities are invariably those on which sufficient time and effort have been given to preliminary organisation and engaging those who may be interested.

Process as important as product
The way that things are done is often as important as the end result. But remember that the aim is implementation. Participation is important but is not an end in itself.

Professional enablers
Professionals and administrators should see themselves as enablers, helping local people achieve their goals, rather than as providers of services and solutions.

Quality not quantity
There is no such thing as a perfect participation process. The search for one is healthy only if this fact is accepted. Generally, the maximum participation by the maximum number of people is worth aiming at. But any participation is better than none and the quality of participation is more important than the numbers involved. A well organised event for a small number of people can often be more fruitful than a less well organised event for larger numbers.

Reach all sectors
Use methods to reach all sectors of the community – for example young people, minority ethnic communities, small businesses, the ‘silent majority’, the ‘hard to reach’. But take care to avoid further alienation of disadvantaged groups by creating separate processes.
(Source: APaNGO project)

Record and document
Make sure participation activities are properly recorded and documented so that it can be clearly seen who has been involved and how. Easily forgotten, such records can be invaluable at a later stage.

Respect cultural context
Make sure that your approach is suitable for the cultural context in which you are working. Consider local attitudes to gender, informal livelihoods, social groupings, speaking out in public and so on.

Respect local knowledge
All people, whether literate or not, whether rich or poor, whether children, women or men, have a remarkable understanding of their surroundings and are capable of analysing and assessing their situation, often better than trained professionals. Respect local perceptions, choices and abilities and involve local people in setting goals and strategies.

Shared control
The extent of public participation in any activity can vary from very little to a great deal. Different levels are appropriate at different stages of the planning process but shared control at the planning and design stage is the crucial ingredient.
(see Participation matrix).

Special interest groups
important Groups representing different special interests have a vital role to play in shaping the environment because of its complexity. Decision-makers need to consider evidence which represents best the variety of interests of current and future communities, including taking into account views of specific interest groups with particular knowledge.
(Source: APaNGO project)

Spend money
Effective participation processes take time and energy. There are methods to suit a range of budgets and much can be achieved using only people’s time and energy. But over-tight budgets usually lead to cutting corners and poor results. Remember that community planning is an important activity, the success or failure of which may have dramatic implications for future generations as well as your own resources. The costs of building the wrong thing in the wrong place can be astronomical and make the cost of proper community planning pale into insignificance. Budget generously.

Think on your feet
Once the basic principles and language of participatory planning are understood, experienced practitioners will find it easy to improvise. Avoid feeling constrained by rules or guidance (such as this handbook)!

Training is invaluable at all levels. Encourage visits to other projects and attendance on courses. Build in training to all your activities.

Trust in others’ honesty
Start from a position of trusting others and generally this will be reciprocated. Lack of trust is usually due to lack of information.

Use experts appropriately
The best results emerge when local people work closely and intensively with experts from all the necessary disciplines. Creating and managing the environment is very complicated and requires a variety of expertise and experience to do it well. Do not be afraid of expertise, embrace it. But avoid dependency on, or hijacking by, professionals. Keep control local. Use experts ‘little and often’ to allow local participants time to develop capability, even if it means they sometimes make mistakes.

Use facilitators
Orchestrating group activities is a real skill. Without good facilitation the most articulate and powerful may dominate. Particularly if large numbers of people are involved, ensure that the person (or people) directing events has good facilitation skills. If not, hire someone who has.

Use local talent
Make use of local skills and professionalism within the community before supplementing them with outside assistance. This will help develop capability within the community and help achieve long-term sustainability.

Use outsiders, but carefully
A central principle of community planning is that local people know best. But outsiders, if well briefed, can provide a fresh perspective which can be invigorating. Getting the right balance between locals and outsiders is important; avoid locals feeling swamped or intimidated by ‘foreigners’.

People can participate far more effectively if information is presented visually rather than in words, A great deal of poor development, and hostility to good development, is due to people not understanding what it will look like. Use graphics, maps, illustrations, cartoons, drawings, photomontages and models wherever possible. And make the process itself visible by using flipcharts, Post-it notes, coloured dots and banners.

Walk before you run
Developing a participatory culture takes time. Start by using simple participation methods and work up to using more complex ones as experience and confidence grow.

Work on location
Wherever possible, base community planning activities physically in the area being planned. This makes it much easier for everyone to bridge the gap from concept to reality.

Project Stages
initiate >
Plan >
Implement >
Maintain >
Self Help
Community initiates
action alone
plans alone
Community implements
Community maintains
Shared working and decision- making
Authorities & community
jointly initiate
Authorites & community
jointly plan
and design
Authorites & community
Authorites & community
Authorities ask community for opinions
initiate action
after consulting community
plan after consulting community
with community consultation
with community consultation
Self Help
One way flow of information Public relations
initiate action
plan and
design alone
Authorities maintain
A simple illustration of how different levels of participation are appropriate at different stages of a project. Most community planning operates in the shaded areas. Any party may initiate action but the crucial ingredient is joint planning and design, shown in the dark square. Implementation and maintenance will either be carried out jointly or by the authorities after consulting the community. See also Ladder of Participation in the Glossary.

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Last updated on: 17 March 2009