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Annukka Berg: More participation? – Not with these resources.

Participation seems to be encouraged by the misconception of the society having an immense amount of available capacity which is easy to utilise. At the same time, just my circle of friends has about ten people who have become exhausted in voluntary work.

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The concept of participation promotion is all the rage at the moment. It is discussed at good governance development seminars, in R&D teams and organisations. This year has been declared the theme year of European volunteer work. The coalition government assumed power in the UK last year, highlighting the Big Society slogan, emphasising local participation, as the leading idea for the whole government period.  

You could write a column of its own right related to the opportunities of participation promotion.  However, here my aim is to underline the critical views as they seem to have been completely forgotten in all the hype concerning participation. On the one hand, I have considered the matter as a researcher. On the other hand, I have extensively participated in various voluntary activities, from grassroots-level work with the elderly to international organisation activities.  

Participation seems to be encouraged by the misconception of the society having an immense amount of available capacity which is easy to utilise. At the same time, just my circle of friends has about ten people who have become exhausted in voluntary work. I do often wonder whether the participation specialists, giving pompous speeches at seminars, themselves attended weekend meetings or argued at hearings. For how long are they capable of tapping away at their keyboards to contribute to administrative influencing portals? Do they have time to take the grandmother next door for a walk?  

I don’t want to be a harbinger of bad news: participation also brings a huge amount of joy and benefits from the individual perspective. In fact, my message is that particularly all responsible voluntary activities easily become work. Compared to paid work, the problem of voluntary work is that you cannot find comfort in your non-stop hourly wages when you feel bad.  

However, volunteers’ willingness to make a difference and help may be unreasonably wasted in various participation promotion processes. For my dissertation, for example, I studied a programme process where the public was invited to an online discussion. Although a reasonable amount of discussion took place online, it was hardly utilised at all. I conducted interviews, where I found that some key officials in the process had totally forgotten to use the participation tool.  

In the conclusions in my dissertation, I will emphasise the significance of transparency, tailoring and effective communication in processes aiming to promote participation. Requesting volunteers to help should always be considered critically as unnecessary tasks may decrease the motivation to participate, and the intended results will not be achieved. Usually, people do not want to participate, but have an influence on matters they find important.  

At the same time, it is clear that not all social participation potential is yet available. There are many young and old people, those unemployed in the long term, and those who have become estranged from society, who should be empowered to teamwork. However, this empowerment would require more resources and support measures than the administration and organisations are accustomed to offering.  

The middle class, living the busy period in life, are genuinely short of time. Should the aim be to introduce a model like the Big Society in Finland, paid work should give room for social participation. What if the work week had four days, and the fifth day would be used for various social projects?  

Annukka Berg

The author is a Master of Social Sciences, preparing a dissertation related to the methods of assessing and developing extensive national programmes. Berg has previously worked as a journalist and organisation expert, among other things. 

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