Green Places magazine article by Bernard Spiegal: Consultation: don’t ask?

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

That one can hardly stand up without bumping one’s head against, or travel any distance without stumbling over, publications enjoining the virtues of consultation does not of itself lend credence to their claims.

That government – or at least the previous one - and funders now routinely require consultation exercises to be conducted as a condition of grant hardly needs remark. That we – those of us out there actually trying to do something – play the cards we have been dealt as best we can, speaks well of our deftness and conjuring skills. But neither deftness nor adeptness in conjuring is constitutive of an argument or rationale. Fleetness of foot is not a form of justification.

There is no argument to be made against the general proposition that people, young and old, want and must be able to say what they think about matters that affect them. And account must be taken of their views. But left alone those sentiments are too general and platitudinous – offering temporary warmth but little sustenance.

A critique of consultation could limit itself to enumerating offences carried out in its name in respect of particular projects. By way of example: relatively low numbers of involvement; unstable consultee groups – different people turning up at different times; agreements and plans overturned at the project implementation stage by previously non-participating ‘late arrivals’, perhaps a Councillor or local resident with a lately-discovered particular concern.

These types of experiences raise fundamental questions about the legitimacy and authority of consultative processes. These questions are largely ignored or papered over in practice. They are questions to which there is no easy answer. They are ultimately political questions: about how power is distributed; about how and who exercises it and on whose behalf; about how it is held to account.

Critical attention could usefully be directed to consideration of the criteria and objectives that underpin, on the one hand, participative and consultative processes, whether involving children or adults; and on the other, the criteria and objectives underpinning the ends to which consultative and participative1 processes supposedly aim. Are they beneficially aligned?

The danger is that these processes become self-justifying, such that the purpose of consultation and participation is, simply, to involve people in those processes. If such is the case, consultation and participation is divorced from the substantive aim of searching for something we should be able to call – without embarrassment - ‘good’.

It is said that being involved in consultative and participative processes engenders a sense of ‘ownership’ in the resultant output of those so engaged. These claims are probably overstated. But whether so or not, the proprietorial impulse cannot of itself engender a commitment to exploring ideas about what is good. Consideration of what might constitute the good in any particular circumstance is a distinct endeavour, prompting views that are often hotly contested.

Now institutionalised, consultation and participation cannot, and is not designed to, cope with or stimulate ‘hot contention’. Rather, it acts as a balm, aiming for a consensus – usually in the shortest time possible– but diluted to the lowest level of general acceptability.

A commitment to exploring what might be good, in whatever field of endeavour, would be tantamount to administering an electric shock to the body of accepted ‘participation works’ opinion.

Such a commitment implies a need to ask questions about, for example, the relationship of quantity to quality – just because a majority want something, or use it a lot, is it good? – about the democratic process, about the dangers (and benefits?) of a consumerist ethos, about the status and authority of knowledge and opinion generally.

Whatever dispensation may come to bear under the new coalition government, the previous administration’s interest in consultative/participative processes was, from the perspective of this article, primarily a form of managerialism, offering local people an illusion of substantive choice-making.

Too many consultative and participative processes have about them a sense of ritual, of ceremonies being enacted. They are essentially performances, as in a masque, with but a tenuous connection to the substantive choices that will be made, and which will leave their mark upon the world.

14 July 2010

It is understood that ‘consultation’ and ‘participation’ are terms that carrying different meanings to the extent that it can be argued that the former is but a tokenistic nod at the latter. But that is a discussion for another day.

Our first article, a shoal of red herrings, concluded that it is an adult responsibility to make judgments about what constitutes a good play environment, and that much of what travels under the banner of consultation, participation, engagement deflects attention from this.

Fulfilment of this adult responsibility necessarily requires a lively sense of what children and young people need, want and enjoy, along with an alertness to the political dimension of children and young people’s right to play. Rights that can be secured and enforced only by adults.

The quality that adults need to deploy is judgment. And judgment about children and young people’s play wants and needs is founded on:

  • Observation – observing how children and young people play, and want to play, in all its variety.
  • Informal conversations with children and young people.
  • Personal memories of oneself as a child.

Taken together, the three elements, contribute to adults capacity to interpret and come to a judgement about what a play space might look like in a particular location. The approach we have taken in Stirling, is based on these understandings. However, our actual methodology is necessarily flexible and responsive to circumstances. Wishing to learn what we could from children, without abdicating our adult client or designer responsibilities we began to form a programme of engagement called the “Roving Reporters”.

What we wanted to do:

  • Gain knowledge and information about changes which could be made possible through redesign, minor alteration or changed maintenance (therefore the engagement focuses on sites which have funding).
  • Try to identify which aspects of a play space encourage or discourage children’s engagement (on physical, social, intellectual, emotional, and imaginative levels) for children playing with others or alone.
  • Achieve the connect between the research/engagement/evaluation process and the design.
  • Charge the designer with the responsibility to properly research the potential as well as re-evaluate after the site was “completed” – something which designers/architects rarely do.
  • Avoid a predetermination of the focus of the “investigation” but allow evidence to be demonstrated through play and use.
  • Devise a process that was informed by our beliefs rather than a pseudo-neutral process or even worse, informed by oppositional beliefs.

Seeking a process which was easily accessed by children and applicable to a variety of situations we were aware of the temptation to seek reassurance or “objectivity” in a formal and “concrete” approach involving large sample groups, questionnaires, the promiscuous deployment of post its, tick boxes and “tool kits”. In addition to this “overfishing” we also felt these structures to be neither sympathetic to the way children communicate, nor to the (by definition) “informality” of play. For example, trying to say that ”the monkey bars are too hard to get off as the step down is in the wrong place”, doesn’t easily fit into a tick box approach.

We had previously found that some of the most useful comments and insights made by children happen spontaneously. For example, at Balmaha Play Landscape in Stirlingshire a fallen tree was brought on site for play, and a bark pit was being excavated. Children playing on site that day requested that excavation material was modelled into a defensive barrier and lookout/vantage point to curve around trees which they had adopted as their den. Seeing how this might work the designer incorporated the ideas into the design which has resulted in a successful intervention that remains popular with many children using the play area. However, we were clear that it’s not to say that all children’s suggestions would work and the responsibility of the designer is to consider the merit of the idea and its impact on the rest of the space and users over the longevity of the feature.

And so the Roving Reporter process was devised to be simple and informal, involving two/three visits by the designer to a site with a group of children and their friends. (Appendix A shows range of issues/features that were included as a framework for the observation). The children’s role is to play and the researcher/designer’s role is to observe, discuss and record the quality of play taking place and the opportunities to remove constraints or support play aspirations.

The “Interpreter”


Although some may claim that this type of engagement allows too much opportunity for “subjective” adult interpretation, we would argue that it is important for the designer/researcher to be forming and adapting a point of view in a way that also allows the closest understanding of what the children are expressing, and about what truly engages them. We find that when parents of the children are present in a supporting role, they can also add very useful context to children’s comments regarding likes and dislikes and tease out the children’s meaning through prompts, and often provide information about what engages them in other environments. So we began to be less afraid of using our judgement to “make sense” of what we were finding.

An illuminating example came after observing a 7 year old boy playing with the sand and water offer on one site. His play had lasted for nearly two hours and had involved a myriad of experiments and creations as well as complex social interactions. Then just before leaving he had a couple of rides on the aerial cableway. “What did you enjoy at the play area?” we asked. “The flying fox” (cableway) came the reply. Are we wrong to make our own judgment about the most engaging play that day? Was his answer not just easier or perhaps what he thought was expected?


This is not to say that our own beliefs are not challenged (often painfully) by the children.
With no predetermined aims other than the creation of better play opportunities (and not representing an equipment manufacturer) we can be more open to supporting children’s endlessly creative aspirations.


An example of this occurred during a Roving Report expedition at Beechwood Park, Stirling. We (as client and designer) had assumed that an ancient, large scale metal multi-play structure offering little or no challenge should be removed as part of the ensuing refurbishment. However the children being observed persistently used the unit as the venue or “film set” for elaborate games of star wars. The connecting bridges lent themselves to light sabre battles and the spiral ladders became the vortex which the defeated warriors fell into.

This particular observation gave us some further material: following discussion with the children we drew out their aspirations for even better “film sets” resulting in their creation of jenga brick models to illustrate modifications, greater height, more challenging bridges and interesting ditches and “rivers”. Although some of these modifications are now in the plans for the refurbishments the wider idea of providing a film setting/context for certain types of play is firmly rooted in the designer’s bank of ideas and other current schemes. This was a tipping point for us in reviewing the process and examining its usefulness. Whereas initially we had hoped/expected to inform a particular design or site, we now realised that there were “too many” aspirations to be achieved on one site but they were spilling over and informing interventions across the many sites being developed.

We also realised that the star wars games had been provoked by the mini light sabres the children had brought with them on the first visit so we took care to examine the value of the planned interventions for other uses/users and found that they would contribute to numerous different “imaginings”. However, what we observe children doing is likely to be infinitely variable, dependent on friendship groups, weather, mood (even where a play offer is overwhelmingly prescriptive, children can be counted on to use/misuse it to stimulate variety). And so again the adult/client/designer must use judgement to determine which intervention will support the greatest engagement or the greatest variety of opportunity as well as the quick wins or ‘tweaks’ that can maximise value.

fig5     fig6

The children’s role

Achieving the balance between “playing” and “reporting” by the children initially caused us some concern. We certainly wanted to listen and discuss with the children but also wanted the opportunity to observe play that was “as natural as possible”. Latterly we are less distracted by this issue as it became very clear that some children were determined that nothing would distract them from their play anyway, and others donned the role of reporter with a frenzy that would impress the tabloid press! Again this would vary each visit and whilst avoiding certain distractions we concluded that there was also no such thing as “natural play” but only play in any given (and ever changing) context.

Similarly we have learned to avoid soliciting opinions of what is “good” or “bad” in favour of discussion of what can or can’t be achieved.

The scope of the spaces

Although the Roving Reports were yielding a rich trawl of design ideas, easy tweaks and changes to maintenance regimes, we were also discovering that our design approach of maximising the play landscape context was achieving as much, if not more than we had hoped: the provision of sand especially where combined with water enticed children of different ages to play in sustained and diverse ways; we found a greatly increased vigour of movement and imaginative play on sites where equipment is well integrated into the landscape context; the creation of diverse spaces with substantial tree planting creating den areas and special places that changed with the seasons and yielded loose parts/props for play; the creation of a sense of place with locally relevant and bespoke features was connecting with users of all ages. Similarly we discovered that just because a play area is used (often termed “well used”), the play experience for the children is not necessarily a satisfying one, and it was only through observation and discussion we grew increasingly able to discriminate in this way.

In parallel we were increasingly researching the wider play possibilities when drawing together a design brief for new schemes, in order to complement rather than repeat existing opportunity. The joy and fascination of discovering children playing in woods, streams, creating self-built bike tracks, unexpected kick-about areas, dens and bases, is reassuring in these days of reduced children’s mobility and increasing lack of accessible open spaces. Now, thirsty to learn the maximum about the features, prompts and subtle nuances that make these favoured spaces work, the Roving Reporter model is the tangible backbone which supports our approach, keeps children at the centre of the process and often provides the very necessary “evidence” to steer a steady course when the consultation rollercoaster pushes and pulls us away from our goals.

Appendix A

Although not a checklist, it is useful to consider the impact of a wide range of features on the dynamics of a space. However, these factors won’t necessarily arise in the observation of children playing, and may be more relevant to the designers own considerations and judgment.

Features to look at:

  • Boundaries and access: feelings of security; dog supervision issues; access for children with range of needs.
  • Aspect/geographical location: ease of access for unaccompanied children; proximity of other points of interest eg shops, toilets, other playable space; nature of adjacent space/streets.
  • Pathways: pedestrian through routes, infrastructure, children’s own routes/meaningful journeys.
  • Play and Comments Associated with Equipment and Landscaping: this included any aspect that could be played with eg mounds, sand, boulders, slack space, as well as more formal equipment.
  • Other kinds of play/use: observed eg chasing or hiding games using the whole space, games made up by the children).
  • Opportunity for ongoing risk and challenge; opportunity for older children.
  • Opportunity for children with particular needs.
  • Surfaces/materials - water, sand, grit, bark, gravel and ‘natural’ loose materials like leaves, twigs, stones; to identify range and variety and to judge playability.
  • Planting and mowing: trees, shrubs, different lengths of grass, flowers; assessing its play value as well as aesthetic value.
  • Adults: how they are accommodated in their watching/scaffolding/active interaction.
  • Formal/informal seating.
  • General condition and maintenance.

Judi Legg, Playspace Designer, PLAYLINK Associate
Sue Gutteridge, former Head of Stirling Council Play Services, PLAYLINK Associate

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