The Ottawa Charter defines participation as a basic principle for the practice of health promotion. The underlying assumption is that projects are more effective and sustainable if individuals are actively involved in change processes. This understanding is based on findings gathered throughout many years of experience with community projects and citizens' initiatives which have shown that sustainable changes for the benefit of citizens are more likely to happen when the people are actively involved in their situation.
Participation refers to getting people actively engaged in planning and implementing projects of health promotion. What does engagement mean? While the frequently quoted phrase "empowering those involved" is well known, it doesn't mean the same for everybody. When members of a target group are interviewed about their needs, when their opinions are asked in the process of developing concepts or when they are active in boards and committees, do we call all this participation? These questions indicate the need for a more detailed definition of what participation means.
We speak of true participation when individuals or groups have the power to decide, which means, the more power they have to decide, the higher their level of participation. For project management this means delegating or sharing power to decide, questioning one’s own ideas and having planned projects reviewed one more time. Yet situations like those are not easy in everyday life, especially when project managements are frequently confronted with pressures to succeed and to present results. A reflexive approach to participation is therefore inevitable. At the beginning of a project the project management needs to make a conscious decision as to what kind of participation would be feasible and how it would be best implemented and adequately communicated to all those involved. Promising a clear input in decision-making while the project reality only allows a say, will only frustrate and demotivate participants.
To make participation manageable and operational as well as to be able to assess to what degree participation should be implemented, models have been developed that allow the level of participation to be determined.Two are briefly introduced:
This model was developed in Switzerland and results from experiences with participatory youth projects (Funtasy Projects). The model includes five steps. The first two steps, "information" and "having a say", are rated as pseudo-participation yet considered as major requirements for participation. The next three steps, "co-decision", "active involvement" and "self- administration", are defined as real forms of participation.
The second model was developed by the Social Science Research Center of Berlin (WZB) in cooperation with Health Berlin. It consists of nine steps of integration divided into four forms of participation:
These models facilitate the decision as to which level of participation can be implemented or is intended in a project.
Including the representatives of the target group in the project planning early on will increase the chance that your goals, strategies and measures are in line with these target groups and that your project is effective, that you will find better solutions for your interventions, fostering a good relationship between project team and target groups, thereby laying the groundwork for successful implementation.