Participation – panacea or necessary evil?
In all areas of daily life, from the family environment through to life in social organisations and associations, and into companies, universities, research centres and the world of politics, the words 'participation' or 'involvement' are employed, insisted upon and, sometimes, also feared. What gives the word 'participation' this mythical status? Is it a universal panacea for avoiding trouble, substituting personal responsibility with 'majority opinion', or simply a necessary evil that puts the brakes on any attempt at swift reform? Nearly 20 years of experience in scientific management have enabled met to reach a conclusion in this regard.
In the early nineties, as I progressed to positions of increasing responsibility at the Technische Universität Darmstadt (from Test Facility Manager to Dean to University President), I was faced with questions on the legitimacy of my decisions time and time again. I always sought to establish direct contact with those affected by a decision – from the workers in the test facility to the salaried university staff in all areas. This approach was frequently viewed with suspicion because it appeared I was challenging historically rooted and accepted ways of getting things done. The argument positing the need for swift decisions was often stated emphatically, or one memorable phrase ran as follows: "If you want to let water out of the pond, don't ask the frogs."
A high point for participation was (and continues to be) the expansion of Frankfurt Airport; I assumed the chair of this debate back in 2000. It quickly became clear to me that participation cannot replace personal decisions, but a solid foundation for informed decisions can be created through the open exchange of facts and differing opinions. In addition to this direct benefit for the decision maker (the aphorism being ‘many heads are better than one’), a reasonable level of participation can lead to an improved situation with respect to the acceptance of decisions, because the groundwork was defined on a joint basis.
With this in mind, when I assumed the duties of Chairman at DLR, I sought to bring about participation through the use of various methodologies. However, participation is only possible if everyone is willing to take part and is fully engaged. Criticism behind closed doors or in restricted circles may provide an air of superiority in round table gatherings, but active participation works very differently.
The various discussion options (direct dialogue, touring DLR sites with information sessions, staff meetings, etc.) are not used to ‘announce’ decisions, but are rather intended to provide information about current and planned activities while at the same time allowing me to become aware of different needs, suggestions and criticisms.
As part of the discussion relating to Frankfurt Airport, one of the concepts we employed was the 'no-regret strategy'. With this, the decision maker obtains in-depth information on the matter at hand through participation, which, in turn, helps to prevent statements such as 'if I had known this or that, I would have decided differently'.
It is also possible to demonstrate that participation does more than simply make decisions better, more firmly founded and easier to understand. We can disprove the frequently expressed assumption that participation causes delays in the decision-making process. For example, it took over 20 years from the planning stage to completion of runway 18 West (without participation), whereas the same process for the northwest runway only took 10 years (with participation). When participation is employed correctly in an institution, it can foster a sense of identification and motivation, the value of which cannot be overstated. For these reasons, in my view, participation is a must for any modern institution – and I always enjoy every opportunity of discussing DLR with those who work here.
Photo: Trust Circle, illustrated by Nancy Margulies, CC-BY Flickr-User ChristopherA.