How We Did It: Participatory Action Research

September 6, 2023  

Councils across the country are redefining who the experts are when it comes to creating long-term solutions to systemic challenges.

In this instalment of our ‘How We Did It’ series, Xia Lin from Toynbee Hall introduces a research method designed to embed resident participation in local change-making and explains how co-design principles can be used to level the power playing field.

Can you tell us a little bit about Toynbee Hall, and about when and why you started to use participatory action research?

Established nearly 140 years ago as the world’s first university settlement, Toynbee Hall is a charity which offers advice and support services to people in East London. We are based in Tower Hamlets – a fast-growing borough, but one with high levels of deprivation, including the highest level of child poverty in the UK. With a long-standing mission to connect people with power, our research and policy work provides a platform for local voices to influence thinking and policy-making both locally and nationally based on lived experiences. Through this we aim to create long-term solutions to the systemic challenges people face.

We have been using Participatory Action Research (PAR) for six years. When we started, we were looking to improve our services and we realised that we needed to speak to people who were not using them to find out why. Instead of us deciding what needs to happen – why don’t we ask residents? We started using PAR to enable this shift. At that time, we knew residents trusted Toynbee Hall because it had been in the community for a long time, but they didn’t trust this approach. They said: ‘we are over consulted and nothing gets done’.

Instead of us deciding what needs to happen – why don’t we ask residents? We started using PAR to enable this shift.

This wasn’t just about Toynbee Hall, it was also about the local authority – residents generally didn’t see changes based on their input. For example, they didn’t see any benefits after completing a survey. So it was quite difficult at the beginning, but we believed in the power of the approach and that encouraged us to continue using it. Now, six years down the line, we are working with over 250 peer researchers and Experts by Experience, mostly in Tower Hamlets but also in other areas of London and across the country.

Participatory action research (PAR) is an approach to research that prioritises the value of lived experience.

It involves the participation and leadership of people experiencing the issue that is being examined or addressed through the research. Professional researchers and members of the community (peer researchers) work in partnership to develop the project scope, carry out the data collection, analyse the findings, and take positive action based on the results.

Can you tell us how PAR differs from more traditional consultation approaches?

PAR is a combination of research and action. I come from an academic background and we usually describe participatory research as involving residents. PAR goes one step further – it’s about shared ownership. This means that we have a group of peer researchers working alongside the staff team to conduct research and produce robust data to inform decision making. We have found that the action element of PAR is key because of the pre-existing lack of trust. If we build in action, we build in trust, while also making sure that we don’t do research for the sake of it.

When using PAR, it’s important to think about who the data is from, how it is collected, and what our own role in the process is. When I started using this approach, I felt very strongly that only residents’ insights counted and saw myself only as a facilitator. But I took a step back and realised that I hadn’t considered my own expertise as a researcher. I know colleagues in local authorities have extensive experience of community participation and engagement, knowledge of the community, and expertise on specific policy areas. I have learnt that residents want us to contribute our expertise to help design research, analyse data, develop influencing strategies and push for change. Now I don’t shy away from my role and what I can contribute. We need both lived and learned experience to co-produce well.

At Toynbee Hall, peer researchers receive training and are paid to conduct research in collaboration with staff. Experts by Experience don’t receive the same training but they share their views and expertise at different points throughout the project lifecycle.

Individuals are recruited through diverse channels, including word of mouth, through charity organisations and at community events. Once recruited, the length of their involvement is decided by the individual – so far it has ranged from a few months to six years, with some deciding to get involved in multiple projects over a longer period of time.

Aged between 16-83, 83% of those currently involved have a below average household income and 60% are of Asian ethnicity.

Why should councils think about incorporating PAR into their work?

Peer researchers are able to reach out to people who we struggle to engage. For example, we were doing research on older people but we were only engaging women. We were asking ourselves, where are the men? We wanted to hear their insights too. So one of our peer researchers went to the pub and spoke to people who were really in need of support, who had no electricity at home so would be in the pub from nine to five, and the staff there were their only support. By using this approach, we can reach out to people who haven’t been involved in traditional consultation or engagement exercises, as well as those people who are most marginalised.

This approach also helps shift the conversation from ‘we have some thoughts we want to share, let us know what you think’ towards working together to agree and achieve a shared goal. Because we are working as a team, after the research process we don’t say ‘Thank you very much. We will take things forward and will talk to policymakers and try our best to make things happen.’ We say: ‘This is our recommendation – what should we do next?’. We strategise together, identifying the key points that we want to influence and how to make that happen, whether it’s a campaign or working with policymakers.  

Could you share some more practical examples of your work in the public sector at the hyper local, local, regional and national level?

We have applied PAR at various scales through projects ranging from five months to three years and with budgets of £20k to £250k. At the hyperlocal level, we have been exploring residents’ concerns about community safety and connection on an estate in Tower Hamlets. We started with a research phase, which showed that many residents felt unsafe, and followed this with an action phase. Our peer researcher, who also acted as a translator, worked with 60 Bangladeshi women who could not speak English, and who had never had a conversation with local police, to organise a safety walk. This walk enabled the police to better understand why people didn’t feel safe and to identify solutions, including additional streetlights. Tangible changes have happened because of that engagement, and the safety walk has become a yearly practice because the police and the local authority found it so useful.

Safety walk with local police

This approach also helps shift the conversation from ‘we have some thoughts we want to share, let us know what you think’ towards working together to agree and achieve a shared goal.

At the local level, we work with councils to inform strategies ranging from poverty to wellbeing. As part of this work, our peer researchers share findings with decision makers, such the deputy mayor who leads on a specific area, to inform and develop the strategy together.

We recently worked with the Greater London Authority (GLA) to inform the skills roadmap for London and to develop approaches to improving access to adult education for Londoners. We worked with a group of peer researchers who are members of one or more of the priority groups identified by the GLA as having the most to gain from adult education. Over the course of five months our peer researchers co-designed and co-produced the research and conducted in-depth interviews with over 50 people from across London about how adult education services could be improved. We were subsequently invited to give evidence to the GLA’s London Assembly. Having peer researchers involved made the process completely different to traditional evidence gathering – seeing and hearing the lived experience makes it more than just words.

Evidence gathering at the London Assembly
Evidence gathering at the London Assembly

At the national level, we recently worked with Ofgem, the energy regulator, to explore what a fair transition to net zero should look like for low-income consumers, and how to get there. Thirteen peer researchers and 38 community members with direct experience of the energy poverty premium worked in partnership to co-create research and proposals. Ofgem fed back to us that using this approach helped them to have a different kind of dialogue by asking the right questions, and supported them to build better relationships with communities.

In addition to co-designing solutions and influencing policymakers, we also support peer researchers to participate in policy implementation, such as within the Renters Reform Coalition and shaping HM Treasury’s No Interest Loan Scheme pilot.

What advice would you give councils thinking about using a PAR approach?

My first tip would be just get started. When we introduced the approach, I was concerned about expectations – what if we couldn’t achieve what people asked for? But by establishing shared ownership and responsibility, we can work together to make things happen. I feel very empowered by residents and by this approach because it allows us to truly collaborate. We take time to work out who needs to be involved in the project – Toynbee Hall might not necessarily be able to deliver certain things, but we can bring in the people or organisations who can. Setting clear parameters about what is and isn’t possible also helps establish trust.

Secondly, the ‘who’ question is more important than the ‘how’ question. Ask yourself – who are the residents you are involving in your work? Are you only working with people who have engaged before? Are you only working with people who have the loudest voice? And ask the who question about your team internally – do you have all the expertise you need? Who else needs to be involved? Because one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to using PAR, the ‘how’ question is less important. What’s more important is the values and principles of co-production.

For further guidance on building marginalised residents’ power in local change making, click here.

How We Did It’ sessions are exclusive to members of New Local’s network.

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