In this article, I attempt to merge two themes. First, there is often a large gap between high hopes about impacts of policies or programs and the demonstrated results. I describe four keys/threats to success in any social problem area: theory, implementation, evaluation, and resource/system support. Second, I present theory and research from over 30 years of work on participation, conducted by my colleagues and myself that can illuminate and be illuminated by theory, implementation, evaluation, and resource/system support. I offer ideas for solutions that increase the probability of success. I conclude with the need to have high hopes tempered by theory and research to develop realistically ambitious solutions to social problems.
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This article describes a personal and professional journey of over 35 years. At the 2007 Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) biennial, I gave an address in recognition of receiving the SCRA award for Distinguished Contributions to Theory and Research. The address was called “Optimism about participation: High hopes and challenges in neighborhood organizations, community coalitions, and empowerment evaluation systems”, and it was a major basis for this article. The article is an attempt to highlight some messages and underlying themes in over 35 years of work, described within a chronological history. At the biennial, I was very pleased to be introduced by Jean Ann Linney, whose remarks are also published in this volume.
I would like to gratefully acknowledge the enrichment of the work described in this article by the colleagues I have collaborated with over the years (many of whom are cited in this article). I am thankful for the thoughtful comments of many who have helped me think about many previous drafts of the article including: Victoria Chien, Steven Goldstein, Jason Katz, Jim Kelly, Cathy Lesesne, Jean Ann Linney, Emily Novick, Lois Pall Wandersman, and members of my graduate classes in community psychology.
An illustration of High Hopes for Participation and Challenges to Participation at the National Level (and International Level): The Velvet Revolution
I have been struck by the idea that the themes of optimism, high hopes, challenges, and realities about participation and democracy, and about the need for resource/systems support to help prevent “failures,” can easily be illustrated at the national and international levels as well as the community level.
When I first began to think about my Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) award presentation and this article, I was returning from a conference in Moscow and was fortunate to read an October 8, 2006 editorial column in the International Herald Tribune by Jiri Dienstbier. He became foreign minister of Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when Czechoslovakia was freed from Soviet domination. I read this column at an airport in Germany on the way home from a trip to Russia with my family (interestingly, on the same day that I read about the assassination of a Russian journalist who had died on the day before we left Russia; she had been a consistent critic of her government).
The following excerpts from Dienstbier’s editorial vividly capture optimism, high hopes, challenges, as well as realities about participation and democracy, and the need for resource/systems support to help prevent flaws or failures:
In the space of a week, I moved from being a dissident forced to stoke boilers in the Prague metro system to being foreign minister, and within a month Vaclav Havel was the new president of Czechoslovakia. Photographs of Germany’s foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and myself cutting a path through the barbed wire that had long marked the frontier between our countries were beamed around the world as a symbol of the fall of the Iron Curtain.
For my generation, our return to the European cultural space that our country had always belonged to was a dream come true. In the years before 1989, a few of our citizens had collaborated with the regime, but most had made up a silent majority that did not. A few kept a small candle of hope burning by joining the active opposition through literary or journalistic work in samizdat form, or for foreign media and radio stations.
Freedom’s victory would have been fulfillment enough for any one person’s lifetime. More than 90% of Czechoslovak citizens enthusiastically took part in the first free elections to express their joy at the regime’s demise and the restoration of democracy. But in their euphoria, they expected more than was possible.
When the Civic Forum began in the autumn of 1990 to dissolve into political parties and movements that inevitably became a demagogic process. As after the liberation of any society, some people who proved unable to find positive or creative roles began to relive the struggles of our recent past. Suddenly we found there were many latecomers to the fight against Communism who were now compensating for their lack of courage before November 1989.
Then came the controversies that led to the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. The division was peaceful and Czech–Slovak relations have been better than we might have expected, possibly because both sides wished to make up for feelings of failure. Nevertheless, it was generally perceived that the unitary state had not been dissolved by the people but by the authoritarian winners of the Czech and the Slovak elections.
During the privatization drive of the 1990s, many assets of value were lost, and some were stolen. The economic cost has since been estimated at up to a full year of our gross national product. Some people wanted to get rich quickly, and didn’t care how they did it. Corruption penetrated Czech society, and has proved difficult to wipe out.
Today, the Czech Republic is a typical democratic country. Our problems are partly Czech, and still partly post-Communist, but more and more they are the challenges common to modern civilization. Citizens’ dissatisfaction is growing everywhere, and participation rates in elections are dwindling, while public confidence in government, Parliament and the whole political process is ebbing away.
Most members of Czech society know, however, that even an imperfect democracy is better than the former regime, which early on murdered hundreds of people and sent hundreds of thousands to concentration camps; and even during its long years of decay after the death of Stalin, continued to persecute independent-minded people.
Seventeen years after the Velvet Revolution, we Czechs still don’t have an exemplary political scene - but who does? The liberation of creative potential has, however, led to an extraordinarily successful growth of the economy and our standard of living. I was over 50 when I learned how to use a computer, an almost inaccessible article in 1989. Today, young people browse and surf the Internet as if it has been here forever, and even in elementary schools most children have mobile phones.
One can readily ask about theory flaws. For example, the theory of a quick change to democracy may have led to a quick breakup of the country and also to corruption. At the same time, however, one can also point to successes (e.g., an open society where technology is thriving and people feel free). Two potential implementation flaws are that the laws were not well implemented, and not enough oversight was provided to prevent corruption in the democracy. Some potential evaluations flaws are questions about the appropriate indicators of success, which indicators were actually assessed, who conducted the evaluation, and choice of comparison countries. As for potential system/resource flaws, there may not have been sufficient support (e.g., from other countries or the U.N.) to nurture a democracy in a country which did not have a democratic culture.
To me, the Czech example is an illustration of high hopes and challenges, optimism and reality. I wonder what might have happened if there was a clearer theory of change for Czechoslovakia to guide the transition, if the implementation of changes were made with fidelity and/or quality adaptation, how different segments of the population would evaluate the outcomes, and whether there could be more supportive systems (e.g., from the United Nations) to help guide a transition to democracy with greater financial assistance and training.
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Wandersman, A. Four Keys to Success (Theory, Implementation, Evaluation, and Resource/System Support): High Hopes and Challenges in Participation. Am J Community Psychol 43, 3–21 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10464-008-9212-x
- Resource/systems support