When the Aperitif Comes by Mail – Participation in Times of the Pandemic

Process planning for a digital participation conference.

Participatory approaches generate added value in many research and development projects, as the active participation of those affected in the process allows more consideration to be given to their needs. These methods are especially popular in work with particularly vulnerable target groups (e.g. children, senior citizens, people with a migration background, cognitively impaired people, etc.). However, the pandemic blocked or made impossible many participatory working methods. This applies to neighbourhood work, urban development processes, but also to research projects in the social sciences and humanities or in the health sector. The pandemic made it abruptly impossible to carry out participatory elements in the traditional form in many ongoing or planned projects. Projects of the HCCD working group were also affected. The project teams were – and still are – faced with the challenge of how to implement participation when case numbers are high and planning certainty is low. Creative approaches are needed here if the participation of those affected in important processes and projects is not to be postponed indefinitely. The agency ProjektForum has tried out innovative approaches in this area in recent months. Project manager Delia Imboden talks in an interview about her experiences as well as possibilities in implementing participatory methods despite corona and protective measures. 

HCCD: Delia Imboden, please describe briefly what you do at ProjektForum and how you work.

Delia Imboden: We are an agency that promotes socio-political issues. Our clients are very diverse and come from different areas such as the cultural sector, public administration, associations and NGOs. The topics we deal with are equally diverse: new public buildings, financial literacy for children and young people, neighbourhood development, age and inclusion, sustainability (food and also transport), to name but a few. For us, the goal is always the inclusion of different dialogue groups – in short, participation, because every person who has a say in a change also actively supports it. At ProjektForum, in addition to moderation and event management, we mainly accompany participatory processes – from the initial consultation to the conception, methodology and moderation through to the documentation.

HCCD: How important are participatory methods in your everyday work?

Delia Imboden: Participation is part of our programme and is at the centre of our work, whether with clients or within the team, where we are currently in the middle of a sociocracy process that is about distributing responsibility in our company even more widely and in a new way. We also see with our clients that participation is not only very popular because it incorporates local knowledge and thus helps to find the best local solutions, but also because participation brings good results. This approach promotes trust, acceptance and also identification and initiative, and is thus ultimately an important building block for social sustainability. At the same time, it can also save follow-up costs in the long run, which is another plus point.

HCCD: How has the pandemic changed this work?

Delia Imboden: The year 2020 has shown in all clarity that participation in our society is neither self-evident nor crisis-proof. The working environment has certainly become more difficult, but also more exciting. What is currently possible? In what form and with how many participants? These and many other questions have often accompanied us over the past year. At the same time, it was clear to us: important social processes should not be postponed indefinitely and we must continue to be able to shape our future together. Therefore, we have increasingly supplemented our participatory processes with new, digital methods, formats and instruments. We have learned a lot in the last 1.5 years and have been able to grow together with our clients.

Hybrid workshop setting, where the client and ProjektForum are on site, but the participants take part from home.

HCCD: Can you give specific examples of how you have tackled this?

Delia Imboden: In various mandates during the pandemic, we have and had to apply different strategies with regard to the implementation of participation, oriented towards needs and dialogue groups. Under normal conditions, we also always work in a needs- and dialogue group-oriented way and develop tailor-made solutions together with our clients. But in the context of the pandemic, such an approach became even more important, because on the one hand we had to integrate the current rules of the Federal Council into the planning of the processes, and at the same time we had to be flexible and continue to make participation possible. One example is the laboratory meetings of the Federal Service for Combating Racism: The aim of these is to promote exchange and networking between different project promoters – naturally a delicate undertaking during the pandemic, but also all the more important that such project promoters can continue to exchange ideas and have platforms to do so. Therefore, for these meetings we have adapted the analogue basics such as script, methodology, technology and moderation to the new digital setting. For another mandate from the Bern University of Applied Sciences BFH and the Health Department of the Canton of Basel-Stadt, which revolved around the development of nutritional measures with senior citizens, a purely digital set-up was out of the question. Therefore, we developed a hybrid small group setting that allowed the vulnerable target group to participate and at the same time minimised the risk of infection with the coronavirus. Finally, in the last few months, we have also repeatedly worked with online surveys or postal mailings when it came to participation in the construction of new schools or the further development of community buildings or areas. For those interested, there is more to read on our blog.

A method for the digital get-to-know-you session: All participants cover their screen with a post-it note, the facilitator asks a question, those who can answer yes take away their post-it note and introduce themselves.

HCCD: What has proven to be successful? Where are the limits, e.g. in terms of technology, costs, acceptance or data protection?

Delia Imboden: There are basically no limits – so many things are possible. (laughs) With this mindset, we would still be where we were 1.5 years ago and important social processes would have stalled or even completely petered out. In the end, it is certainly always a question of resources – both human and financial. Nevertheless, participatory approaches can be implemented even with few and limited resources. In recent months, a mixture of digital and analogue components has proved very successful. For example, sending analogue preparatory tasks or documents for the digital meeting. Or even sending an aperitif for the digital meeting. There must also be spaces for informal exchange, that is central. At the same time, project management in particular, where simple agreements or entire planning meetings are moved to the digital, became more effective in the end and there was less friction due to travelling from A to B, from meeting to meeting. We will certainly keep this up – as well as working with digital tools like Miroboard, or Survey Monkey, to create digital surveys. Moreover, it is always exciting to try out new digital tools and methods that enrich our own work – pandemic or not. Finally, it is always important to co-create with the clients who know their dialogue groups and their needs best. During the pandemic we were able to learn a lot from our clients and develop new settings and ideas together.

Small group setting with higher-level digital direction.

HCCD: Digital participation versus “conventional“ participation – where does the future lie?

Delia Imboden: Digital forms of participation are gaining importance not only because of the pandemic, but also in the course of the general democratisation and digitalisation of our society. They offer the potential to reach population groups that would otherwise participate less actively. Young people in particular can potentially be more involved in processes through digital methods. But digital offerings are also very popular with the 65+ generation. My conclusion is: digital participation yes, certainly, and yes, gladly: nevertheless, on balance – as already mentioned – I also plead for a mix of methods: mix analogue and digital methods, meet locally for participation where possible and necessary, and at the same time benefit from digital opportunities such as online surveys.

HCCD: Thank you very much for the exciting insight into your work.


Delia Imboden is a cultural scientist and has worked in the public sector, in the cultural sector and most recently in communications at a Bernese start-up. She was a freelance journalist and still moderates literary events from time to time. She has been part of the ProjektForum team as project manager since autumn 2020.

ProjektForum is an agency for socio-political issues. As facilitators, they plan their mandates in such a way that an idea is turned into a suitable project and – where successful – into sustainable structures. Thus, they are proud to have accompanied numerous “births“ in each case in the elaboration of an idea with their participatory methods and a pragmatic understanding of projects. It gives them even more pleasure when they see these projects develop into long-term institutionally anchored measures, jobs and services.


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Cite this blog post
Beatrice Kaufmann (2021, December 6). When the Aperitif Comes by Mail – Participation in Times of the Pandemic. Learning from Corona. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pg96

Beatrice Kaufmann

Beatrice Kaufmann works as a research associate at the Bern University of the Arts (HKB). Her field of interest is health care communication design and social design. She has extensive practical experience as a graphic designer and illustrator.

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