Prize winning Paper: Empowerment by Design: An Open Meeting of the University College London Cut The Rent Campaign.

This article won best PhD Paper at the 2016 MeSSCA (Media, Communications, and Cultural Studies Association) annual conference. It shows clear evidence of how meeting design significantly affects the level of empowerment and motivation of participants. It presents a big challenge to the deeply held myth that people are motivated by being given information (by the great and good) when in fact it comes from creating spaces where people can speak for themselves.

This paper reports on a research project to test the outcome of a conscious design to increase empowerment and a sense of community at the first open meeting of University College London (UCL) Cut the Rent Campaign (CTR) that took place in October 2015. In a “natural” randomised controlled trial the CTR meeting was subject to a participatory design intervention and then compared with a “control” meeting of a similar campaign the following evening which followed a more conventional structure. A comparison of a range of data from the two meetings shows significantly higher levels of empowerment and community produced by the CTR meeting. This research then provides compelling evidence that personal and group empowerment can be effectively enhanced by smart meeting designs which increase participation.


My PhD research project is to engage in action research intended to investigate and test various mechanisms aimed at increasing the effectiveness of U.K. radical campaign groups. This involves working with specific groups to create design interventions and monitor the results in terms of the affect on their ability to win campaigns. In April 2015 there was a spontaneous rent strike by students at two UCL halls (Marshall 2015). Tenants felt driven to this action by rent increases, sub standard accommodation, and a high level of noise from building work[1].  The success of the strike, in leading to a formal review of the complaints by the university authorities, led to a planning process over the summer for a wider rent strike by the 5000 UCL student tenants in January 2016. Activists felt like such collective action was possible given widespread discontent about rent levels which have risen by 60% in real terms in the past five years. Documentation, passed to the campaign, shows that the university authorities now made £16 million a year profit from rents[2]. I was involved in this planning process and worked on a participatory design for the first open meeting of the Campaign at the beginning of October which was adopted by the campaign organisers.

Design and Methodology

The hypothesis to be tested was that by breaking up into small participatory groups, a campaign meeting can significantly increase empowerment and community. The design to be tested involved the meeting splitting up into groups of six to ten people.  As people entered the room they were asked to sit at separate tables where they would be facing each other in small groups. The meeting started with a  ten minute introduction about the background and aim of the campaign, and how the meeting was to be conducted. Then each of the groups were asked to have a “go round” where each person would speak in turn about why they came to the meeting and what they thought of the rent situation. This was followed by a more general discussion within the groups. After fifteen minutes the groups came back together and Angus, the student union rep, proposed a number of options for the level of the rent cut to be called for by the campaign. This rent cut would be the campaign’s primary demand. Discussion of the issue then took place in the same small groups. After these discussions everyone came back together and one person from each group gave their group’s view and the reasons for it. All the small groups had decided on a 40% rent cut and this was confirmed by a vote. Finally the meeting again split into four working groups to discuss specific actions in the areas of canvassing, organisation in the halls, design of materials, and direct action. Again one person from each group reported back to the full group and minutes were made of the decisions taken before the meeting ended.

The primary method of assessing the effect of the meeting on empowerment and community was an anonymous questionnaire filled out after the meeting. This was supplemented by five interviews of participants and notes taken from my participation in the meeting. The number of people going to the follow up meeting of the campaign was also noted. My definition of empowerment involved testing for both internal efficacy – how individuals felt about their own ability to make a difference, and external efficacy – how they felt about the ability of the campaign to make a difference (Balch 1974). A sense of community was tested by asking about levels of participation in the questionnaire and the feelings of connection created by this participation during the interviews.

A significant problem with such signal test methodologies is their weakness in assigning causality –it is unclear what has created the outputs. For instance, in this case, it might be the case that a meeting without the use of small groups would have created similar results. This problem is overcome by creating a randomised controlled trial (for examples see John et al 2013). In this case it was created “naturally” by the coincidence that the following evening a very similar campaign group at UCL was also holding its own first open meeting. This campaign aimed to promote free education and was part of the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). The meeting was effectively identical to the CTR meeting. It was the same length and involved a similar number of students (around thirty) from the same London university (UCL). The only significant difference was the design of the meeting. At the NCAFC meeting no time was spent in small groups. The event followed the conventional design for left wing campaign meetings. There were four speakers who spoke for fifteen minutes each. They were seated in a straight row facing three rows of the other people at the meeting. After the talks there was twenty minutes for questions during which five questions were asked by four people (one person asking a question twice). Two of the speakers answered all these questions. Twenty two of the thirty people in the meeting never spoke.


Fifteen anonymous questionnaires were filled out by a random selection of the approximately[3] thirty people at each meeting. The questionnaires for each meeting were identical and a comparison of the data is laid out below:



Question: How participatory did you find the meeting?
very low low okay high very high
CTR 2 8 5
NCACF 5 5 3 2
Question: How much do you agree with this statement?
“I really feel empowered by the meeting to do radical political campaigning”.
Not at all not much a bit quite a lot totally agree
CTR 3 4 8
NCACF 7 2 5 1
Question: How much do you agree with this statement?
“As a result of the meeting I really feel the campaign can be effective in its aims”.
Not at all not much a bit quite a lot totally agree
CTR 2 9 4
NCACF 1 10 4


The questionnaire also included a space for written comments. The difference between the comments from the two meetings is reflected in both their content and the amount written. There were five comments from the NCAFC meeting, three of which were generally positive and two negative. The positive comments dealt with the content of the talks and the negative comments with the process of the meeting – lack of focus and clarity. None of the comments were more than one line of text. There were eight comments from the CTR meeting, all of which were broadly positive. Six of the comments explicitly praised the structure of the meeting – the small group discussions, the democratic nature of the meeting and the general atmosphere of excitement. Four of the comments ran to several lines and one took up eleven lines. Two of the forms also included unrequested comments against the score questions which indicated enthusiasm for the level of empowerment.

These results were also reflected in the five interviews I conducted with participants of the CTR meeting. All interviewees drew attention to the empowering affect of the small groups. They reported that these groups enabled them to make a connection and develop a sense of solidarity with the other people, most of whom they had not met before. This had made the meeting more relaxed and fun. Three of them mentioned that they got a feeling of empowerment from involvement in setting the aim of the campaign in a participatory and clearly democratic manner. These feelings of being part of a group were then reinforced by working together, again in small groups, on specific actions to be taken together to make the campaign a success. The overall affect was to create a sense of community which had not been present at the beginning of the meeting. This led one interviewee to enthuse that it was “the best meeting I have ever been to”. Two of the interviewees had also been to the NCAFC meeting. In contrast to their feelings about the CTR meeting, they reported that they found the NCAFC event boring and unfocused and, as a result, they felt alienated from the campaign and not motivated to join in future activities.

I attended both meetings as a participant observer and noted the development of a distinct difference in the atmosphere at the two events. At the beginning of both meetings there was a similar sense of awkwardness and nervousness. In both settings most students did not know each other and many had not been to a political meeting before. There was a sense of being unclear what was going to happen and what was to be expected. However the atmosphere of the CTR meeting changed dramatically once the first small group session started which included a go round where each student spoke. This seemed to quickly break the ice and students then engaged in animated discussion, sharing their strong views about the injustice of the rent rises and stories of poor maintenance and financial pressures. This excitement continued to build and reached a peak when the democratic process decided that the campaign should demand a 40% rent cut. Two people spoke out spontaneously about their excitement about the prospect of working collectively to achieve this aim and the major political implications of a successful rent strike. This new found sense of collective identity and community feeling followed through into the working groups, where I noticed all the participants in each group making contributions.

In contrast the NCAFC meeting never broke out of the initial formal and nervous atmosphere. The speeches were delivered in a half apologetic tone as if subconsciously the speakers picked up on a lack of engagement from the audience. Several people left early and I noticed other people checking their mobile phones. There were no indicators of community or common identity, not least because most people in the meeting never spoke. The responses to questions were given by just two of the speakers who seemed mainly to be talking to each other. During the questions at the NCAFC meeting the pronoun “you” was used four times, while “we” was not mentioned at all. In contrast in the feedback reports during the CTR meeting the pronoun “we” was frequently used.

While some people in the CTR small groups spoke more than others the inequality was much less extreme than in the large group. As a rough average two people in each small group spoke for 50% of the time while the time spoken by each of the other individuals was broadly equal across the rest of the time. The time spent in the three small group sessions was 1 hour 10 minutes. This meant that 6 people spoke for approximately 15 minutes each and the other 24 people spoke for around 6 minutes each. In contrast the NCAFC meeting involved two individuals speaking for around 25 minutes each (these two answered all the questions) and the two other speakers talking for 15 minutes each. The four people asking questions spoke for around two minutes each and the remaining twenty two people were silent for the whole meeting. This contrast is illustrated by the tables below.


Table 1: An approximation of the minutes spent speaking by the thirty individuals at the CTR meeting.


Table 2: An approximation of the minutes spend speaking  by the thirty individuals at the NCAFC meeting.

At the end of both meetings explicit details were given of the follow up meeting and people were asked to come along. The following week 28 people turned up to the CTR meeting, effectively the same number as the initial open meeting, while only 9 people went to the follow up NCAFC meeting.


These two meetings produced very significant differences in levels of empowerment and community feeling which was consistently supported by all the sources of evidence. 87% of CTR meeting participants, who filled in the questionnaire, found the participation level in the meeting “high” or “very high” compared with only 33% for the NCAFC meeting. A similar pronounced difference showed up in the two questions on personal empowerment and the views on how likely the campaign would be to achieve its aims. 80% of CTR participants agreed “quite a lot” or “totally” with the statement that they felt empowered by the meeting and 86% agreed “quite a lot” or “totally” with belief that the campaign would achieve its aims. This compared with 40% and 27% respectively for the individuals attending the NCAFC meeting. The randomised controlled trial structure of the research provides strong evidence that causal factor of these differences was the differing design structure of the two meetings – namely the three periods of small groups discussions which took place during the CTR meeting. This view was explicitly supported by the written comments on the questionnaires and feedback from the subsequent interviews. Concrete material evidence of significantly different levels of empowerment and community was provided by the big fall off of people going to the subsequent NCAFC meeting, compared with the follow up CTR meeting.

There is much scholarly support for the view that the creation of free and safe spaces are essential to the process of political empowerment (Lefebvre 1974, Harvey 2012) but there is very little detail in this literature on how the design of the communication in these spaces affects this process. The evidence from this research supports the view that empowerment and community are not created by the transfer of information, from those deemed to be especially knowledgeable, but by the communication flows between participants in small groups. More radically it supports evidence from other fields of research that empowerment, and thus group identity and community, are created by the physical act of speech rather than the content of that speech. Literature inspired by Freire (1970),  in participatory education, and Rogers (1961), in counselling,  found that individuals feel more empowered and connected when they are able to speak, in their own words, to name and describe their personal reality as they see it – in a free and non judgemental space. This discovery is supported by advances in cognitive psychology (Lakoff 2009) and neuroscience (Damascio 1994) which show that our thoughts are not separate from our emotions and bodily actions. How we physically act – in this case whether or not to speak – directly influences our level of empowerment. As speech is a linear process (only one person at a time can speak in a group) the physical design of four separate groups in the CTR meeting enabled the absolute amount of speech to increase fourfold compared to the NCAFC meeting which remained as a large group. In addition, in a small group discussion there is much more equality in the distribution of speaking time between people than in a formal speech and questions format.

In a campaigning group context emotion affects (Goodwin et al 2001) are enhanced by the intimacy of the small group which encourages participants to relax and share their views, uninhibited by the larger group setting. This process of realising that others are similar to oneself leads to the development of a new radicalised group identify (Klandermans 1997). This emotional response was reflected in the questionnaire by the unusually high number of participants in the CTR meeting opting for the top score of “totally agreeing” with the two positive statements about empowerment. The feeling of community and ownership of the campaign was also reflected by the participants’ unconscious opting for the pronoun “we” rather than “you” and the enthusiastic and universal contribution of inputs into the working groups towards the end of the meeting which organised specific follow up actions.

In contrast, while both meetings started out with similar levels of caution and separation between participants, the NCAFC meeting structure only compounded these feelings of isolation. There was no opportunity for participation – for people to speak and connect with each other. By remaining as a large group only one person at a time could speak out of the thirty people at the meeting. This drawback was compounded by a full hour of the meeting being taken up by four consecutive speeches without any interruptions.

Although the importance of participatory structures has been taken up in the spheres of business and management (Senge 1994, Slater and Bennett 1990 for overview), progressive political culture seems resistant to responding to these findings. This blind spot is explained by Lakoff (2009) as being due to an outdated notion of rationality, based upon Enlightenment thought, which privileges information over emotional and mind-body dynamics. The eighteenth century view that individuals are primarily motivated and empowered by the force of verbal argument is not how the brain works. Political empowerment comes from the experience of human connection and being able to co-create our political reality with our peers. Strategies which focus on these processes are increasingly successful in contemporary political confrontations as supported by growing research on the importance of peer-to-peer messaging in mass mobilisations (Bennett and Segerburg 2013, Earl and Kimport 2011). As a meta survey of civic resistance campaigns shows (Chenoweth and Stephan 2013), the critical variable in predicting campaign success is the ability to create this mass participation.


Although this research focuses on the comparison of just two meetings with a limited number of participants, it benefits from having being able create a robust randomised control trial structure. The meetings happened in the natural course of events and thus were not affected by any skewing affect of researcher intervention. None of the participants in either meeting were aware of the nature of my research. We can therefore be confident that the results of the research would be replicated in any similar circumstances not subject to research observation. The strong and consistent evidence from a multi-methods approach – the questionnaire, interviews, participant observation, and data of follow up attendance – support the compelling conclusion that the introduction of small group discussions was the cause of significantly higher levels of reported and observed empowerment and community feeling.

One of the main speakers at the NCAFC exhorted her audience to “get out and speak to people more”. The evidence from this paper would instead lead to the advice to “get out and enable people to speak more”. This is the paradigm shift which a presents a profound challenge to contemporary progressive political culture.


Bennett, W, L. and Segerberg, A. (2012). The Logic of Connective Action. Information, Communication and Society. 15, 5: 739-768.

Balch, G. (1974). Multiple Indicators in Survey Research: The Concept “Sense of Political Efficacy”. Political Methodology, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Spring), pp. 1–43.

Chenoweth, E. & Stephan, M.J. (2013). Why Civil Resistance Works. The Strategy of Nonviolent Conflict. New York. Columbia University Press.

Damascio, A, R. (1994). Descartes’ Error. Emotion, reason and the human brain. London. Putnam.

Earl, J. and Kimport, K. (2011). Digitally Empowered Social Change. Activism in the Internet Age. Cambridge Mass. MIT Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London. Penguin.

Goodwin, J.  Jasper, J.M. and Polletta, F. (2001) Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements. Chicago, IL. The University of Chicago Press.

Harvey, D. (2012). Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London. Verso.

John, P. et al. (2013). Nudge Nudge Think Think. Experimenting with ways to change civic behaviour. London. Bloomsbury.

Klandermans, B. (1997). The Social Psychology of Protest. Cambridge, Mass. Blackwell.

Lakoff, G. (2009). The Political Mind. A cognitive scientist’s guide to your mind and its politics. London. Viking.

Lefebvre, G. (1974). The Production of Space. Oxford. Blackwell.

Marshall, T. (2015). UCL students threaten to withhold rent over “unbearable” living conditions in halls. Evening Standard. 8th April.

Rogers, C. (1961). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. London. Constable.

Senge, (1994). The Fifth Discipline. The art and practice of the learning organisation. New York. Currency Doubleday.

Slater, P. and Bennis, W. (1990). Democracy is inevitable. Accessed October 13th2015.













[1] See details at  and


[2] See details at

[3] In the NCAFC meeting several people left before the end of the meeting.

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