The ladder of citizen participation
Scientific research around participation works primarily with typologies. Particularly in the 1990s, a number of schemes were developed. The foundation for the history of typologies was laid as early as 1969 by Sherry Arnstein, whose 'Ladder of Citizen Participation' is still frequently used today.
The ladder of citizen participation
As a pioneer of the theory of participatory development, Arnstein distinguishes eight different levels of participation in her model, each of which represents the degree of citizen power. She assigns the individual levels to the three superordinate categories of nonparticipation, tokenism and citizen power.
Arnstein thus incorporates what is perhaps the most important finding of participation research into her typology: not every form that initially appears participatory meets the demands for participation in the sense of decision-making power. At first glance it is not always obvious to identify forms of tokenism. Tokenism is a ‘participatory’ approach that can be characterised as a perfunctory effort or a symbolic gesture. This could be processes that have purely informational character or consultative processes that have little or no further impact on changing the status quo. The primary aim of those actions is to prevent criticism and keep up appearances.
Arnstein’s typology is primarily designed for political processes within countries but can be effortlessly applied to numerous other participatory processes. Some stages in a closer look:
Informing citizens of their rights, responsibilities, and options can be the most important first step toward legitimate citizen participation. However, too frequently the emphasis is placed on a one-way flow of information—from officials to citizens—with no channel provided for feedback and no power for negotiation. Under these conditions, particularly when information is provided at a late stage in planning, people have little opportunity to influence the programme designed “for their benefit.” Meetings can also be turned into vehicles for one way communication by the simple device of providing superficial information, discouraging questions, or giving irrelevant answers.
Inviting citizens’ opinions, like informing them, can be a legitimate step toward their full participation. But if consulting them is not combined with other modes of participation, this rung of the ladder is still a sham since it offers no assurance that citizen concerns and ideas will be taken into account. The most frequent methods used for consulting people are attitude surveys, neighbourhood meetings, and public hearings. When power holders restrict the input of citizens’ ideas solely to this level, participation remains just a window-dressing ritual. People are primarily perceived as statistical abstractions, and participation is measured by how many come to meetings, take brochures home, or answer a questionnaire. What citizens achieve in all this activity is that they have ‘participated in participation.’ And what powerholders achieve is the evidence that they have gone through the required motions of involving ‘those people.’”
At this rung of the ladder, power is in fact redistributed through negotiation between citizens and powerholders. They agree to share planning and decision-making responsibilities through such structures as joint policy boards, planning committees, and mechanisms for resolving impasses. After the ground rules have been established through some form of give-and-take, they are not subject to unilateral change.
Though no one in the nation has absolute control, it is very important that the rhetoric not be confused with intent. People are simply demanding that degree of power (or control) which guarantees that participants or residents can govern a programme or an institution, be in full charge of policy and managerial aspects, and be able to negotiate the conditions under which “outsiders” may change them.
- Arnstein, S. (1969.) A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of the American Planning Association, 35(4), 216–224.