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Arnstein’s Ladder and levels of participation

In a 1969 article, Sherry Arnstein, who drafted the community participation guidelines for the Model Cities Program, wrote how "participation” can mean whatever policymakers want it to mean, unless it’s very clearly defined.  She described a ladder of eight rungs of citizen involvement, of which only three actually entail real participation.

The first two rungs, which Arnstein calls manipulation and therapy, are actually non-participatory. In these instances, policymakers either manipulate or “educate” citizens to rubber stamp whatever they propose.

On the next three rungs, policymakers exercise what Arnstein refers to as various levels of tokenism:

  •  Informing merely lets community members know what’s going on, without any input on their part.
  •  Consultation asks community members for ideas and suggestions, but doesn't necessarily incorporate those ideas into a final policy or plan.
  •  Placation throws the community a bone, by accommodating a particular (usually unimportant) suggestion or objection, but proceeding with the original overall plan.

In each of these cases, policymakers do something that they can call involving the community, when in reality they are merely paying lip service to community involvement requirements.

Only on the top three rungs is there true participation:

  • Partnership brings negotiation and shared decision-making.
  • Delegated power gives the decision-making to a body, a majority of whose members are from the community.
  • Citizen control has the community managing the process from start to finish.

David Wilcox, in his Guide to Participation, has condensed Arnstein’s Ladder down to five levels, essentially the top six of Arnstein’s Ladder minus placation.  His point is that it isn’t always possible to have full participation, but it is important to try to maintain the highest level of participation possible, given the realities of the situation.  Pretending to involve the community when your goal is actually to shut it out of the process is both the worst kind of hypocrisy and also generally a good way to doom a policy to failure.

The least you can do is tell people what is planned.

You offer a number of options and listen to the feedback you get.

Deciding together
You encourage others to provide some additional ideas and options, and join in deciding the best way forward.

Acting together
Not only do different interests decide together what is best, but they form a partnership to carry it out.

  • Supporting independent community initiatives: You help others do what they want - within a framework of grants, advice and support provided by the resource holder.

Each of these levels may be appropriate in different circumstances, or with different groups, although only at "deciding together" and above do they really become fully participatory in the sense that the term is used in this section.

When is participatory planning appropriate, and when isn’t it?

In addition to whatever feels right for the circumstances, there are some guidelines for when it might be appropriate to use each level of planning.  (In general, there seems to be an assumption here that each level incorporates the elements of those before it.  You can’t consult without information, for instance.)

Information-only may be appropriate when:

  • The course of action has already been decided - by a federal law, for instance.
  • You're simply reporting on something that's already in progress.
  • You're keeping people informed so that they'll have the information to be part of a participatory effort later.

Consultation-only may be appropriate when:

  • You want to evaluate or improve existing services.
  • There are limited options and you're trying to choose among them.
  • There are technical reasons - again, perhaps because of a law - why only certain people or groups can be officially involved in the planning process.

If you consult with people in the community, you have to pay attention to what they tell you. If you're simply going to ignore their ideas and recommendations, you shouldn't consult at all. Being asked for an opinion and then ignored is much more insulting and infuriating than never being asked in the first place. At the very least, people deserve an explanation of why their advice isn't being followed.

Deciding together may be appropriate when:

  • It's important that everyone feel ownership of the plan.
  • You want fresh ideas from as many sources as possible.
  • You can pull in people whom the intervention will directly affect.
  • There's a commitment to provide support through the process for those who need it.
  • There's enough time.

In reality, as mentioned earlier, a planning process often is time-limited by the severity of the need (if teenagers are dying every day by gunfire, a violence prevention program needs to get under way quickly), the requirements of other partners, etc. The trick is to balance participation and time restraints, and to try to use the highest level of participation possible under the circumstances.

Acting together may be appropriate when:

  • The intervention will be more effective than if it were run by a single entity.
  • There is a requirement for community oversight.
  • There is commitment to the development of a real partnership.
  • Everyone benefits from acting together.
  • One goal of the intervention is the eventual assumption of leadership or the learning of leadership skills by the target population and/or others in the community.

The word "partnership" implies a relationship of equals, where everyone has an equal voice, and where power and responsibility are equally shared. Forming such a relationship, even in circumstances where everyone truly desires it, is not a quick or easy task. It takes time, commitment both to the process and the end product (the partnership), and the willingness to air and work through disagreements and philosophical differences. If you're not willing to give yourself to the development of a real partnership, acting together may be only a future goal.

Supporting local initiatives may be appropriate when:

  • There is a commitment to community empowerment.
  • The community has the desire and at least some of the tools to start and run a successful intervention.
  • There is a commitment to provide training and support where needed.
  • One of the points of the social action effort is to have it administered by the community.

As you try to determine what level of participation is right for your situation, consider this: A participatory planning process has the potential to become a charade meant only to convince the community that a participatory process is going on.

An adult educator related a conversation with his father-in-law, who worked in a factory of one of the big Detroit automakers. The company had initiated Total Quality Management, and had reorganized the factory workers into teams. Each team included workers from each step in the car manufacturing process, and was meant to be responsible for the building of a whole car from start to finish. Furthermore, each team was supposed to be able to change its procedures to make them more efficient or easier, and thus to improve production through the knowledge and skill of team members.

Knowing that his father-in-law was a longtime union activist and socialist, the younger man said, "That must be great. The workers actually have some control over production." The father-in-law, however, quickly burst the bubble. "No, it's the same as it was before, except now they make us sit in meetings and tell them what we think before they ignore us. Nothing has changed. They're just going through the motions, so they can tell the public they're doing something different."

There are also some general guidelines for when a participatory planning process may not be appropriate at all, including:

  • When there's simply no time. A grant may have to be written immediately, for instance, or a situation - youth violence, perhaps - may have reached such crisis proportions that it must be addressed immediately. In such a circumstance, it may be possible to do some participatory planning after the fact, either to adjust policy before it takes effect, or to plan its next phase.
  • When a community is so sharply divided, it's impossible to get all - or even any - of the rival factions to the same table.
  • When there's no feasible way to provide proper support - facilitation, structure, etc. - for the process.
  • When the target population is simply not interested in participating, and just wants the policymakers to take care of it. One goal may be to get them interested, but that may have to be part of the intervention, rather than part of the planning process.
  • When the results of the process rest on technical knowledge of a kind that the target population and community members simply don't have.
  • When involving all or most stakeholders simply isn't logistically possible, because of distance, time, or other issues.
  • When there is no trust between you and the community.  Obviously, you can and should try to build that trust, but it may not be possible.
Phil Rabinowitz