#5PAPERS – Week 3 Day 4

by Nivek K Thompson

  1. Reference to the Article 

Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 216-224. doi:10.1080/01944366908977225

  1. What attracted me to this Article?

As my current interest is in different perspectives around citizen participation I decided it would be worth going back to one of the classic critical accounts of how political elites use citizen participation.

  1. What is it about? (Problem / Purpose / Research Questions)

Arnstein’s purpose in writing this paper was to develop a typology of citizen participation based on the level of power given to citizens in response to what she called ‘heated controversy’ over the concepts of citizen participation and citizen control.

  1. Where does this come from? (Literature / Theoretical Framework)

Arnstein considers the question of citizen participation explicitly from the perspective of the “have-nots” and power relationships.

  1. What did they do? (Methodology & Method)

Starting from her explicit view is ‘that participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless.’ p.216 Arnstein develops and explicates an eight-rung ladder of participation which explicitly identifies the majority (5 out of 8) of the rungs as being either non-participation or tokenism.

  1. What did they learn? (Results / Discussion)

Arnstein’s paper is focused on challenging the ‘usual’ approaches to citizen participation as inadequate because they do not transfer any power to the citizens they engage.

The first two rungs on the ladder are called ‘manipulation’ and ‘therapy’ i.e. non-participation. It’s unlikely that these are the labels that those conducting these forms of citizen engagement would call them. The next two rungs: informing and consultation are terms that governments might use to describe their activities and these, with ‘placation’ are considered by Arnstein to be tokenism – in the main because whilst citizens may be ‘heard’ through these processes they will not be ‘heeded’. Placation is similar because it holds out the offer for citizens to ‘advise’ decision-makers whilst retaining their power to make decisions. The final three rungs of the ladder move from including citizens as equals in the decision-making process (partnership) to giving full power to them (delegated power and citizen control).

Arnstein acknowledges that her conceptualisation of two distinct groups: those with the power and those without is, like her eight-rung ladder, an abstraction, which in the real world are likely to be less absolute and more nuanced.

  1. What did I learn?

Arnstein’s analysis, focused as it is around the decision-making power given to citizens, is likely to be a useful one for me when considering the impact of democratic innovations on democratic practice, in particular democratic decision-making.

Looking back over the 46 years since her paper was published and the 11,063 citations of it listed on Google Scholar, it is clear that Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation has proved useful to many people, both academics and practitioners. What is sad though is that whilst the ladder is often referred, to her underpinning concern with empowering the powerless is less often acknowledged.

A comparison between the IAP2 spectrum of public participation and Arnstein’s ladder of participation is illuminative as the IAP2 spectrum, whilst they have some ‘rungs’ in common ‘inform’, ‘consult’ and ‘delegate’, IAP2 is careful to use non-judgmental terms whereas Arnstein is explicitly normative in her typology.