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10 key ideas about participation

Behind the detailed suggestions in the guide about how to manage participation effectively are 10 key ideas. Each of these is also dealt with in the A-Z and in other sections.

Level of participation

Sherry Arnstein, writing in 1969 about citizen involvement in planning processes in the United States, described a ladder of participation with eight steps. I have altered this model to five stances detailed in the Framework section:

  • Information
  • Consultation
  • Deciding together
  • Acting together
  • Supporting independent community interests

I do not suggest any one stance is better than any other - it is rather a matter of `horses for courses'. Different levels are appropriate at different times to meet the expectations of different interests.

Here's the original Arnstein model.

1 Manipulation and 2 Therapy. Both are non participative. The aim is to cure or educate the participants. The proposed plan is best and the job of participation is to achieve public support by public relations.

3 Informing. A most important first step to legitimate participation. But too frequently the emphasis is on a one way flow of information. No channel for feedback.

4 Consultation. Again a legitimate step - attitude surveys, neighbourhood meetings and public enquiries. But Arnstein still feels this is just a window dressing ritual.

5 Placation. For example, co-option of hand-picked 'worthies' onto committees. It allows citizens to advise or plan ad infinitum but retains for power holders the right to judge the legitimacy or feasibility of the advice.

6 Partnership. Power is in fact redistributed through negotiation between citizens and power holders. Planning and decision-making responsibilities are shared e.g. through joint committees.

7 Delegated power. Citizens holding a clear majority of seats on committees with delegated powers to make decisions. Public now has the power to assure accountability of the programme to them.

8 Citizen Control. Have-nots handle the entire job of planning, policy making and managing a programme e.g. neighbourhood corporation with no intermediaries between it and the source of funds.

Sherry Arnstein's ladder is available in full here

Initiation and process

This guide deals with situations where someone, or some organisation, seeks to involve others at some level - that is, participation doesn't just happen, it is initiated. Someone (termed here a practitioner) then manages a process over time, and allows others involved more or less control over what happens. In the guide the process is described during four phases: Initiation - Preparation - Participation - Continuation.


The initiator is in a strong position to decide how much or how little control to allow to others - for example, just information, or a major say in what is to happen. This decision is equivalent to taking a stand on the ladder - or adopted a stance about the level of participation.

Power and purpose

Understanding participation involves understanding power: the ability of the different interests to achieve what they want. Power will depend on who has information and money. It will also depend on people's confidence and skills. Many organisations are unwilling to allow people to participate because they fear loss of control: they believe there is only so much power to go around, and giving some to others means losing your own.
However, there are many situations when working together allows everyone to achieve more than they could on their own. These represent the benefits of participation.

Role of the practitioner

This guide is written mainly for people who are planning or managing participation processes - here termed `practitioners'. Because these practitioners control much of what happens it is important they constantly think about the part they are playing.

Stakeholders and community

I think that `stakeholders' is one piece of jargon which really helps our understanding of participation. On the other hand `community' can be a hindrance.

A stakeholder is anyone who has a stake in what happens. The term forces us to think about who will be affected by any project, who controls the information, skills and money needed, who may help and who may hinder. It does not follow that everyone affected has an equal say; the idea of the ladder is to prompt thinking about who has most influence.

Community is a problem term if it is used as a blanket description for `all those other people'. There are many communities, defined by, for example, people's shared interests, locality, age or gender. The `community' which participates will depend on the project or programme because different people are interested in different issues. Where community is used in the guide it is shorthand for communities.


Partnership, like community, is a much abused term. I think it is useful when a number of different interests willingly come together formally or informally to achieve some common purpose. The partners don't have to be equal in skills, funds or even confidence, but they do have to trust each other and share some commitment. In participation processes - as in our personal and social lives - building trust and commitment takes time.


Commitment is the other side of apathy: people are committed when they want to achieve something, apathetic when they don't. But what leads to commitment? Not, in my experience, telling people `you ought to care', inviting them to public meetings or bombarding them with glossy leaflets. I think people care about what they are interested in, and become committed when they feel they can achieve something. Hard selling won't achieve that. If people are apathetic about your proposals, it may simply be that they don't share your interests or concerns.

Ownership of ideas

People are most likely to be committed to carry something through if they have a stake in the idea. One of the biggest barriers to action is `not invented here'. The antidote is to allow people to say `we thought of that'. In practice that means running brainstorming workshops, helping people think through the practicality of ideas, and negotiating with others a result which is acceptable to as many people as possible.

Clearly this isn't possible if you are simply providing people with information about your own ideas, or consulting them on a limited number of ideas of your own. Apathy is directly proportional to the stake people have in ideas and outcomes.

Confidence and capacity

Ideas and wish lists are little use if they cannot be put into practice. The ability to do that depends as much on people's confidence and skills as it does on money. Many participation processes involve breaking new ground - tackling difficult projects and setting up new forms of organisations.

It is unrealistic to expect individuals or small groups suddenly to develop the capability to make complex decisions and become involved in major projects. They need training - or better still the opportunity to learn formally and informally, to develop confidence, and trust in each other.

Each or these terms is dealt with in more detail in the
A-Z of effective participation.
The next sections

Each or the terms above is dealt with in more detail
in the A-Z section, and you may wish to skip the following sections and browse the A-Z, then return to some of the theory.

The first theoretical section,
A framework for participation, takes the revised ladder of participation, and extends it across time - the process - and across interests - the stakeholders. Before that here are some Easy answers - or are they?