Guide home
Guide introduction
Guided tour
10 key ideas
Easy answers
Where do you stand?
It takes time
Theory to practice

Where do you stand?

One of the main ideas in the Guide is that of level of participation, and that an organisation promoting participation takes a stance about the level it suggests is appropriate for different interests. This section deals with five levels.

  1. Information
  2. Consultation
  3. Deciding together
  4. Acting together
  5. Supporting local initiatives

Choosing a level - taking a stance

The previous section developed the idea of levels of participation based on Arnstein's ladder described in 10 Key ideas. Here each level is dealt with in more detail, with suggestions on where it is appropriate.

This section, as others, is written on the assumption that you are promoting or managing a participation process. Your precise role will affect what stance you take.

For example, if you are controlling resources you may be very clear and firm about how much say you are prepared to offer others. If you are acting as a neutral facilitator you may be helping different interests negotiate appropriate levels.

For further discussion of these issues, see Some early questions at the end of the
previous section, the items on Power and Role of the practitioner in the A-Z

Stance 1: Information

Information-giving underpins all other levels of participation, and may be appropriate on its own in some circumstances. However, you are likely to hit problems if all you offer is information and people are expecting more involvement.


  • The information-giving stance is essentially a 'take it or leave it' approach.
  • People may not accept they can't have a say. Is there really no alternative to the ideas you are putting forward?
  • Your information will be judged on who you are and your style as well as what you say.
  • Even though you may not want much feedback, put yourself in the place of the people you are communicating with: the meaning of any communication lies in the response that you get - not what you say.

Where appropriate

Information-only may be appropriate when:

  • You have no room for manoeuvre and must follow one course of action - for example, where there is a clear legal requirement.
  • An authority is reporting a course of action which is essentially internal and doesn't affect others.
  • At the start of a consultation or other process, with the promise of more opportunity to participate later.

Information-only is inappropriate when the following apply (alternative stances in brackets):

  • You are seeking to empower community interests. Information is necessary for empowerment, but seldom enough on its own (3, 4 or 5).
  • There are alternatives and others have a legitimate interest in developing them (3 or 4).


See the A-Z for methods to use with this and other levels. Consider the following:

  • Print: leaflets, newsletters, etc.
  • Presentations at meetings.
  • Briefing the media through press releases and press conferences.
  • Advertising through posters, radio, press.
  • Film or video.

Avoid any methods which imply that people can have a say.


In planning how to inform people, and carrying this out:

  • Consider what frame of mind your audience is in - for example, what do they expect or know already?
  • Try a simple presentation on colleagues or a less informed audience before you prepare materials.
  • Use language and ideas which your audience will find familiar.
  • Be clear about why you are just informing rather than consulting.

Possible problems

You have a low budget.
Concentrate on using existing channels of communication: local groups, media, simple posters or leaflets. Be prepared to answer questions.

The PR department of your organisation wants to take over communications.
Insist on getting the basic messages clear before anything gets 'glossed up'. Work on one product - say a leaflet - and use that as the reference for other things. Make sure you have internal agreement to any messages.

You get no response from the audience you are addressing.
Since you are not asking people to become involved, that may be understandable. However, ask a few people to play back to you what they understood from your communication to see that you have got your message across.

People want more say.
Do they have a case? Who is setting the rules? Take comments seriously. It is easier to change the level of participation and your stance early on. Later it may become an uncomfortable U-turn.

Information checklist

Before taking up an information-giving stance consider:

  • Are you clear which interests you are informing, and how much they know already?
  • Are they likely to be satisfied with only information?
  • Can you present your proposals in a way people will understand and relate to?
  • Have you identified appropriate communication methods for the time available and audience?
  • Are you prepared to change your stance if people want more than information?

Stance 2: Consultation

Consultation is appropriate when you can offer people some choices on what you are going to do - but not the opportunity to develop their own ideas or participate in putting plans into action.


  • Consultation means giving people a restricted choice and role in solutions. You may consult on the problems, offer some options, allow comment, take account and then proceed - perhaps after negotiation. You are not asking for help in taking action.
  • All the basics of information-giving apply, plus the need to handle feedback.

Where appropriate

The consultation stance is likely to be most appropriate when:

  • You want to improve a service.
  • You have a clear vision and plans to implement a project or programme , and there appear to be a limited range of options.
  • These options can be set out in terms which community interests can understand and relate to their own concerns or needs.
  • The initiator of the proposals can handle feedback and is prepared to use this to choose between or modify options.

It is inappropriate when the following apply (alternative stances in brackets):

  • You aren't going to take any notice of what people say.
  • You are seeking to empower community interests (3, 4 or 5).
  • You are not clear what you wish to do and are seeking ideas (3 or 4).
  • You don't have the resources or skills to carry out the options presented, or other means of implementing (choose stance 4 or 5).


Consider the following methods for consultation, detailed in the A-Z

  • Surveys and market research.
  • Consultative meetings.
  • Consultative committees.
  • Simulations where the options and constraints are clear.

These methods may be used in conjunction with information-giving and presentational techniques, for example:

  • Advertisements.
  • Media briefing.
  • Leaflets and posters.
  • Exhibitions.
  • Videos.


  • Consider what response you want and how you will handle it as well as what you are presenting.
  • Make clear how realistic the different options are, and what the pros and cons are as you see them.
  • Avoid using methods like Planning for Real which encourage people to put forward their own ideas, unless you are moving to stance 3 - deciding together.
  • Be open about your own role, who ultimately takes decisions, how and when this will be done.
  • If you set up a consultative committee, give it clear terms of reference.

Possible problems

You have a low budget.
Use basic information-giving methods plus meetings hosted by local organisations. Run an open meeting at the end of the process.

The PR department wants to take it over.
See information giving. Consider throughout: will people understand the options, are they realistic, can we respond to feedback.

You don't have time to do things properly.
Be honest about the deadlines, and use the time-pressure to advantage.

You get more - or less - response than expected.
Was consultation the appropriate stance? Did you think it through from the audience's point of view?

Consultation checklist

Before taking up a consultation stance consider:

  • Are you clear which interests you are consulting, and have you the means to contact them?
  • Are they likely to be satisfied with consultation?
  • Can you present your vision and options for achieving it in a way people will understand and relate to?
  • Have you identified appropriate communication methods for the time available and likely participants?
  • Can you and your colleagues handle the feedback?
  • Have you arranged for a report back to those consulted?
  • Are you prepared to change your stance if people want more than consultation?
  • Are you just seeking endorsement of your plans?

Stance 3: Deciding together

Deciding together is a difficult stance because it can mean giving people the power to choose without fully sharing the responsibility for carrying decisions through.


  • Deciding together means accepting other people's ideas, and then choosing from the options you have developed together.
  • The basics of consultation apply, plus the need to generate options together, choose between them, and agree ways forward.
  • The techniques are more complex.
  • People need more confidence to get involved.
  • The time scale for the process is likely to be much longer.

Where appropriate

Deciding-together may be appropriate when:

  • It is important that other people `own' the solution.
  • You need fresh ideas.
  • There is enough time.

Deciding together is inappropriate when the following apply (try alternative stances in brackets).

  • You have little room for manoeuvre (1 or 2).
  • You can't implement decisions yourself (4 or 5).


Consider the following methods from the A-Z

  • Information-giving methods to start the process.
  • Stakeholder analysis to identify who should be involved.
  • SWOT analysis to understand where you are.
  • Brainstorming, Nominal Group Technique, Surveys to develop some options.
  • Cost/Benefit Analysis to make choices.
  • Strategic Choice, Planning for Real, and other simulations as powerful overall techniques.
  • SAST and Action Planning to decide what next.


  • Plan the process before you start. Give yourself enough time.
  • Define clearly the roles and responsibilities of the different interests - who has a say, who will take action.
  • Be open and honest about what you want to achieve, and any limits on options.
  • If you set up any organisational structures, agree clear terms of reference and powers.

Possible problems

You don't have the time.
Consider whether stance 2 - consulting people - would be more appropriate.

You are not sure if your colleagues will back up any decisions.
Involve them in the process. Run internal workshops before involving others.

People aren't interested in joining in.
Spend more time on preliminary networking - basically talking to people before holding any meetings. Run sessions hosted by existing organisations as well as open sessions.

The techniques look too complicated.
Try some of the easier ones with a small group that you know. Bring in an external trainer or facilitator.


Before taking up a deciding-together stance consider:

  • Are you prepared to accept other people's ideas? What are the boundaries?
  • Are you clear who it is appropriate to involve?
  • Are you clear about what you want to achieve, and the boundaries to any ideas you will accept to get there?
  • Do you have the skills to use joint decision-making methods?
  • Do you have the authority to follow through with solutions which are decided with others?
  • Have you involved colleagues who need to be part of the solution?

Stance 4: Acting together

Acting together may involve short-term collaboration or forming more permanent partnerships with other interests.


  • Acting together in partnership involves both deciding together and then acting together.
  • This means having a common language, a shared vision of what you want, and the means to carry it out.
  • Partners need to trust each other as well as agree on what they want to do.
  • Effective partnerships take a long time to develop - shot gun marriages are unlikely to work.
  • Each partner needs to feel they have an appropriate stake in the partnership and a fair say in what happens.

Where appropriate

Acting together may be appropriate when:

  • One party cannot achieve what they want on their own.
  • The various interests involved all get some extra benefit from acting together.
  • There is commitment to the time and effort needed to develop a partnership.

Acting together is not likely to be appropriate when the following apply (alternative stances in brackets):

  • One party holds all the power and resources and uses this to impose its own solutions (1 or 2).
  • The commitment to partnership is only skin deep (1 or 2).
  • People want to have a say in making decisions, but not a long term stake in carrying out solutions (3).


Consider the following methods from the

  • Information giving methods to start the process.
  • Methods for deciding together to create a shared vision.
  • Team building exercises.
  • Design exercises.
  • Business planning exercises.
  • Interim structures like working parties and steering groups as a focus for decision making and accountability.
  • Longer-term structures through which you can work together.


As for Deciding together, plus...

  • Spend time getting to know and trust each other.
  • Plan for the long-term sustainability of any organisational structure that is needed to implement and maintain schemes.
  • Avoid staffing partnership organisations with people who are accountable to only one of the partners.
  • Develop a common language, shared vision and corporate accountability.

Possible problems

Early discussion focuses on constitutions.
The final structure should come last - after you have decided what you are going to do, how to get the resources, what skills you need, and how power and responsibility will be shared. Set up interim structures like a steering group with clear terms of reference.

Conflicts arise in steering group meetings.
Spend more time in workshop sessions and informal meetings to develop a shared vision and mutual understanding.

Some interests feel excluded.
Clarify who the stakeholders are, and what their legitimate interests are. Again, run workshops rather than committees. Use an independent facilitator.


Before taking up a 'acting together ' stance consider:

  • Are you clear about what you want to achieve, and how flexible you are in pursuing that vision?
  • Have you identified potential partners?
  • Do you have any evidence that they share a similar vision, and are interested in a partnership with you to achieve it?
  • Do they trust you?
  • Do you have the time and commitment necessary to form a partnership?
  • Are you prepared to share power?

Stance 5: Supporting local initiatives

Supporting independent community-based initiatives means helping others develop and carry out their own plans. Resource-holders who promote this stance may, of course, put limits on what they will support.


  • This is the most 'empowering' stance -provided people want to do things for themselves. They may, quite properly, choose a lower level of participation.
  • Carrying through the stance may involve people in setting up new forms of organisations to handle funds and carry out projects or programmes.
  • The process has to be owned by, and move at the pace of, those who are going to run the initiative - although funders and others may set deadlines.

Where appropriate

This stance may be appropriate:

  • Where there is a commitment to empower individuals or groups within the community.
  • Where people are interested in starting and running an initiative .

It is not likely to be appropriate when the following apply (alternative stances in brackets):

  • Community initiatives are seen as 'a good thing' in the abstract and pushed on people from the top down. (1,2,3).
  • Where there is no commitment to provide training and support.
  • Where there aren't the resources to maintain initiatives in the longer-term.
  • Where time is very short.


Consider the following methods from the A-Z

  • An offer of grants, advice and support - perhaps conditional on some commitment being made by the other interests involved.
  • Workshops for helping community groups create a shared vision and plan their action.
  • Team building exercises.
  • Commitment planning.
  • Business planning exercises.
  • Workshops on design, fund-raising and publicity.
  • Visits to similar projects.
  • Interim structures like working parties and steering groups as a focus for decision making and accountability.
  • Longer-term structures controlled by community interests.
  • Development trusts.


  • Be clear about your role and whether produces any conflict between, for example, controlling resources and helping community interests develop their own ideas and organisation.
  • If you are controlling resources make sure you have agreement from your colleagues and can deliver what you promise before you start.
  • If you are acting as a facilitator or trainer make sure the resource-holders are involved in the process. If possible run internal workshops with them.
  • Be realistic about the time the process will take.

Possible problems

Community interests find it difficult to get organised.
Provide support and, if necessary training. Arrange visits to similar projects elsewhere. Treat people development as seriously as project development.

The steering group or other body cannot make decisions.
Organise workshop sessions outside formal committees.

Little happens between meetings.
End each meeting with an action planning session. If funds are available appoint a development worker. Keep in contact through a regularly produced newsletter.

Community interests become committed to action, but resource-holders can't deliver.
Run internal sessions to gain commitment within the supporting organisations. Use the media.


Before taking up a 'we will support community initiatives' stance consider:

  • Do you understand the different interests in the community and their needs?
  • Have you contacted existing community and voluntary sector organisations?
  • Will your colleagues support the stance?
  • Do you have skills and resources to offer?
  • Are you clear about the role you are playing?

The next section: It takes time