About That Ladder

Public Participation
Buckled ladder

Buckled ladder” by Craig Pennington is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Editor’s note: This post, after having been sitting in the draft folder for quite some time, got published prematurely by accident late last week. I’ve made a few minor edits and added or edited two of the hyperlinks. The post was supposed to contain a little bit more context, but I’ll leave that for another post.

Over on the IAP2 USA blog, one of the creators of the IAP2 Spectrum, Lewis Michaelson, shared a few thoughts on terminology a while back. According to him, here’s how the Spectrum differs from Arnstein’s Ladder: Lewis Michaelson on What Makes the IAP2 Spectrum Unique

The Spectrum is laid out horizontally instead of as a ladder, because each of the processes on the Spectrum has a legitimate purpose, depending on the decision to be made, the significance of potential impacts on stakeholders, and the amount of time I, as a stakeholder, may wish to commit. In that sense, the Spectrum is non-judgmental.

To Arnstein, consultation is “tokenism”. In her famous 1969 article “A Ladder of Citizen Participation” (PDF), she writes:

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, neighborhood meetings, and public hearings.

And therein lies the main problem with Arnstein. As I alluded to over on Govloop a while ago, the ladder conflates the public’s level of impact on the decision making process with the ethical soundness of the engagement process. To Arnstein, engaging the public at lower levels of impact (inform, consult) implies ethically questionable behavior on part of the decision maker (“Tokenism”). While that may have been her experience, it’s not a general rule.

It’s not that there aren’t disingenuous decision makers that run sham consultations simply to lull their constituents in. But that doesn’t mean that’s always the case or an inherent quality of consultative public participation processes.

In light of the contributions IAP2 has made, Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation is inaccurate and cannot serve as a model for understanding public participation today.

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Scottish E-Participation Toolkit

Digital Engagement, E-participation, Europe, Resources

Via the #worktogether15 stream coming live from Participation Week, I found this 2014 e-participation toolkit (PDF) by the Scottish Health Council. The toolkit is part of a comprehensive collection of resources on public participation, incl. a set of public participation standards and a couple of assessment reports from previous years.

The toolkit recaps a number of commonly referenced pros and cons of digital engagement (pages 5-7):


  • A lot of people are online already
  • Time and geography are fluid
  • Cost savings
  • Breaks down barriers
  • In-built record keeping


  • Accessibility and usability
  • The “Digital Divide”
  • Reduced level of engagement
  • Information governance
  • Resources
  • Uncivil behavior

The “General considerations regarding e-participation” (page 10-11) are also quite good.


Participation Week Launches in Scotland

Europe, Events, Radar, Uncategorized

The Directorate for Local Government and Communities in Scotland kicks off a weeklong event series today that aims to explore what a more people-centric and participatory government might look like. From Eventbrite:

Participation Week is a chance for all of us involved in public services to learn together about how we involve people more in the development and delivery of policies and services and think about the impact that can make. It will provide space to think about how we put people at the centre of our work, why this matters and explore what we really mean by ‘participation’. As well as an opportunity to share experiences, ideas, tools and techniques, the sessions will include conversations about what support is needed to deliver greater participation.

The program includes sessions on digital engagement and public participation in the planning process.

Follow hashtag #worktogether15 on Twitter for live updates.

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White House Seeking Input on Third Open Government National Action Plan

Open Government, Open Policymaking, Public Participation

As per an announcement on the White House blog yesterday (emphasis mine):

Consistent with the commitment to the Open Government Partnership, later this year the United States plans to publish a third Open Government National Action Plan (NAP) including new and expanded open government initiatives to pursue in the next two years. The first U.S. NAP was published in 2011 and the second NAP — which is still being implemented through the end of 2015 — was published in 2013.

Members of the public are invited to contribute and can do so via email, on Twitter or via Hackpad, which includes a separate document on Public Participation + Open Policymaking.



Irvin and Stansbury: Advantages and Disadvantages of Public Participation

Public Participation, Research, ROI

Figure 1: Advantages of Citizen Participation in Government Decision-Making

A few days ago, I came across this 2007 article in the International Journal for Public Participation (IJP2) by Renee A. Irvin and John Stansbury: Citizen Participation in Decision-Making: Is it Worth the Effort? (PDF).

In it, the authors list a number of advantages and drawbacks of public participation and weigh the trade-offs between the potential benefits and the “potential social and economic costs of community participation” (page 2).


It is widely argued that increased community participation in government decision-making produces many important benefits. Dissent is rare: It is difficult to envision anything but positive outcomes from citizens joining the policy process, collaborating with others, and reaching consensus to bring about positive social and environmental change. This article, motivated by contextual problems encountered in a participatory watershed management initiative, reviews the citizen participation literature and analyzes key considerations in determining whether community participation is an effective policy-making tool. We list conditions under which community participation may be costly and ineffective and when it can thrive and produce the greatest gains in effective citizen governance. From the detritus of an unsuccessful citizen-participation effort, we arrive at a more-informed approach to guide policy makers in choosing a decision-making process that is appropriate for a community’s particular needs.

Advantages to Citizen Participants (page 3):

  • Education (learn from and inform government representatives)
  • Persuade and enlighten government
  • Gain skills for activist citizenship
  • Break gridlock; achieve outcomes
  • Gain some control over policy process
  • Better policy and implementation decisions

Advantages to Government (page 3):

  • Education (learn from and inform citizens)
  • Persuade citizens; build trust and allay anxiety or hostility
  • Build strategic alliances
  • Gain legitimacy of decisions
  • Break gridlock; achieve outcomes
  • Avoid litigation costs
  • Better policy and implementation decisions

Disadvantages to Citizen Participants (page 7):

  • Time consuming (even dull)
  • Pointless if decision is ignored
  • Worse policy decision if heavily influenced by opposing interest groups

Disadvantages to Government (page 7):

  • Time consuming
  • Costly
  • May backfire, creating more hostility toward government
  • Loss of decision-making control
  • Possibility of bad decision that is politically impossible to ignore
  • Less budget for implementation of actual projects

Finally, the article provides “several considerations that may be described as ideal conditions for implementation of enhanced citizen participation in agency decision-making” (page 16) as well as conditions under which “the citizen participation process may be ineffective and wasteful, compared to traditional top-down decision making.”

In conclusion, the authors point to one of the most challenging issues in the field of public participation (page 18):

[…] Evidence for the effectiveness of community participation in environmental management is in short supply, due in part to the inherent problems in measuring the success of environmental policies that may take decades to positively affect the environment. Even more difficult, perhaps, is the prospect of measuring incremental changes in the well-being of the general public as they become more engaged in the policy process.

The search for more robust data to prove the return on investment (ROI) of public participation is something we’ve been following since as early as 2009, and so far there haven’t been any major breakthroughs.

The open data community, which has been facing similar challenges, is slightly ahead of the curve, with Sunlight Foundation last month releasing a new repository of case studies to show open data outputs, outcomes and impacts (A new approach to measuring the impact of open data).

Maybe that’s a good sign that my suggestion from 2012 to create a “common knowledge base” for public participation (a repository of stories, case studies, performance data etc.) will pick up momentum.


San José, CA on Track to Launching Participatory Budgeting Pilot

Participatory Budgeting

Newly-elected Mayor Sam Liccardo of San José, CA continues to advocate for the introduction of a participatory budgeting program for the city.

A quick look back:

Here’s a May 23, 2013 article in the Mercury News that outlines then-Councilmember Liccardo’s original proposal:

The idea is to provide $100,000 for each of the 10 council districts to spend in a one-time resident-identified project. The money would come out of the city’s essential services reserve, along with $50,000 for staff services.

Probably most important, the project would provide a forum for residents to speak up about priorities, identifying and fixing problems within their own communities.

“If $100,000 can keep a library open on Saturday–this is hypothetical–then the library in that district stays open. If another community wants to see enhanced maintenance in four parks, that’s what they get,” Liccardo said in an interview.

“Regardless of the process, we’d expect to see dollars from this fund flow to support neighborhood services and projects. Participatory budgeting will dramatically change who decides, whatever and however they decide. With this effort, we can embark upon a path to enable our residents to play a more prominent role in the decision-making of our city,” Liccardo said.

And here’s his argument for participatory budgeting as shared in the Huffington Post a week later: Smarter Spending Through Participatory Budgeting

Why is Participatory Budgeting a good idea for San José?

The time has come to explore Participatory Budgeting in San José. Why?

First, we can make better decisions if we involve more people, particularly if we involve people who know the needs of their neighborhoods the best. “Crowdsourcing” ideas expands our range of good and creative options.

Second, we will promote civic engagement. Residents who have spent several hours together discussing how to invest local funds in their own neighborhood have done more than make a few budgetary decisions. They have met each other. They have learned from one another. They have become more likely to work together to solve common problems outside of the Participatory Budgeting process.

Finally, Participatory Budgeting makes government more efficient. Every single tax dollar is scarce. By allowing our communities to prioritize the local investments that will have the biggest impact, we create a feed-back loop that makes our government more effective and responsive.

Liccardo went on to host a “community planning meeting” in his council district that June (which I attended), but ultimately the idea didn’t garner enough support.

Forward a couple of years, and participatory budgeting is back on the agenda, but this time with a much higher likelihood of actually reaching implementation. From the Mayor’s June Budget Message for Fiscal Year 2015-2016 (PDF):

City Council District 3 Participatory Budgeting Pilot: San José has a wealth of
community leaders who deeply engage in improving their city through their volunteer energy and creative ideas. Our neighborhood advocates often inform us how they can “do more with less,” leveraging modest amounts of public dollars with volunteer sweat equity, grants from employers and foundations, and personal contributions. Participatory Budgeting has become a proven means of democratizing civic governance in hundreds of cities globally. I’ve encouraged colleagues to step forward to pilot this process, and District 3’s Councilmember Raul Peralez has volunteered. The City Manager is directed to allocate $100,000 in one-time General Fund funding for a District 3 Participatory Budgeting Pilot program for Fiscal Year 2015-2016. (BD # 18 Peralez)

This item was already included in the mayor’s March budget message (PDF), which passed with unanimous support of the city council. However, the budget allocation under discussion then was significantly higher (page 18):

[…] Any councilmember wishing to lead the effort within their own district will take $250,000 of the $2.5 million Essential Services Reserve, with the expectation that they make no other claims or proposals on the General Fund through the FY 2015-2016 budget deliberation process. […]

With a population of slightly over 1,000,000 residents, and ten city council districts, an amount of $100,000 in San José translates to only about one dollar per person, give or take. Based on our collection of historic data from previous participatory budgeting efforts in North America, that’s not a lot. In fact, it might be the lowest per capita amount allocated in any participatory budgeting project in the United States to date, which may dampen citizens’ enthusiasm to spend a lot of time and energy engaging through this new process.

Final adoption of the 2015/2016 budget is scheduled for June 23, 2015.


From Wales: National Principles for Public Engagement

Public Participation

Speaking of guidelines, here’s another interesting resource (which we mentioned in passing a while back) from Participation Cymru, a “partnership of public and third sector organisations” hosted by the Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA): National Principles for Public Engagement in Wales (PDF)

The ten principles are:

  1. Engagement is effectively designed to make a difference
  2. Encourage and enable everyone affected to be involved, if they so choose
  3. Engagement is planned and delivered in a timely and appropriate way
  4. Work with relevant partner organisations
  5. The information provided will be jargon free, appropriate and understandable
  6. Make it easier for people to take part
  7. Enable people to take part effectively
  8. Engagement is given the right resources and support to be effective
  9. People are told the impact of their contribution
  10. Learn and share lessons to improve the process of engagement

The website includes more information about these principles, including case studies and a list of more than 100 endorsing organizations.


City of Guelph Participant Responsibilities in Community Engagement

Public Participation, Radar, Resources

Via Twitter, I just came across a very nice set of guiding principles for community engagement from the City of Guelph (located in Canada near Toronto, Ontario).

The page lists responsibilities for the key parties involved in the public participation process: the community engagement team, city employee, participant, and council.

It’s a very solid resource, but I found the section on participant responsibilities particularly noteworthy:

Participant responsibilities

Successful community engagement processes require respectful and constructive contributions of participants. Participants are responsible to:

  • Pursue community engagement with the belief that community involvement leads to better decisions
  • Focus on the decision to be made or the question to be answered
  • Recognize the City must consider the needs of the whole community
  • Strive to reach sustainable solutions
  • Request alternative ways of participating if required
  • Listen to understand the views of others
  • Identify concerns and issues early in the process
  • Participate openly, honestly and constructively, offering ideas, suggestions, alternatives
  • Work in the process in a transparent, respectful and cooperative manner
  • Stay abreast of the project, engagement activities and related issues
  • Provide input and feedback within project timelines
  • Encourage others to become engaged, and offer input to the project and engagement activities
  • Provide contact information as requested, to receive updates about the community engagement process

First of all, it’s a really good idea to spell these out, certainly as part of a specific project but even more so as a general guideline to help shape the a city’s overall public participation culture.

Second, there are a couple of items in there that point towards an understanding of participant role that goes beyond simply contributing input in a civil and constructive manner, an opportunity we highlight frequently in our work with clients:

  • Help with outreach (“encourage others to become engaged”)
  • Help with improving the public participation infrastructure (“request alternative ways of participating if required”)

Have you seen similar guidelines, particularly with regard to the participant role? Please share.

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IAP2 Spectrum Review: The Big Picture

Public Participation

IAP2 Spectrum, quo vadis?

If your work has anything even remotely to do with public participation (or public involvement, or community engagement, or collaborative governance, or whatever term people tend to prefer in your part of the world), you’ve probably heard of the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation (PDF). We’ve certainly mentioned it more than a few times here on this blog.

For those unfamiliar, here’s what the IAP2 website says:

IAP2 Spectrum of Participation

IAP2’s Spectrum of Public Participation was designed to assist with the selection of the level of participation that defines the public’s role in any public participation process. The Spectrum shows that differing levels of participation are legitimate and depend on the goals, time frames, resources, and levels of concern in the decision to be made.

The IAP2 Spectrum of Participation is a resource that is used on an international level and can be found in many public participation plans.

The Spectrum was first released in 1999. Along with a set of seven Core Values for the Practice of Public Participation and a corresponding, equally robust Code of Ethics for Public Participation Practitioners, it is one of three main components that together make up the IAP2 framework (some might consider the 5-day IAP2 training course Foundations in Public Participation as another integral part).

Much of the Spectrum’s value lies in its simplicity and accessibility: on a single page, it provides the practitioner with enough of a structure to allow her to quickly convey to her audience (e.g., a decision maker, a sponsor, or the general public) the basic concepts behind IAP2’s decision-oriented, objective-driven, and values-based approach to public participation. It can even be used to support an initial high-level project planning and design discussion.

For this reason and others, the Spectrum has enjoyed great popularity around the world right from the very beginning. One indicator that shows just how much of an influence it has had on the field is the number of times it has been quoted, borrowed, adapted, or otherwise “enhanced”, and how many times it has inspired people to express or refine their own thinking on what such a framework might look like (see our growing gallery of 50+ examples).

Earlier this month, IAP2 Canada announced that it is leading a review process regarding the Spectrum. From their website (emphasis mine):

Reviewing the IAP2 Spectrum

In response to several conversations that have been happening about the IAP2 Spectrum, IAP2 Canada is gathering input on behalf of the IAP2 Federation in a review of the Spectrum. We have heard that the Spectrum is due for a re-fresh, that there are concerns with how it is applied in practice, and ideas about how it could (and should) look different to reflect current and emerging public participation practice.

Over the coming months, IAP2 Canada will be seeking out and welcoming input from anyone around the world with something to say about the IAP2 Spectrum. We are providing a loose structure around the conversation (offering a few key questions to guide discussions), and offering to serve as a central repository for ideas and questions, which we’ll do our best to report on, and respond to on behalf of the IAP2 Federation which holds copyright for the Spectrum.

We want to know what changes/adjustments (if any) about the IAP2 Spectrum should be considered to reflect the current context of public participation. We want to work with people and organizations who are interested in advancing the practice of meaningful public engagement to figure this out. Once we work together to identify what changes need to be considered, we’ll likely keep working together to figure out the right changes to make that reflect the IAP2 Core Values, Code of Ethics and current context of public participation.

We’re also interested in exploring the role of the Spectrum and IAP2 as an organization in the context of the broader practice of public engagement. Let’s talk about emerging trends in the global ecosystem of P2 and IAP2’s role in advancing the practice.

IAP2 was founded in 1990, 25 years ago. It’s an anniversary worth celebrating, and it’s a great opportunity to reflect on the past, present and future of public participation and the role of IAP2 and its framework.

Earlier this year, two long-time practitioners each took a first stab at presenting some of the potential issues with the Spectrum in its current form:

  • In January, Max Hardy shared his Reflections on the IAP2 Spectrum, in which he outlined some common misunderstandings, personal lessons learned and some of the limitations he sees.
  • Then in March, Stephani Roy McCallum, one of about 30 IAP2 licensed trainers worldwide and a former president of the organization, followed up with her thoughts: Re-imagining the IAP2 Spectrum

I look very much forward to the discussion. At the same time, I’d prefer to frame things a little more broadly. Regardless of whether or not the Spectrum is “due for a re-fresh”, I think there are a number of even bigger issues related to the continued validity and relevance of the overall framework that require a careful and in-depth exploration.

To illustrate what I mean by that, here’s the comment I left on Facebook in response to Stephani’s post:

Here are a few themes I’ve come cross over the years where the IAP2 approach seems to run into certain limitations:

1) The need for capacity building (at both the individual and organizational level)
2) The need for embedding, culture change, making P2 part of the fabric etc.
3) The need for more holistic approaches to ensure long-term success of P2 projects
4) The need to better support bottom-up efforts to influence public decision making (activism)

There are probably more. In some of these areas, the framework might have to evolve. In others, it might be necessary to simply develop a better, more mature understanding of how the IAP2 approach fits into the ecosystem and how we might interface with neighboring methods or organizations.

A lot has changed over the past 25 years. Especially in the United States, which is where IAP2 originated and where initially it was one of only a handful of organizations promoting good public participation, there are now dozens of players covering a wide variety of approaches, methods or focus areas. Many of them have already made significant contributions to the field and keep innovating with great energy and at impressive speed.

How IAP2 will address these emerging trends or themes – whether through a renovation of its current framework, through the addition of new models or tools, or by way of integrating more closely with what’s already out there – is to be seen, but finding fresh, competent answers is without alternative if the organization wants to remain relevant over the next 25 years and beyond.

A thorough review of the framework, including the Spectrum, is a good starting point, but it shouldn’t stop there. Ultimately, this conversation is about IAP2’s place and role in a new world, and the question what impact this community wants to make going forward.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I serve on the Board of Directors at IAP2 USA. To find more contributions and to add to the conversation yourself, use the hashtag #IAP2at25 on Twitter, or follow my curated list over on Storify. Stephani and Max will be co-leading a discussion on the topic at the IAP2 North American 2015 Conference in Portland, OR this September (see session outline).


Today Is European E-Participation Day

E-participation, Europe

Today is European E-Participation Day!

From the e-uropa website:


E-Participation is citizens’ participation in policies and policy-making through the help of ICT tools – e.g. signing an online petition for saving a forest or commenting on your mayor’s proposal to renovate a school.

Many people don’t know that these online tools exist. We want to raise awareness among European citizens that the EU is not something that happens only in Brussels, but is actually just a click away!

This is why we have designated May 7 as European e-Participation Day. In 11 countries project partners will organize national activities such as workshops and conferences to engage citizens. Get involved in your country!

The official project brochure (PDF) has more information.

The 72-page Guideline for E-Participation in European Union Policy-Making (PDF) provides an introduction to e-participation, including criteria for evaluation (page 25 ff.) and a “practical guide” to five EU-level e-participation tools.

The project is being coordinated by Belgian Telecentre Europe.

Hat tip to Ismael Peña-López via Twitter.