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.