Community Engagement

Models of Participation

A ‘ladder of participation’ was devised by Sherry Arnstein in 1969 to explain eight different steps.

Ladder of Participation. Sherry Arnstein 1969

The bottom rungs of the ladder are (1) Manipulation and (2) Therapy. These two rungs describe levels of “non-participation” that have been contrived to substitute for genuine participation. Their real objective is not to enable people to participate in planning or conducting programs, but to enable powerholders to “educate” or “cure” the participants.

Rungs 3 and 4 progress to levels of “tokenism” that allow the have-nots to hear and to have a voice: (3) Informing and (4) Consultation. When they are proffered by powerholders as the total extent of participation, citizens may indeed hear and be heard. But under these conditions they lack the power to insure that their views will be heeded by the powerful. When participation is restricted to these levels, there is no follow-through, no “muscle,” hence no assurance of changing the status quo. Rung (5) Placation is simply a higher level tokenism because the ground rules allow have-nots to advise, but retain for the powerholders the continued right to decide.

Further up the ladder are levels of citizen power with increasing degrees of decision-making clout. Citizens can enter into a (6) Partnership that enables them to negotiate and engage in trade-offs with traditional power holders. At the topmost rungs, (7) Delegated Power and (8) Citizen Control, have-not citizens obtain the majority of decision-making seats, or full managerial power.

Obviously, the eight-rung ladder is a simplification, but it helped to illustrate significant gradations of citizen participation over the following years.

The LGA Community Engagement Handbook, revised in 2016 indicates that:-

“Community engagement is increasingly acknowledged as a valuable process, not only for providing opportunities for community members to participate in decisions that affect them and at a level that meets their expectations, but also to strengthen and enhance the relationship between communities and local government by engaging communities at different programme and service levels.”

Based on the International Association for Public participation (IAPT) model, the following illustrates the different stages of community engagement.

Levels of Communication based on the IAPT Model

In similar vein, the Consultation Institute in the UK has sought to update Arnstein’s ‘ladder of citizen participation’ and has set out four essential parts of engagement with the public:-

  • information-giving: where residents are informed, but have no influence
  • consultation: where residents can inform decisions, but don’t have the final say
  • co-production: where things are done jointly, acting together
  • supporting citizen power: where residents lead and the council stands back

Planning Engagement

Be clear about the purpose and scope of your engagement process and bear in mind that community engagement works best when it is a cumulative process, building trust over time.

Inevitably involvement will vary as different groups will want to get involved in different ways. Some may want to provide advice or feedback, while others may want to help deliver the outcomes.

Think about following

  • what  finance and other resources do you have
  • what level of participation do you hope will be achieved
  • how will you identify stakeholders
  • when will you engage with different stakeholders
  • how will you and your stakeholders interact ie. consider what specific methods are suited to different stakeholder  needs and contexts
  • what limitations are you likely to encounter
  • how will you publicise your engagement exercises
  • how will you monitor your progress and when will you review findings
  • how and when will you provide feedback to stakeholders


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