A Ladder of Citizen Participation
Many initiatives involve citizen participation in some way—but how can we compare forms of participation to each other? In "A Ladder of Citizen Participation," Sherry Arnstein proposes a model that can be used for this comparison, based on how much power citizens actually hold.
Arnstein is especially concerned with the problem that while many people applaud participation, it can be used as a euphemism or an empty ritual instead of a marker of real citizen power. As Arnstein puts it, citizen power is "the redistribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberately included in the future... the means by which they can induce significant social reform." In the ritual of participation, power-holders can claim that all sides were considered, but still retain power.
Arnstein's "ladder of citizen participation" offers a model that includes everything from ritual nonparticipation to citizen control on a scale of citizen power:
|Degrees of citizen power|
|Placation||Degrees of Tokenism|
|FIGURE 2: Eight Rungs on a Ladder of Citizen Participation (p217). Note that Arnstein's illustration places greater emphasis on the rungs on the ladder than this version.|
Arnstein explains that this ladder offers space ranging from the most paternalistic forms of participation to the most participatory. In the paper, she illustrates each rung on the ladder with a concrete example from a U.S. government program at the time of publication:
- Manipulation: "people are placed on rubberstamp advisory committes... for the express purpose of 'educating' them or engineering their support" -- basically a "public relations vehicle by powerholders." Example: Citizen Advisory Committees.
- Therapy: cases where government programs, social workers, or citizen groups engage with the powerless in a way that supports them but also pathologizes their attitude about government.
- Informing: putting information in the hands of citizens. While this is a starting point to participation, Arnstein argues that situations with "no channel...for feedback and no power for negotiation...people have little opportunity to influence the program." Example: pamphlets, broadcasts, and meetings that focus on announcements rather than collective decisionmaking.
- Consultation: consulting citizens for their opinions. Arnstein argues that "surveys, neighborhood meetings, and public hearings" can be a "sham" when they offer "no assurance that citizen concerns and ideas will be taken into account." She points out that the metrics used to report meeting outcomes, like attendance numbers, survey counts, and brochure distribution counts often eliminate any voice that occurs in these meetings. Examples: attitude surveys in "ghetto neighborhoods" and votes that don't allow space for alternative proposals.
- Placation: tokenistically place community members on boards and committees that have executive powers. "It is at this level that citizens begin to have some degree of influence," notes Arnstein. In these settings, "powerholders [retain] the right to judge the legitimacy or feasibility of the advice" from community representatives. Example: an in-depth analysis of 9 ways that Rhode Island's participation in the U.S. Federal Model Cities initiative tended to override the will of local communities.
- Partnership: "power is... redistributed through negotiation between citizens and powerholders." Arnstein argues that this is most effective "when there is an organized power-base in the community to which the citizen leaders are accountable," when communities can pay leaders for their time, and when communities have the resources to hire or fire a wide range of staff. Drawing examples from the Model Cities program, Arnstein argues that "where power has come to be shared it was taken by the citizens, not given by the city."
- Delegated Power: citizens achieve "dominant decision-making authority over a particular plan or program." In this context, programs are significantly accountable to citizens. Arnstein cites the New Haven Model City program, where community representatives had a majority voice on a key board. Another option is to offer citizen groups veto power over government plans or decision-making power in budgeting.
- Citizen Control: "participants or residents can govern a program... in full charge of policy and managerial aspects, and be able to negotiate the conditions under which 'outsiders' may change them." Here, Arnstein imagines several models, especially ones where neighborhood corporations have direct control over funds. Her example is a "bitter struggle" between community groups and teacher's unions in New York City in 1968 .
How applicable is this model? Early in the paper, Arnstein discusses limitations. She argues that racism, paternalism, limitations in socio-economic infrastructure, lack of trust, and the difficulties of organizing communities are all greater roadblocks to participation than how much power communities have in the process of participation. She also points out the failings common to all parsimonious models: that the actual picture in a community will always be more complex, with different levels of power, and a variety of community members who may not easily be sorted into groups occupying a particular ladder rung.
Theoretical and practical relevance:
Arnstein's article offers a vivid and concise introduction to the importance of considering the form of citizen participation when making claims about the power that citizens have in a public process. By putting a wide range of processes on the axis of citizen power, she cuts straight through the complexities of organizing practices to the critical values at hand.
This paper by Arnstein is a foundational work (it has a massive citation count) that has continued to inspire major threads of work and thought on citizen participation. Many people would modify or disagree with Arnstein's model or her focus on citizen power, but they still have to react to the questions set out in this short, powerful paper.
One final note: I was surprised that the ladder of participation isn't something that people progress on. As I do further research on the idea of "ladders of engagement," I suspect that many of those theories (which suggest starting out citizens in low-power situations and gradually moving them towards high-power activities) would get stuck on Arnstein's Manipulation or Therapy rungs of citizen power.
- Model Cities on Wikipedia
- Jackson, Mandy Isaacs. Model City Blues. Temple University Press, 2008.
- Goldstein, Dana. The Tough Lessons of the 1968 Teacher Strikes. The Nation, October 13, 2014.