Between the spectra: Arnstein’s Ladder plugs the gap of IAP2 spectrum

Sally Hussey

Adopting Arnstein’s 1969 Ladder of Citizen Participation alongside the current widespread use of the IAP2 spectrum might help governments engage more meaningfully with their citizens, recent research suggests.

In Australia – indeed globally – governments increasingly recognise the need to shift toward more inclusive decision making processes. But there remains, what scholars Aaron Davis and Jane Andrew call a “continued scepticism” of consultative processes, especially in relation to accountability of projects achieving their intended goals.

Working out of the University of South Australia, Aaron Davis and Jane Andrew identify how the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum (inform, consult, involve, collaborate and empower) is currently the primary way of describing the level of citizens’ involvement in decision making processes. This is especially so when narrowing their scope to a South Australian context, where governments have vociferously and ambitiously worked to improve consultative efforts, devoting significant resources to trialing such tools as participatory decision-making processes.

A “mismatch” of outcomes

Developed in the late 1990s, with updates by IAP2 Australasia in 2014, the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum is one of the most utilised and applied international public participation models. It explains the different levels of engagement that organisations can engage their communities, with the furthest right of the spectrum highlighting the greater community influence on decision making. Each level holds out a different promise to the community to which decision makers are held accountable. But while many elements of the IAP2 spectrum can be traced back to Arnstein’s landmark 1969 model, The Ladder of Citizen Participation, the authors hone the one, significant difference between the spectra: where an IAP2 approach is largely based on what the authors call “rationalism” (read planning and strategy), Arnstein’s supports a “critically pragmatic approach” based on reflection and assessment of actual outcomes.

It is this impasse that concerns their current article ‘From Rationalism to Critical Pragmatism: Revisiting Arnstein’s Ladder of Public Participation in Co-Creation and Consultation’. It raises the question, could Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation plug the gaps in how the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum guides consultation planning and evaluation?

Contrasting the two spectra as a way of evaluating public consultation, Davis and Andrew  highlight a “mismatch” between assessing planned and actual outcomes.

Participatory decision making

Davis and Andrews broadly map a history of public involvement in decision making in literature and participatory planning processes. (They also provide a great overview of process-led design as they step through the rich history of citizen engagement dating back to the 1970s and the technological redefining of the workplace.) Bridging decades, they decipher the interchangeable terminology – co-design, co-production, citizen-led, participatory design – which, at its most elemental, speaks to “engaging end-users in a design process”. Here, they note the shift from users as subjects of design to being a partner in design, with a focus on process in urban living laboratories (ULL), or “real-world test beds.”

With the deeper dive into the IAP2 spectrum, which, they state is “widely used by governments in planning and reporting on public consultative initiatives”, Davis and Andrews link to Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation. Here, they challenge any face value similarities. This despite their linguistic similarities – inform/informing; consult/consultation; involve/partnership; collaborate/delegated power; empower/citizen control. For the IAP2 spectrum is “primarily focussed on defining a strategy for government to involve the public in decision making processes.” It also provides “exemplar promises” concerning how these decisions are carried out. Alternately, Arnstein’s model “assesses the outcomes and categorises the actual application of a public participation strategy.”

Leaning toward the optimisation of Arenstein’s ladder – its ability to describe processes that are left wanting in the IAP2 model – they argue that the IAP2 spectrum “is primarily reliant upon the demonstration of the activity taking place, while Arnstein’s Ladder supports a more holistic focus on the outcomes in the context of the broader socio-technical system.”

From “mismatch” to marriage

Davis and Andrews suggest how adopting Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation alongside the IAP2 spectrum might help governments and cities to engage more meaningfully with their citizens. This, they argue, might provide a more useful framework for rethinking ways in which consultation is planned and executed. It also ensures adequate attention is paid to the outcomes as well as the planning of co-creation and consultation processes.

By augmenting the IAP2 spectrum to include critical reflection on desired and actual outcomes, the authors suggest that participatory processes would be planned through a focus on outcomes and processes while leaving room for unexpected changes and developments.

But it is in the dynamic revisiting Arnstein’s model of public participation in its contemporary setting that this research sings. It draws out the positives in both spectra and offers a holistic approach to community engagement so that governments might engage more meaningfully with their citizens.

Sally Hussey is a Melbourne-based writer and Bang the Table’s Principal Writer and Editorial Director. She has an extensive background in the publishing, academic and cultural sectors.

Photo: rawpixel on Unsplash

More Content You Might Like