A Ladder of Citizen Participation

A “provocative” model worth revisiting?

This article originally published in 1969 in the Journal of the American Institute of Planners. It’s redacted and reprinted here for the purpose of spurring critical public dialogue. Letters to the editor encouraged. © The American Planning Association, www.planning.org, by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd, www.tandfonline.com on behalf of The American Planning Association.

The idea of citizen participation is a little like eating spinach: no one is against it in principle because it is good for you. Participation of the governed in their government is, in theory, the cornerstone of democracy — a revered idea that is vigorously applauded by virtually everyone. The applause is reduced to polite handclaps, however, when this principle is advocated by the have-not blacks, Mexican- Americans, Puerto Ricans, Indians, Eskimos, and whites. And when the have-nots define participation as redistribution of power, the American consensus on the fundamental principle explodes into many shades of outright racial, ethnic, ideological, and political opposition. …

It 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. It is the strategy by which the have-nots join in determining how information is shared, goals and policies are set, tax resources are allocated, programs are operated, and benefits like contracts and patronage are parceled out. …

There is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process. … Participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless. It allows the powerholders to claim that all sides were considered but makes it possible for only some of those sides to benefit. …

A typology of eight levels of participation may help in analysis of this confused issue. For illustrative purposes the eight types are arranged in a ladder pattern with each rung corresponding to the extent of citizens’ power in determining the end product. … Obviously, the eight-rung ladder is a simplification, but it helps to illustrate the point that so many have missed — that there are significant gradations of citizen participation. Knowing these gradations makes it possible to cut through the hyperbole to understand the increasingly strident demands for participation from the have-nots as well as the gamut of confusing responses from the powerholders. …

[R]oadblocks lie on both sides of the simplistic fence. On the powerholders’ side, they include racism, paternalism, and resistance to power redistribution. On the havenots’ side, they include inadequacies of the poor community’s political socioeconomic infrastructure and knowledge-base, plus difficulties of organizing a representative and accountable citizens’ group in the face of futility, alienation, and distrust. …

  1. Manipulation: … [P]eople are placed on rubberstamp advisory committees or advisory boards for the express purpose of “educating” them or engineering their support. Instead of genuine citizen participation, the bottom rung of the ladder signifies the distortion of participation into a public relations vehicle by powerholders. …

  2. Therapy: … What makes this form of “participation” so invidious is that citizens are engaged in extensive activity, but the focus of it is on curing them of their “pathology” rather than changing the racism and victimization that create their “pathologies.” …

  3. Informing: … [T]oo frequently the emphasis is placed on a one-way flow of information — from officials to citizens — with no channel provided for feedback and no power for negotiation. Under these conditions, particularly when information is provided at a late stage in planning, people have little opportunity to influence the program designed “for their benefit.” …

  4. Consultation: 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. …

  5. Placation: It is at this level that citizens begin to have some degree of influence though tokenism is still apparent. An example of placation strategy is to place a few handpicked “worthy” poor on boards of Community Action Agencies or on public bodies like the board of education, police commission, or housing authority. If they are not accountable to a constituency in the community and if the traditional power elite hold the majority of seats, the have-nots can be easily outvoted and outfoxed. …

  6. Partnership: At this rung of the ladder, power is in fact redistributed through negotiation between citizens and powerholders. They agree to share planning and decision-making responsibilities through such structures as joint policy boards, planning committees, and mechanisms for resolving impasses. After the groundrules have been established through some form of give-and-take, they are not subject to unilateral change. Partnership can work most effectively when there is an organized power-base in the community to which the citizen leaders are accountable; when the citizens group has the financial resources to pay its leaders reasonable honoraria for their time-consuming efforts; and when the group has the resources to hire (and fire) its own technicians, lawyers, and community organizers. …

  7. Delegated Power: Negotiations between citizens and public officials can also result in citizens achieving dominant decisionmaking authority over a particular plan or program. [Boards and agencies] on which citizens have a clear majority of seats and genuine specified powers are typical examples. … To resolve differences, powerholders need to start the bargaining process rather than respond to pressure from the other end. …

  8. Citizen Control: … [R]esidents can govern a program or an institution, be in full charge of policy and managerial aspects, and be able to negotiate the conditions under which “outsiders” may change them. A neighborhood corporation with no intermediaries between it and the source of funds is the model most frequently advocated. …

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