Ladder of participation

Reflection on power dynamics in co-design

Decorative only

Nothing for us, without us

In 1969, sociologist and author Sherry Phyllis Arnstein published a paper called 'A Ladder of Participation' that would outline a model for the empowerment of citizens in social decisions, and enable an effective redistribution of social power.

Arnstein had been influenced by her work at the United States Department of Housing, Education, and Welfare, and as a graduate caseworker in Alameda County Juvenile Court. Arnstein witnessed the disempowerment of everyday people in decision making, and this paper - amongst others - became hugely influential in the movement of citizen co-design.

Co-design itself, also known as participatory design, began as a movement around the 1960's and 1970's as a response to increasing social complexity and a growing feeling of citizens lacking influence for how their communities and lives were being designed.

spur: believes in the power of co-design to form effective and holistic solutions in a world that is faced by challenges of complexity and speed of change. We believe empowering everyday people in the direction of their community is the future of civic innovation and prosperity.

Arnstein's ladder of participation is a model for understanding citizen involvement in your project or initiative:

1 · Manipulation and 2 · Therapy

Both are non-participative. The aim is to cure or educate the participants. The proposed plan is best and the job of participation is to achieve public support through public relations.

3 · Informing

A most important first step to legitimate participation. But too frequently the emphasis is on a one way flow of information. No channel for feedback.

4 ·Consultation

Again a legitimate step attitude surveys, neighbourhood meetings and public enquiries. But Arnstein still feels this is just a window dressing ritual.

5 · Placation

For example, co-option of hand-picked ‘worthies’ onto committees. It allows citizens to advise or plan ad infinitum but retains for power holders the right to judge the legitimacy or feasibility of the advice.

6 · Partnership

Power is in fact redistributed through negotiation between citizens and power holders. Planning and decision-making responsibilities are shared e.g. through joint committees.

7 · Delegation

Citizens holding a clear majority of seats on committees with delegated powers to make decisions. Public now has the power to assure accountability of the programme to them.

8 · Citizen Control

Have-nots handle the entire job of planning, policy making and managing a programme e.g. neighbourhood corporation with no intermediaries between it and the source of funds.

-- Citizens Handbook

Although it is often desirable to ensure that projects have a bias towards Citizen Control, it is important to not that there are myriad contexts in which this is less than optimal—especially when subjectivity or lived experience may be blinding or limit the capacity to fully understand the situation. Similarly, projects have many phases and many facets (e.g. funding, delivery, research, etc.) with participation varying between each.

The following canvas helps you consider each area of your project, who’s involved with each area, what level of participation they have, and why. NB: The "who" column might be groups of people, archetypes, or individuals—depending on your project.

Click here to download an A3 PDF of the canvas.

Ladder of participation canvas

Further reading about Arnstein's ladder of participation can be found at: