Solving the Problem of Participation: Putting Arstein’s Ladder into Action

In the World Bank’s most recent report “Localizing Development: Does Participation Work?”, the authors look at participatory development and test the idea that “a more engaged citizenry should be able to achieve a higher level of cooperation and make government more accountable.”  They found that participants in civic activities tend to be wealthier, more educated, of higher social status (by caste and ethnicity), male, and more politically connected than non-participants.

286GThis picture reflects the higher opportunity cost of participation for the poor, especially when confronting corruption and patronage. It appears that the poor often benefit less from participatory processes because, in part, the process of allocating resources typically reflects the preferences of elite groups. The authors found these phenomena in a wide range of case studies across many regions.

In July 1969, Sherry R. Arsetin, writing on development projects in the United States, identified eight distinct levels of participation that she organized into a “ladder”, with each step representing one tier of participation (or lack of participation) that she observed in poor urban America. Starting with the bottom rungs of (1) Manipulation and (2) Therapy, participation of the have-nots increases as you scale the ladder. The bottom two rungs describe levels of “non-participation” that substitute for genuine participation. This enables elites or power holders to “educate” or “cure” the participants.

The next two rungs, (3) Informing and (4) Consultation, are categorized as “tokenism” that allow the have-nots to hear and to have a voice. However, they lack any significant power to ensure that their views and priorities will be heeded by the powerful. There is typically no follow-through when participation is restricted to Informing or Consultation, nor is there any assurance of changing the status quo. Rung (5) Placation includes allowing the have-nots to advise on decisions, but it is categorized as tokenism because elites retain their power to make the final call.

Further up the ladder are levels of citizen power with increasing degrees of decision-making power. 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, non-elite citizens obtain the majority of decision-making seats or full managerial power.

It seems like movement up the ladder would be hard to implement– is there a way to climb up the ladder of public participation? According to The Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC) and The Deliberative Democracy Handbook there is. Originally used by Joseph M. Bessette in the 1980 publication, “How Democratic is the Constitution“, deliberative democracy says that  for a democratic decision to be legitimate, it must be preceded by authentic deliberation, not merely the aggregation of preferences that occurs in voting. This strengthens citizen voices in governance by including people of all races, classes, ages and geographies in deliberations that directly affect public decisions. As a result, citizens influence and see the result of their influence on the policy and resource decisions. This could be carried out in both representative democracies and direct democracies. Though there are differing view points on how to implement deliberative democracy, all are trying to put Sherry R. Arstein’s participation ladder into action.

As all citizens are able to move up the ladder, they are able to redistribute power in the community and “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.”

One thought on “Solving the Problem of Participation: Putting Arstein’s Ladder into Action

  1. Pingback: Poltical Component | Local Democracy Community of Practice

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