Participation Methods

Submitted by Ben Smith 23rd July 2011 18:04

How is it done?

There is a general suite of methodologies and tools that can be combined and applied in a situation specific manner with some being more participatory than others.

One way of looking at the different approaches is to consider the following 'ladder of participation' before embarking on any particular approach. This was first developed by Sherry Arnstein over 20 years ago. It shows the different ways that an organisation responsible for an activity can involve participants, the top rung being the most participatory (self-mobilisation). This implies that this is what we should all be aiming for. This is not the case as in many contexts this would not be realistic. However, it is important to be clear about which point you are on the ladder and ask the question: 'is it possible to move one stage higher on the ladder?'

It is important that you are clear about what kind of input you are expecting from people. There are lots of legitimate purposes for participation but problems can arise if they are not clearly communicated. The process can fail if stakeholders find that a decision has already been made and that they are only being asked to validate it if the reason for the meeting had been phrased as if the decision had not yet been made. Although asking stakeholders to validate a decision might be a valid purpose in itself if the people involved know that is what is happening. It is important to try and see participation as a process rather than just isolated events. If you get input from the stakeholders you should let them know how it will be used and what action has been taken or, if it is not going to be used, why it wasn't acted on.

Ladders of Participation

In her famous article 'A Ladder of Citizen Participation' (1969) Arnstein considers public participation and its role in power distribution, illustrated in a ladder with eight rungs. The author viewed citizen participation as a form of citizen power, suggesting the definition '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' (1969:216). As a metaphor for viewing the different levels of participation from non-participation to total citizen control, her ladders are impressive although the classifications she used are quite emotive (e.g. 'manipulation', 'therapy', 'placation') and over the past decades, they have been criticised and revised many times, including several modifications emerging from developing country settings (Abbot 1996, Choguill 1996).

A more updated ladder, 'A Typology of Community Participation' is offered by Pretty (1994).



A simpler distinction can be made between (Twigg, 2001):

  • guided participation - initiated, funded and ultimately controlled by professional external agencies but seeking to include others in the projects and sometimes the planning stages
  • people-centred participation - addresses issues of power and control. Its concern is much wider than the technical and managerial aspects of programmes and projects. It is concerned with the nature of the society in which these programmes and projects. Part of its aim is empowerment by giving those involved the chance to 'organise and influence change on the basis of their access to knowledge, political processes and financial, social and natural resources' (Slocum, et al, 1995).

This can be simplified further into who has power over decision making with the spectrum ranging from stakeholders being ignored to stakeholders taking all the decisions, with every permutation in between. From these ladders it can be seen that stakeholder engagement approaches vary from quite passive interactions, where the stakeholders are simply informed or provide information, to 'self mobilisation', where the stakeholders themselves initiate and design the process. Engagement closer to self-mobilisation is not necessarily 'better' because it is more participatory. Different levels of participation are appropriate for different stages of the project and given the experience of the research team. The questions we need to ask ourselves is who is making the decisions over all of the stages of the engagement. It is important to be honest with ourselves and with the people we work with about how they are being involved, how the information they provide will be used and - as far as possible- whether they have any power to influence decisions. The purpose of participation must thus be communicated for each situation.

When designing an engagement process, it is important to take into account the stage at which the engagement is occurring in terms of the policy making process, what decisions have already been taken and what positions are already fixed. It may be that the engagement, though very participatory in itself, is not effective because the scope is too constrained and there is no opportunity for developing creative solutions.