Participation Ladders 101

In my last post ‘Fa•ci•pu•la•tion‘, I shared a table from Robert Chambers, which is essentially a participation ladder with multiple dimensions. The good thing about ladders is that they are simple and easy to get. But, the reason I choose to share the table rather than a ladder is that the latter (pun intended) can only illustrate a single dimension of participation. (Or, if they mix dimensions, they lack conceptually clarity). And, of course, there are many different dimensions that can be emphasized.

In this literature review on stakeholder participation put together by Mark Reed for the Sustainability Research Institute,  four distinct typologies of participation are recognized based on (1) different degrees of participation (2) the nature of participation according to the direction of communication flows, (3) a theoretical basis, essentially distinguishing between normative and/or pragmatic participation, and (4) the objectives for which participation is used. These are all valid ways of looking at participation and building a conceptual model that distinguishes between types.

That said, there are a number of single dimension participation ladders that development facilitators should be aware of, if only for academic purposes. If you’re already familiar with participation ladders, you might want to skip this post – I’m not going to provide much commentary or opinion here – this is more of an academic introduction to these conceptual tools for those that might be newer to the field of international development.

based on Arnstein, S.R. (1969) “A Ladder of Citizen Participation", Journal of the American Institute of Planners, Vol. 35, No. 4, July, pp. 216-224

The first is from Sherry Arnstein. Primarily concerned with power, Arnstein created her ladder in 1969 to illustrate how citizens could be included in political and economic processes from manipulation to citizen control. So the emphasis here is the degree of participation, but set in a framework of the relationship between the state and citizen – or for our purpose, the development organization and the community. According to Arnstein, the bottom two rungs are actually non-particiaption. Rungs 3 -5 are degrees of participation that represent “Tokenism” while rungs 6-8 are degrees that represent “Citizen Power”. Thus we might use this ladder as a framework of inquiry into the nature of the relationship we have with the communities in which and for whom we work. Is our relationship primarily one of consultation? Do we have a partnership? Perhaps the relationship exists across several rungs of this conceptual ladder depending on the activity we are engaged together on – annual planning and budgeting may be closer to rungs 3 and 4, while preparation of a community event closer to 6 and 7. Here is a link to a thorough discussion of Arnstein’s ladder that illustrates each rung with examples. It was originally published in 1969, the same year the ladder was published, so it is dated, but also really interesting as a result.

The second ladder is from Roger Hart, and also emphasizes degrees of participation. Hart is a professor of Environmental Psychology and is concerned about how children experience place and how spaces are designed for free play. Given that most urban design doesn’t often really think from a child’s perspective, he is also concerned about how children are enabled to participate in community development and environmental care. The ladder he developed for UNICEF in 1992 has been used widely by development organizations that work with children and youth.

In fact, just last week I was talking with a young (20-year old) development professional from Bogotá, Colombia who works with a large child-focused development NGO about how he understands his role in enabling children and youth to increase their participation in the political and social spaces available to them, and he referred to Roger Hart and his ladder  of participation. I was quite impressed. I was even more impressed to watch him facilitate a meeting of teens who were discussing how they were going to organize a large (5000+ participants) march in the city to celebrate the International Day of Peace in September. (Quick shout out and kudos to Marlon – I hope your English is up to reading this.) Here is a link to the Free Child Project’s discussion of Hart’s ladder.

Ladder on left based on Hart, R. (1992) Children's Participation from Tokenism to Citizenship. UNICEF Inoccenti Research Centre. Florence, Italy. Ladder on right based on Pretty, J. (1995) "Participatory learning for sustainable agriculture", World Development, Vol. 23 (8), pp 1247-1263.

The third ladder is based on the work of J.N. Pretty whose work mostly focused on sustainable agriculture. Again, his ladder focuses on degrees of participation from manipulation or token participation to self-mobilization. Pretty’s ladder uses words that make us consider the nature of the participation (the incentives and purposes behind it.) For example, rung 3 – participation by consultation sets the organization’s needs up as the incentive to participate – it needs to consult with the community before moving ahead on its agenda. Rung 4 – participation for material incentives recognizes that one can generate incentives for the community to choose participation, but then does this not weaken the legitimacy of it? Here is a link to IAPAD’s summary of Pretty’s ladder.

You have noticed by now the pattern of starting with manipulation of the participants and their inclusion as tokenism and ending with action initiated and controlled by the participants. The fourth ladder presents a slightly different framework.

based on Kanji and Greenwood (2001) Participatory Approaches to Research and Development in IIED: Learning from Experience, IIED. London.

You’ll notice immediately the alliterative use of the Latin prefix ‘co-‘, meaning joint or mutual. The concept highlighted in this ladder is the nature of the action done together as a reflection of the nature of the relationship. Thus at the bottom rung, work is done together in an unequal power relationship whereby one partner complies with the demands of the other (we can assume here that it is the community complying with the organization’s agenda) – whereas at the top rung, the work is done collectively as equal partners both within the community (working together among themselves) and with the organization as one of many equal partners in the action.

(I should note here that although I found this framework in Kanji and Greenwood’s 2001 IIED publication, they recognize the source of this framework as Andrea Cornwall from 1995.  Cornwall is a recognized expert on participation methodologies, but I was unable to track down the 1995 source these authors site, so I’ll leave the source of this ladder as the IIED publication. If any of you can track down the original source from 16 years earlier, you win some kudos in my next post.)

There are many other participation ladders out there, and each of these has been adapted many times as people see fit to alter the wording, add or remove rungs, or combine the best of several together. For example, Jennifer Lentfer at How Matters provides a nice adaption of the Hart (1992) and Pretty (1995) ladders with a nice summary for each rung from a conceptual framework of project ownership in her recent post ‘Sorry, but its not YOUR project‘. Again, I like the simplicity of the ladder framework, but I like more the ability to present several dimensions of participation at once in a table. Participation is by nature multidimensional and it’s good to make explicit the dimensions or polarities you are thinking about – the flow of information, the nature of control, the source of activity, the roles, the relationships, the actions taken by each party, etc.


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10 Comments on “Participation Ladders 101”

  1. June 14, 2011 at 10:11 am #

    This is a really helpful piece. I have been researching and working in participation in public policy making – especially health policy making for many years – often using Arnstein’s ladder as a simple illustration. It has a real power, that people can related to.

    There is a whole other literature that it might be useful for you to look at from the health field. Charles and De Maio conceptualise participation in three dimensions, while Julia Abelson sees it in terms of inputs and outputs. I’m working now on guideance for health impact assessment practitioners on participation, which we in Wales see as a really essential part of the process. Your post and references will be very useful in developing effective guidance

    • June 15, 2011 at 8:03 am #

      Thank you for your comments Michael. I will look up the references you mention. Participation in monitoring and evaluation – in particular impact assessment – is another very interesting area of exploration. It somehow reminds me Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. If a community is involved in the assessment of impact, they are changed through that very involvement as is their perception of their relationship to the interventions and their impact. Good luck with your work.

  2. June 22, 2011 at 8:49 pm #

    Hi Aaron – great effort. We use the word participation for a multiple reasons such as how much involvement is there in each level of participation; what is desirable in any context and at what point is participation counter productive of our efforts. David’s comments about looking at the flip side – participation of outside agencies in community or citizen association efforts to bring about changes – is good because it reminds us that the locus of development needs to change to become more citizen driven and indeed ‘democratic’. The question becomes ‘how much participation by governments and outside agencies does a functional community need to address its own aspirations?’ Behind this is an assumption that citizens not governments determine the direction of development and have a right to decide how government, donor and agencies play their role (participate). It also helps clarify the role of duty bearers in a rights based approach to development – citizens have a primary right to engage in their own development and to expect outside agencies to help them (participate) to the extent that they are needed.

    • June 23, 2011 at 9:19 pm #

      Well said Christopher. I agree. I think it may be more than just a healthy mental exercise to flip the roles when thinking about what participation means.

      At the same time, I wonder how we can humbly leave room for the possibility that some communities may have experienced such dis-empowerment, such alienation to these rights, such acculturation to political poverty, that they are unable to thrive in the role of determining the direction of development and deciding the roles that outsiders will have to participate in this. And, then, what do we do?

  3. Keiron Bailey
    October 30, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

    Why don’t researchers spend more time actually measuring what citizens really want from their agency and planning officials using one or other of these ladders? Or, any other heuristic measurement?

    It’s deeply ironic that such depth of debate about participation including which levels of these Ladders are meaningful and to whom is being conducted by academics and professionals without asking the citizens themselves or presenting citizen-driven data.

    To make the 2009 Open Government Directive, and all other State and local agency edicts and directives on “participation, collaboration and transparency” and their analogues more meaningful, we need data on what citizens think they have now, and what they really want.

    They don’t want level 8, or complete control.
    But they want more than the mean level 3 and 4, which is the level at which they feel they are currently involved.
    Sample data from thirteen nations indicates that citizens in every nation desire the same level of involvement.

    Google “Arnstein Gap” for some data based on real-time polling at open public meetings dealing with a wide range of planning, design, infrastructure and environmental management questions.

    Or, you can find more data in “Planning, technology, and legitimacy: structured public involvement in integrated transportation and land-use planning in the United States.”:

    It seems to me that academics and professionals are recycling a rhetorical discourse without deigning to ask real citizens for real data and then using this data to inform effective analysis and solutions, which include the design and the measurement of public involvement quality across a range of indicators.

    • November 23, 2011 at 7:25 am #

      I’m embarrassed it has taken so long to approve your comment Keiren. It is a good one. I have been traveling 7 of the past 8 weeks and have another couple to go. I’m actually in Mali now, checking in on my blog for the first time in a couple of months. Please forgive the lack of responsiveness.

  4. July 2, 2013 at 9:31 am #

    I don’t know if this thread is still open for comments but I would like to add my perspective as a survivor researcher in mental health. The mental health user-survivor movement strives for user-led control mostly because of what has constantly been done to us for such long time, often without our consent and “for our own good” by mental health services/psychiatry.
    As a survivor researcher, I can say that user-led led initiatives do work. The User Focused Monitoring, a model of service and experience evaluation developed in 1996 by Dr Diana Rose (a survivor now a Reader at the Institute of Psychiatry in London) has demonstrated that when users of services drive the evaluation or monitoring (or research) processes, you get very different data because the work is grounded in experience, not in general or text book data.
    However, in recent times, there has been a change in the rhetoric supposedly to increase the democratic process. While agencies want more and more to hear from users (who sometimes suffer from “participation fatigue”), the current novlangue marks a new departure by slowly dropping the terms “involvement” and “participation” in favour of “engagement” and “feedback” thus putting the voice of people firmly in a mostly consultative role.
    It is clear from the UK legislation of the last few years (I did a lit review and policy scope earlier this year), that at the end of the day, power remains largely in the hands of decision makers and budget holders. So “plus ca change, moins ca change”… (pardon my French…)
    Still I like Arnstein’s, it remains my preferred ladder. It’s simple and to the point. Then you can engage in debate in your own context.
    Anne-Laure (UK)

    • July 6, 2013 at 6:22 pm #


      You draw a very relevant parallel between user-led control in the mental health field and community participation in my field (international development/humanitarian aid). Words come in and out of favor, but I agree with you that shifts in the preferred terminology often come with far more than merely lexical changes. Real changes in content and processes that undermine participation can accompany these shifts. I like participation ladders as a framework in general because they help us be specific about what we are doing. Visualizing stepping down a rung or two helps one protest linguistic shifts without coming across as a pedantic nitpicker.

  5. November 7, 2013 at 7:18 am #

    The biggest challenge that is faced in the world of development is as a result of the dilemma of theory and practice and the real meaning of development parse. I will start by discussing the concept development. The term community development means different things to different people. In the African ( Kenyan) context it varies from community to community depending on who is describing the term. In general community development is perceived to mean “being like the western world” most often referred to as westernization. For others, it is being able to maintain cultural identity in the midst of the impacts of globalization, and to others being able to cope with the demands of every day life. Community development has also been dubbed change. As a community development practitioner with over 20 years of hand on experience, the biggest question has always been ” Development for who, how and when”. Community development interventions that have been in place over along have their triggers from Eurocentric and western theories that do not put into account the differences between western perspectives and African perspectives and the generalizations of approaches that assume that because an approach worked with the poor in Latin America or Asia, it will work in Africa or because it has worked with a rural agricultural community in Western Kenya, it will work with the nomadic pastoralist in North Eastern Kenya.
    My other concern is the issue of measurements of progress or development. Which the measure of compliance to grants and loans for micro enterprise may work in certain communities whose ideals are more capitalistic, this may not measure success in a more social equity oriented community who measure their success by how much inter and intra- family relationships have been enhanced. The dilemma is when theories in community development especially among the youth that not only require to be supported to grow into self reliant, but require mentorship, contextualization of all approaches will enhance the opportunities for realizing success.

    • July 1, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

      Half a year later, I’m re-reading your comment and reminded of two very good books by Robert Chambers, the seminal “Whose Reality Counts?” and “Revolutions in Development Inquiry”. Thanks for your comment and reminder that even such concepts as fundamental as “development” and “participation” are fraught with issues. And, of course, each organization or agency (government, NGO, donor foundation, etc.) brings into these diverse communities their own understanding of what these terms mean, and these definitions are generally quite rigid within them. It would really be too much to expect organizations and agencies to set aside their own definitions and adopt those of each community in which they work or with whom they partner.

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