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Want to really engage the community? Don't walk under Arnstein's ladder

By Peter Henderson - posted Monday, 18 August 2003

Consultation in planning should not be a dirty word. Consulting a community about a proposed change that could affect their lives, or that of their children, should not be the domain of the "spin doctors", or seemingly held in skeptical disregard by academics, community activists and some practicing planners.

This is not to deny the rationale for this skepticism. Indeed the way many attempts at community consultation have been facilitated and determined makes it understandable. It is of little benefit to ask an opinion of a predetermined outcome. But consultation still remains a valuable tool to meaningfully engage a community on planning and decision making.

Nor is the concept a difficult one to grasp. You ask for an informed opinion, you listen to the rationale, you discuss the options and arrive at a decision that will best fit.


Community consultation should foster the opportunity for people to talk and listen, share ideas and expertise, build a rapport which will lead to a mutual respect. Community consultation is simply about opening, maintaining and, importantly, constructively closing a channel of communication.

Community Consultation is well recognised and accepted as a business practice for both government and business. Planners and project managers are governed by the legislative requirements of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or a Review of Environmental Factors (or other similar term depending on the state you reside) to facilitate a programme of community consultation into planning major projects.

Since coming to vogue in the heady days of the student movements and social rethinking of the 1960s, the idea of providing a greater input and comment from the community about proposed changes with a potential to impact on day to day lives has been placed firmly on the agenda by planning authorities. From impacts of change on Californian communities and community-focused architecture to the landmark Skeffington report in the UK, the 60s heralded a sea change in the thinking about the why and how a community should participate and be involved in planning.

In the much often-cited paper by Shirley Arnstein, first published in the American Journal of Planners in 1969, she grasped this idea of public participation and sharing planning power. She summed it up as follows in a US context of the time:

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 hand claps, 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.

Intrinsic to this philosophy of power-sharing was an "us and them" approach. She advanced a ladder-style framework of public participation, in which the rungs of the ladder depicted what she considered to be an "elevating" framework of meaningful public interaction with planners. This framework includes "consultation" for what is arguably the first time in a planning context.


In this participatory ladder, each rung represents a degree of citizen power in influencing planning and policies, climbing the ladder led to more meaningful participation and greater public power sharing. The ladder depicted eight rungs. "Manipulation" is at the bottom with "citizen control" at the top. Arnstein considered manipulation and therapy as a public-relations exercise and non-participation, while the tokenism of informing, consulting and placating (the next rungs) to be largely the domain used by planning authorities in attempting to fulfill their participation responsibilities while still maintaining the dominant power structure.

The top rungs represent a model where participants are able to establish a partnership and have the power to share decision-making responsibilities and finally to influence and control outcomes.

Despite its simplistic rationalisation, the paper has enjoyed considerable currency in the journals and academic writing right to the present. Indeed, it is a landmark paper. It is the first found to advance the idea of establishing a structured framework of engaging a community and using consultation within the planning/participatory framework of decision making. Many academic commentators have commented on its simplistic assumptions but it remains a damm good start.

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About the Author

Peter Henderson is conducting post graduate research into Community Consultation at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

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Feature: How to engage with citizens
University of the Sunshine Coast
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