Eight levels of public participation

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These levels have been based on Sherry Arnstein’s “ladder of citizen participation” [1], which is a useful theory to describe the level of public participation and clearly shows the difference between actual optimal participation and something that might appear to be public participation but is no more than a masquerade. However, it has been brought more up-to-date with less subjective language.

Her ladder illustrates the so-called “power” and “powerlessness” of people. It has 8 rungs with each one “corresponding to the extent of citizens’ power in determining the end product” viz.


This is the bottom rung of the ladder of citizens’ participation and is therefore the lowest form of public participation and might therefore also be called “non-participation”. This is a form of participation where the public and the observer is “manipulated” into thinking that public participation is in progress. This can take place in several ways like at meetings of Citizen Advisory Committees where the officials influenced the citizens instead of the other way around. Also, sometimes certain “advisory groups” are set up in a neighbourhood by Community Action Agencies that want to demonstrate their goodwill for the poor by actually letting them speak. This is often used when a certain organisation has to prove that “real people” are involved in a project which is not even discussed with these people. The people are not informed and when asked to sign their name for a noble project, they undoubtedly will. Often these “noble projects” have nothing to do with helping less fortunate groups of people and more with the (business) interests of officials.


In order to illustrate this level of participation Arnstein uses a rather shocking example. One might even argue to put therapy at the bottom of the ladder because it is “both dishonest and arrogant”. Arnstein writes about a father that takes his baby to the emergency room in a local hospital, a young resident doctor advises him to take the baby home and feed it sugar water. That very same afternoon the baby dies as a result of dehydration and pneumonia. The father went to the local community to complain and when they should have started an investigation of hospital procedures to limit similar situations in the future, the local community invited the father to some type of child-care education sessions and promised him that someone would make a phone call to the hospital to make sure that it would never happen again. This is of course a very dramatic example of therapy but there are many more ways of “shushing” people, just assuming that because they have no power that they are mentally ill. That is why this form of participation is called therapy, putting the citizens to work to change themselves rather than giving them a say in procedures.


As has already been mentioned several times, informing and creating awareness is a very important step towards public participation, without it, true public participation cannot take place. One also needs to keep in mind that it is a two-way process; not only do citizens learn about coastal issues, officials can also learn from citizens. Regional citizens’ organisations and groups often know much more about the problems and issues in their own coastal region because they are actually living there and can provide firsthand information. Next, it is important that the public is informed at an early stage because if they do not know about projects and plans on time, it makes it harder to truly get involved and exercise influence. Means of one way communication are the media, pamphlets, posters, responses to inquiries and in some cases the internet. Drawbacks of this level of participation are low quality of the information or superficial information. If the citizen is not properly informed then they cannot truly participate.


This level is easiest described as “inviting citizens’ opinions and therefore “consulting” the citizen in the decision making or planning process. This is, just like informing, a valid step towards full participation but when not combined with other forms of participation it is simply not enough. Just by consulting the public, there is no guarantee that “citizen concerns and ideas will be taken into account”. Means of consultation are attitude surveys, neighbourhood meetings and public hearings. One should be careful that a useful activity like consultation is not used in the wrong way; namely to show that full participation is taking place.


At this level citizens actually begin to have some influence, though usually in far from optimal situations. Usually there is much tokenism apparent in placation and the most important problem is that there are often no rules or guidelines about citizen participation, which makes it easier for officials and the private sector to take the upperhand. For placation the “informing” and “consultation” rung are of course very important. One of the examples Arnstein uses to illustrate placation is participation in Model Cities advisory and planning committees. Here the citizens get to advise and even to plan a great deal but it is the power holder that finally gets to decide whether to even take these ideas into account or not. The level to which citizens are placated depends on 2 things: “the quality of technical assistance they have in articulating their priorities; and the extent to which the community has been organized to press for those priorities”. Obviously technical resources for citizens and officials have improved and expanded a great deal over the past decades, this makes it easier for both parties to acquire and organize information and action.


Partnerships are pretty common among ICM projects, especially in the UK. In a partnership, the power is shared by “negotiation between citizens and stakeholders”. Planning and decision making tasks are carried out through bodies like “joint policy boards”, “planning committees” and other mechanisms that might enforce such a partnership. They work best with an “organized power base” in the region or community where meetings can be held, finances can be taken care off and where the group can do business with its employees (lawyers, technicians etc.). So the key to effective partnership is definitely a good organization and planning. The Sefton Coast Partnership for example evolved from several partner organisations with an interest in the coast. The Partnership has established a forum which represents all interests in the coastal region.

However, there are limits to what can be devolved down to local communities in the absence of structure, guidelines, funding or supervision provided by state actors. A case study by McGinlay et al. (2021[2]) of the Coastal Partnership East initiative (grouping local authorities of Great Yarmouth Borough with North Norfolk, Suffolk Coastal and Waveney District Councils) revealed that it is unrealistic that responsibility for problems such as flood defence, involving complex trade-offs; issues of public safety and public expenditure; and protection of natural assets be devolved comprehensively to local communities without substantial co-leadership. The following issues were identified:

  • Decisions made regarding flood defence initiatives may be perceived by local people to lack legitimacy without transparent co-led processes involving a broad range of actors in the local community and state bodies;
  • Disagreements may dissolve into intractable disputes that damage project credibility and hamper or even paralyze practical progress if there is no independent arbiter involved in project planning and decision-making;
  • Without compensation schemes that acknowledge that any flood defence plan will mean some local people lose out, some are likely to vigorously resist change, hampering progress;
  • There is a concern regarding inter-generational equity so that current generations do not deflect costs onto later generations, for whom costs may be higher and decisions more difficult.
  • Links between the local scale and the national and international policy scales are not ensured, to facilitate a broader sense of vision for future landscapes.

Delegated power

In this very advanced level of citizen participation, the public has the dominant decision making authority in a plan or program. This happens on not very many occasions and requires a number of very dedicated citizens. It can also be that there are two groups, one power-holder group and one public group. When decisions cannot be made through negotiations between the groups, the citizens often hold the right to veto. One might describe this level of participation as a level of very high cooperation where citizens are granted much authority. It is safe to say that there are virtually no examples of delegated power in coastal management projects.

Citizen control

First of all, it needs to be noted that no one has the absolute control so citizens do not either. However, this is the highest form of authority that citizens may achieve and it means that they are in full charge of a policy or plan and that they are “able to negotiate the conditions under which ‘outsiders’ may change them.” A very common example is a neighbourhood corporation without intermediaries and its own source of finances. No examples of citizens’ control are known in coastal management. This level of participation again requires citizens that are very willing to engage themselves and spend much time and efforts in such activities. There are several drawbacks to full citizen control: it might support separatism and hostility against public services, it costs more money and is usually less efficient and it might enable the wrong people to have too much power. Besides all those arguments, citizen control is not a professional way of dealing with things but in some cases it might work and it is the only way to give full power to the “powerless”.

Arnstein also says that even 8 rungs is not enough to accurately differentiate between the levels of participation because there are many more distinctions between the way people participate in policy and programmes.

See also


  1. Sherry Arnstein’s “ladder of citizen participation”
  2. McGinlay, J., Jones, N., Clark, J. and Maguire-Rajpaul, V.A. 2021. Retreating coastline, retreating government? Managing sea level rise in an age of austerity. Ocean and Coastal Management 204, 105458

The main author of this article is Kreiken, Wouter
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Kreiken, Wouter (2021): Eight levels of public participation. Available from http://www.coastalwiki.org/wiki/Eight_levels_of_public_participation [accessed on 14-07-2024]