Today would be a good day to walk under Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation.

I had a dream this week about Sherry Arnstein’s ‘Ladder of Citizen Participation.’ As you do.

Her ladder stood in a puddle of salty tears. It’s top disappeared into the clouds. Like the ladder in ‘Reach for the Sky.’ I had reached the rung labelled ‘Consultation.’ For weeks I had been waiting there, with no prospect of moving on up. So I began to walk back down again. As I did so, half-asleep, I was buzzed acrobatically by plane loads of happy, smiley faces soaring high.

There are many reasons to celebrate Sherry Arnstein and her work in the late sixties. Not least because she was a public servant seeking to understand and help others make sense of the world around her with new insights. It’s a far cry from the cynical image of public servants that today’s politicians would like us to hold.

But today her ‘Ladder of Participation’ – as it is shortened too in common parlance (does that make it a step-ladder I ask?) – is still considered by some to be a rule book to be followed like a religion. Or a superstition not to be crossed without consequences akin to a dressing down by Marcus Wareing.

Earlier this week I was a judge for some ‘engagement’ awards. The organisers had briefed the judges well. But I was interested that they had included Arnstein’s ladder in our packs. When it came to our task of judging and scoring, one of my fellow judges not familiar with ‘our world’ asked of the rungs on the ladder ‘where does one end and the other begin?’ You may well ask, I thought.

As my colleague had discovered, this public partnership we were examining was more sherry trifle than ladder. Every layer oozed and flowed into the other. And it was all the more tasty because of it. In fact, had our applicants followed Arnstein’s laws we might have ended up with a great many horrendous ‘deconstructed’ dishes you see on Masterchef. There are only so many raw sponge fingers even I will eat.

Yes, I felt like saying to the panel holding aloft said pudding, our work with the public is no trifling matter. It Is best served as a dish composed of a large dollop of public involvement cream, a Sherry glass of participation and a beautiful jelly of engagement. Although each will have their own recipe for Sherry Trifle which works for their community’s palate.

Arnstein was trying to provide a narrative on a particular phenomena she was observing. It is of its time and should be read in such a way. With respect but not worship.

The world around us is changing fast and is most certainly more complex and messy than ever before. It requires a different response and different behaviours from us.
Some ambitious people will be brave enough I am sure to develop ladders or their equivalent for our age. Good luck to them. I hope they succeed.

But for the rest of us, it will be good enough for us to have the courage to walk under the ladder.

Have a great weekend.

2 thoughts on “Today would be a good day to walk under Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation.

  1. I agree with Derek Stewart in that the ladder works better as a horizontal spectrum taht you can slot into at any point – but this quotation is sadly as true now as it was in the 60’s:

    “The heated controversy over “citizen participation,” “citizen control,” and “maximum feasible involvement of the poor,” has been waged largely in terms of exacerbated rhetoric and misleading euphemisms. To encourage a more enlightened dialogue, a typology of citizen participation is offered… Because the question has been a bone of political contention, most of the answers have been purposely buried in innocuous euphemisms like “self-help” or “citizen involvement’”


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