Earlier this month I shared some thoughts on 5 ways to improve citizen engagement. After writing that post and all the great conversation, I decided to take a step back and reflect back on the levels of citizen engagement. I was reminded of some literature I had read by Sherry Arnstein on the various “rungs” of citizen engagement. Arnstein published the theory in 1969, and although the way that government engages with citizens has drastically changed due to changes in technology, Arnstein’s “Eight Rungs on a Ladder of Citizen Participation,” are still applicable today, and fascinating to consider.
Below is an image showing the eight rungs of citizen participation. At the bottom, Arnstein describes therapy and manipulation as forms on non-participation, followed by informing, consultation, placation, as “degree of tokenism” and finally, partnership, delegated power, citizen control as “degree of citizen power.”
On rungs 1 and 2, Arnstein defines as manipulation and therapy as nonparticipation in terms of citizen engagement. Manipulation and therapy are used here as ways to describe government attempting to push an agenda, initiatives, or use influence to build support for an idea, in some cases not taking into consideration what is best for the community; therefore, not actually constituting genuine citizen participation.
Arnstein’s rungs 3-5, describe instances when citizens are provided access to one-way communication (informing), given surveys or have opportunities to attend hearings (consultation), or sit on planning boards with limited authority (placation). Like rungs 1 and 2, citizens are not actually given any kind of authoritative power by government, and although citizen participation is occurring at a higher level, it is still not completely genuine in terms of engagement.
Rungs 6-8 are examples of when power is shared by government and citizens, equal representation on boards with decision making authority (partnerships), real authority to make decisions in community (delegated power) and the highest rung in which residents hold final authority of decisions (citizen control).
The steps are really interesting to consider, and put into context why often a citizen engagement initiatives may fail. When citizens are aware that the engagement initiatives are occurring on the lowest rungs, they have every right to lose trust in government, and not see government as representative to their needs as citizens. To build upon my previous post, How Can We Improve Citizen Engagement Initiatives? Here’s 5 Ways, one way to climb up the rungs of the citizen engagement ladder is for agencies to create and use multiple channels of communication. By doing so, agencies can work to improve the reach, effectiveness, and efficiency of their communications programs. Further, multiple channels allow agencies to build trust, support, and show accountability for actions.
A multi-channel approach means leveraging a variety of digital and traditional channels to maximize reach and awareness for citizens. There is social media, email, telephone, fax, and the mail. With all these different kinds of channels, government needs to think very carefully on how to best engage, reach the broadest audience, and share important resources to inform citizens how to engage with government. To fully leverage all these tools, agencies must focus on the right data, metrics, and use cases to know that the strategy is working - and they are helping to improve the quality of service provided to citizens.
Arnstein’s literature is an interesting look at citizen engagement. What became clear is that when I was reading the essay, elements of generational differences became pretty apparent, as Arnstein seems to suggest that citizens and bureaucrats are placed at odds, and are battling over power. Yet, today, the way government engages with citizens is radically different than it was in the 1960’s. The efforts for a more collaborative and transparent government have shifted how government engages with citizens, and has allowed government and citizens to work cooperatively to improve services. This is clearly represented with efforts to have a two-way discussion with citizens through a multi-channel approach. With that being said, I do believe that Arnstein's ladder has significant value for the way we define citizen participation, and is a great starting point for our discussion on citizen engagement.
How does government improve engagement and move up the ladder to steps of partnership, delegated power and citizen control? Should government?
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