Sally Hussey at BangTheTable: “Last year, Sherry R. Arnstein’s “A Ladder of Citizen Participation” celebrated its 50th anniversary. Originally published in the Journal of American Planning Association (JAPA) and one of its most cited articles to date, the longevity and impact of Arnstein’s Ladder can be recognised in the emergence of 60 public participation models since its inception.
Yet, Arnstein’s vision from 50 years ago bridges decades in more ways than one. Not only through its dynamic iteration in the history of public engagement frameworks and practices. Indeed, it provides a foundation for many of the central concepts that shape public engagement research and practice today. For just as current public participation spectrums continue to engender the work of shifting power in public decision-making – central to Arnstein’s vision – they also open out onto theories, methods and ideas that exist between the spectra.
But the inception of Arnstein’s Ladder in 1969 coincided with a shift in focus of the role of ‘citizens’, or public, and the conception of ‘participation’. Published at a “major inflection point” in the United States, with the Civil Rights Revolution, Vietnam war protests, the devastation of urban renewal, urban riots (Watts Riots and Newark Riots, for instance) and the increasing awareness of global environmental and ecological disasters, it demarcates the shift in the activation of citizens. Outgoing JAPA editor, Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Texas, Austin, Sandra Rosenbloom recently notes: “One result of the tumultuous events and major societal changes challenging the country at that time was a greater focus on the role of citizens in determining their own destiny and that of the neighborhoods and communities in which they lived. Citizen participation became both a duty and a rallying cry, but one that Arnstein viewed with great scepticism.”
While, in some countries, terminology has evolved to address exclusivity and divisive categorisation in the shift to from ‘citizen participation’ to ‘public engagement’, the link to contemporaneous challenges is evident in the need for people to determine their own destiny – to have their say – cutting across major changes posed by Black Lives Matter, climate chaos and increasing inequity resulting from population densification and urbanisation – not to mention the coronavirus pandemic that, in forcing a reset, prioritises equity considerations for marginalised and other equity-seeking groups and renewed efforts at fortifying community resilience. With democracy in crisis, public participation, it can be argued, has again become a “rallying cry” as governments scramble to connect to a disconnected public and, in a wake-up call to correct the balance of widespread mistrust, strive towards transparency, increased trust and legitimisation of public decisions.
As democratic societies across the globe increasingly commit to collaborative governance, public participation has thereby emerged as a rich arena. This includes the “deliberative wave” that has gained ground since 2010 that seeks ongoing, continuous and open dialogue and engagement between the public and public decision-makers. The recent focus on democratic innovations as a result of increased digitisation, too, emphasises a concern for the deepening of public participation in decision-making, where inclusive online engagement is one of the ways in which governments can engage communities. For benefits of online public engagement include improved governance, greater social cohesion, informed decision-making, community ownership, better responsiveness and transparency as well as increasing legitimacy of public decision-making.
Grounded in the democratic notion that public decisions should be shaped by people and communities affected by those decisions, public participation models have emerged not only to better map engagement in practice and theory but to ensure that people can shape decisions that affect their everyday lives….(More)”.