The term “participation” of citizens or stakeholders is often used without attention to the requisite of distributing citizens’ or communities’ power in relation to decision-making authorities. Non-participation is the way of power holders claiming inclusion of people without any real objective of enabling stakeholder participation.
The need to redistribute decision-making power through a participatory model led Susan Arnstein to propose a ladder of participation with eight levels of citizen/stakeholder engagement. Added here is also the level of Exclusion, which is the absence strategy, method, mechanism or practice of engaging stakeholders concerned or affected by official decisions, plans, programs and projects. Taking levels 1 through 8 as progressive steps, they redistribute decision-making power more equitably and, thereby, operationalize the principle of greater participation = greater dignity for all parties.
In the context of UN Habitat planning and operations or SDG and NUA implementation, monitoring and evaluation, often political and ideological agendas may operate, even when not immediately apparent. Sensitivities between and among parties make it important to understand the motives of power-holders and include stakeholders in genuine participation in order to succeed in executing the complex tasks and commitments set out in global policy frameworks.
The various levels of participation include:
8. Democratic control: Stakeholders have the final decision-making power over planning not the officials.
7. Delegation: Powerholders negotiate with stakeholders, not the other way around. Sometimes in hostile environments, parallel community groups can be formed with veto rights and negotiation between the groups facilitated.
6. Partnership: Power is distributed between powerholders and stakeholders by negotiation through structures such as joint policy boards, advisory councils and planning committees. Power structures inside the community of concerned parties are transparent and well-functioning, and communities are supported with economic means for leaders to cover the expenses of the community’s own agents and representatives (technicians, lawyers, and community organizers and leaders).
5. Placation: Concerned parties are included in planning by having representatives on planning committees. Positive results are achieved when adequate technical assistance and community coherence are present to advocate priorities. However, the final right to decision making over plans, policies and programs remains at the official level.
4. Consultation: Sounding out concerned parties, as through surveys, meetings and public hearings, is crucial for planning, but is combined with other forms of participation to ensure that the information gathered truly reflects the needs and priorities of stakeholders and is used in the decision making.
3. Informing: Knowledge sharing with stakeholders on rights, responsibilities and options enables participatory planning, but is not limited to merely producing and publishing information. Instead, dissemination becomes a channel of interaction and negotiation in an early planning stage when stakeholders still have the possibility to influence decisions and outcomes.
2. Therapy: Participation is transferred to group therapy, taking the focus away from important matters related to community and stakeholder planning.
1. Manipulation: Concerned parties are placed in forums such as advisory committees to “prove people’s involvement in a program,” but without any real power to influence.
0. Exclusion: The absence of a strategy, mechanism or facility for stakeholder engagement or participation.
*Stakeholder participation: Stakeholders are able to negotiate with decision makers and have real influence on planning, policies and programmes.
**Tokenism: Stakeholders are allowed to access information and express their views, however, without any guarantee that the voice of concerned parties will be considered in the plans.
***Nonparticipation: Stakeholders have no substantive role or formal channel in influencing decisions or corresponding actions that affect them.