How engaged should your stakeholders be? Or how engaged do you want them to be? In an ideal world the answer to both questions should be the same, but to even deliver a meaningful answer to these questions needs a frame of measurement. This post uses ideas from 1969 to propose this framework!
In July 1969, Sherry R. Arnstein published ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation’ in the A.I.P Journal looking at citizen participation and the consequential citizen power over a range of USA government initiatives designed to enhance the lives of disadvantaged people in US cities. The typology of participation proposed by Arnstein can be transposed to the modern era to offer a framework for discussing how engaged in your project, or program, your stakeholders should be in actively contributing to the management and governance of the work they are supposed to benefit from.
Modern paradigms such as ‘the wisdom of crowds’, ‘user participation in Agile teams’ and ‘stakeholder theory’ all lean strongly towards stakeholder ownership of the initiative designed to benefit them. These views are contrasted by concepts such as technical competence, intellectual property rights, confidentiality and the ‘iron triangle’ of commercial reality (often backed up by contractual constraints).
The debate about how much control your stakeholders should have over the work, and how engaged they should be in the work, is for another place and time – there is probably no ‘universally correct’ answer to these questions. But it is difficult to even start discussing these questions if you don’t have a meaningful measure to compare options against.
Arnstein’s paper is founded on the proposition that meaningful ‘citizen participation’ is ‘citizen power’ but also recognises there is a critical difference between going through empty rituals of participation and having real power to affect the outcome of a process. This poster was from the May 1968 student uprising in Paris, for those of us who can’t remember French verbs, translated it says: I participate; you participate; he participates; we participate; you (plural) participate; …… they profit. The difference between citizen participation in matters of community improvement and stakeholder participation in a project is that whilst civil participation probably should mean civil control, this same clear delineation does not apply to stakeholder engagement in projects. The decision to involve stakeholders in a project or program is very much open to interpretation as to the best level of involvement or engagement. However, the ladder of engagement proposed by Arnstein can easily be adapted to the requirement of providing a framework to use when discussing what is an appropriate degree of involvement for stakeholders in your project or program.
There are eight rungs in Arnstein’s ladder; starting from the bottom:
- Manipulation: stakeholders are placed on rubberstamp advisory committees or invited to participate in surveys, provide feedback, or are given other activities to perform which create an illusion of engagement but nobody takes very much notice of the information provided. The purpose of this type of engagement is primarily focused on making the stakeholders feel engaged rather than using the engagement to influence decisions and outcomes. The benefits can be reduced stakeholder opposition, at least in the short-term, but there is very little real value created to enhance the overall outcomes of the project.
- Therapy: this level of stakeholder engagement involves engaging stakeholders in extensive activities related to the project but with a view to changing the stakeholder’s view of the work whilst minimising their actual ability to create change. Helping the stakeholders adjust to the values of the project may not be the best solution in the longer term but every organisational change management guideline (including our White Paper) advocates this type of engagement to sell the benefits the project or program has been created to deliver.
- Informing: informing stakeholders of their rights, responsibilities, and/or options, can be the first step towards effective stakeholder participation in the project and its outcomes. However too frequently the emphasis is placed on a one-way flow of information from the project to the stakeholders. Particularly when this information is provided at a late stage, stakeholders have little opportunity to contribute to the project that is supposed to be delivering benefits for them. Distributing information is a key stakeholder engagement activity (see the Three Types of Stakeholder Communication) but there have to be mechanisms for effective feedback for this process to maximise its potential value.
- Consultation: inviting stakeholder’s opinions, like informing them, can be a legitimate step towards their full participation. But if the consultation is not combined with other modes of participation this rung of the ladder is still a sham, it offers no assurance that the stakeholder concerns and ideas will be taken into account. Effective participation includes providing stakeholders with a degree of control over the consultation processes as well as full insight as to how their inputs are considered and used. In the long run window dressing participation helps no one.
- Placation: at this level stakeholders have some degree of influence although tokenism is still potentially involved. Simply including stakeholders in processes such as focus groups or oversight committees where they do not have power, or are trained not to exercise power, gives the appearance of stakeholder engagement without any of the benefits.
- Partnership: at this level power is genuinely redistributed and the stakeholders work with the project team to achieve an outcome that is beneficial to all. Power-sharing may seem risky all but if the right stakeholders with a genuine interest in the outcome are encouraged to work with the technical delivery team to constructively enhance the project’s outcomes (which is implicit in a partnership) everyone potentially benefits.
- Delegated power: In many aspects of projects and programs, particularly those associated with implementation, rollout, and/or organisational change, delegating management authority to key stakeholder groups has the potential to significantly improve outcomes. These groups do need support, training, and governance, but concepts such as self-managed work teams demonstrate the value of the model.
- Stakeholder control: In one respect stakeholders do control projects and programs but this group tends to be a small management elite fulfilling roles such as sponsors, steering committees, etc. Genuine stakeholder control expands this narrow group to include many more affected stakeholders. Particularly social projects, where the purpose of the project is to benefit stakeholders, can demonstratively be improved by involving the people project disposed to help. But even technical projects can benefit from the wisdom of crowds.
In summary, the framework looks like this:
The biggest difference between the scenario discussed in the original paper and stakeholder engagement around projects and programs is the fact that different stakeholders very often need quite different engagement approaches to optimise project outcomes. Arnstein’s 1969 paper argued in favour of citizen participation as a single entity and the benefits progressing up the ladder towards its control. In a project situation it is probably more sensible to look at different groups of stakeholders and then assess where on the ladder you would like to see that group functioning. Some groups may only need relatively low levels of information to be adequately managed. Others may well contribute best in positions of control or at least where their advice is actively sought and used.
Do you think this framework is helpful in advancing conversations around stakeholder engagement in your project?
 Arnstein, S.R. AIP Journal July 1969 pp:216 – 223. A Ladder of Citizen Participation.
 The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, published in 2004, is a book written by James Surowiecki about the aggregation of information in groups, resulting in decisions that, he argues, are often better than could have been made by any single member of the group.