Stakeholder engagement: Learning from Arnstein’s ladder and the IAP2 spectrum

By Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What can researchers interested in stakeholder engagement learn from two classic frameworks on citizen involvement in government decision making – Arnstein’s ladder and the IAP2 (International Association for Public Participation) spectrum of public participation?

Arnstein’s ladder

Sherry Arnstein (1969) developed an eight-rung ladder, shown in the figure below, to illustrate that there are significant gradations of citizen participation in government decision making.

The two bottom rungs are manipulation and therapy. Manipulation refers to putting citizens on “rubberstamp advisory committees or advisory boards” (p. 218) to “educate” them or engineer their support. Therapy involves changing the citizen view of the problem.

Arnstein’s ladder: Eight levels of citizen participation in government decision making (Arnstein, 1969; Figure provided by Katrin Prager)

Informing, consultation and placation are weak forms of participation, and may be tokenistic, especially if genuine participation is promised. Although informing and consultation (which often occurs through surveys, meetings and hearings) are first steps in genuine participation, they do not constitute this on their own. At a minimum, there needs to be assurance that concerns and views expressed will be taken into account. Placation involves working with “a few handpicked ‘worthy’” (p. 220) citizens, who are not accountable to the broader citizen group. They have neither the numbers nor the legitimacy to actually wield influence.

Partnership, delegated power and citizen control constitute genuine participation, involving power sharing and joint decision making.

Partnership involves shared planning and decision-making responsibilities through agreed structures and ground rules that are not subject to unilateral change. To be effective requires an organised powerbase in the community to which the citizen representatives are accountable.

Delegated power occurs where citizens have dominant decision-making authority over a particular plan or program and can assure that it is accountable to them. They often start the process of engagement with government, rather than waiting for government to approach them.

Citizen control exists when there is a “degree of power (or control) which guarantees that participants or residents can govern a program or an institution, be in full charge of policy and managerial aspects, and be able to negotiate the conditions under which “outsiders” may change them” (p. 223).

Writing in the late 1960s in the USA, Arnstein was particularly concerned with the relationship between participation and power, especially for what she calls the “have-nots”. She explained (p. 216): “Participation of the governed in their government is, in theory, the cornerstone of democracy – a revered idea that is vigorously applauded by virtually everyone. The applause is reduced to polite handclaps, however, when this principle is advocated by the have-not blacks, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Indians, Eskimos, and whites. And when the have-nots define participation as redistribution of power, the American consensus on the fundamental principle explodes into many shades of outright racial, ethnic, ideological, and political opposition.”

IAP2 (International Association for Public Participation) spectrum of public participation

A key resource developed by the International Association for Public Participation, a non-profit organization focused on professional development, is the IAP2 spectrum of public participation illustrated in the figure below.

The spectrum describes five levels of participation: inform, consult, involve, collaborate and empower. It differs from Arnstein’s ladder in recognising that “differing levels of participation are legitimate and depend on the goals, time frames, resources, and levels of concern in the decision to be made” ( It seeks to ensure genuine rather than token participation, by adding a “promise to the public” for each type of participation.

The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) spectrum of public participation. Source: International Association for Public Participation (2018).

Learning from these frameworks in research

Both of these frameworks have influenced researchers who engage stakeholders. I have developed a framework specifically for stakeholder engagement, which draws on both, but especially the IAP2 spectrum. The i2S Stakeholder Engagement Options Framework, shown in the figure below, summarises the five options for stakeholder participation and the related promises to stakeholders. It adopts two particularly powerful ideas from the IAP2 spectrum: the legitimacy of different levels of participation depending on the circumstances, and the imperative to report back to stakeholders about how their contributions have been used.

i2S Stakeholder Engagement Options Framework (modified from the IAP2 (International Association for Public Participation) public participation spectrum) (Bammer, 2021)

Because the i2S Stakeholder Engagement Options Framework aims to improve researcher practice, it pays little attention to the tokenistic forms of engagement highlighted by Arnstein’s ladder. Drawing on the IAP2 spectrum, it seeks to overcome these by the “promise made to stakeholders by researchers.” It is worth asking: Is this enough? Do stakeholders need a framework specifically to help them assess whether the invitation to participate in research is genuine and not tokenistic?

At the other end of Arnstein’s ladder and the IAP2 spectrum are community control and empowerment. In a research context this generally plays out as stakeholders undertaking the research themselves, with the researchers playing a supportive, and often largely technical, role. It is worth asking: When is such stakeholder control most appropriate?

Arnstein’s ladder, the IAP2 spectrum and the i2S framework include “partnership” or “collaborate.” In the last few years there has been growing emphasis on co-production, co-creation, co-innovation, co-design and related co-terms. It is worth asking: Are these adding anything useful to the practice of stakeholder engagement?

Your responses to the questions posed above are welcome. In addition, have you been influenced by Arnstein’s ladder and/or the IAP2 spectrum of public participation? Can you see value in the i2S stakeholder engagement options framework? What else do you think is needed to ensure that stakeholder engagement in research is effective and respectful?


Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Planning Association, 35, 4: 216-224.

International Association for Public Participation (IAP2). (2018). IAP2 public participation spectrum. (Online): (PDF 160KB).

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is Professor of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra. i2S provides theory and methods for tackling complex societal and environmental problems, especially for synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change.

11 thoughts on “Stakeholder engagement: Learning from Arnstein’s ladder and the IAP2 spectrum”

  1. As a visiting fellow contracted to conduct an institution-level study at a very young university, I find Stefan’s points very vivid, especially those regarding bandwidth and resource. I can clearly see my approach shifted from “Collaborate” to “Involve”. This is a very useful framework!

    • Thanks – nicely done with great explanations. One of the things i2Insights aims to do is to share useful tools such as this with a wider audience. Thanks for alerting readers to it – it’s a bit tricky to find and behind a paywall, but well worth it. And, of course, a blog post on this framework would be very welcome.

  2. Thank you, Gabriele, for putting this together. We were indeed influenced to a large extent by both. Based on our experience in transdisciplinary research, we have added two small but important nuances: 1) Most of the time these ladders are understood as a kind of “the higher the better”, but this is not accurate, as IAP itself explicitly writes – it depends on “the goals, time frames, resources, etc.” and, more importantly, 2) we have added a more dynamic perspective: In the course of a project these levels can and will change, levels are dynamic over time.

  3. Thanks for this great overview Gabriele! The question of power, and especially the power relations in the broader social context are so interesting and important. Thanks for sharing Arnstein’s quote on that. I do believe that question of power and redistribution of power is essential. It seems to me that one of the challenges of participation is that the answer to power and genuine participation lies in broader societal transformation of power relations – something that gets ‘scoped out’ of just about any singular project.

  4. Thanks for this article and reflections Gabriele. Few thoughts here!

    I’ve worked with both frameworks for many years, in both public participation roles for an environmental regulator in government, and in research. One important thing I think your discussion is missing, and which I’ve heard argued about a lot inside government at least, is that there are times when citizens legitimately don’t want to have a great deal of control (and responsibility), and they just want powerful public decision makers to ‘do their job’ (i.e. be trustworthy to make good decisions in the public interest), and not be captured by vested interests. However, acknowledging this also requires recognising that genuine participation, higher up the spectrum/ladder, is quite resource intensive, and that not-for-profit organisations and volunteers will always struggle to engage as fully as people with resources, and expert PR support (including the ability to manufacture astro-turf grass roots movements). Of course, government can budget to try to offset this, and support advocates etc, but its not easy or common.

    I wonder if there is a parallel for researchers too – for instance in a recent research co-design process, a number of community and NGO groups couldn’t participate because we couldn’t offset their time costs, whereas people employed from a range of government and other organisations could. Important lesson for next time. Similarly, when I conduct scoping interviews on a topic, its always relatively easy to book in a chat with a paid representative of an organisation, whereas people without that kind of support can be harder to reach.

    Another related thought is that in behaviour change research, we are often dealing with actions that people in principle agree they should do, but in practice don’t. Nudge theorists call this ‘liberal paternalism’ but I imagine many people familiar with Arnstein’s ladder would be tempted to define this as ‘manipulation’ (although again, the claim to ethical legitimacy in nudge is that its helping people exercise expressed preferences). I do think think its true that there are a wide range of pro-social and pro-future self behaviours that people in principle agree with, but what is needed to help them enact is not participatory dialogue and engagement, but rather redesigning prompts and resources in their physical and social environments so the ‘right’ thing to do is also the ‘easy’ thing to do. This is especially the case when people only have a limited budget of worry and attention for different issues, and thus can’t engage deeply with every topic and area where participatory and transformative research approaches might be desirable to the researchers. Is it reasonable, and feasible, to expect transdisciplinary transformation on every topic of interest to researchers if the researchers step back the further up the scale. When and how do researchers need to seek endorsement and consent to represent in their research instead?

    Taking a behaviour focus also means you can quickly accommodate pluralistic values that may be quite different, but motivate the same behaviour, whereas you could argue that community empowerment is going to require some level of conflict and consensus (that may be healthy) but may also be a lot more uncertain and slow. (I.e. compare someone who installs solar panels and gets an EV because of climate change, versus someone who sees it as good value for money, or someone else who wants to be energy secure and ‘off grid’, not dependent on foreign oil companies nor their own government). It has been argued by amplifying whatever values ‘work’ as a pathway to behaviour change, you may ‘win the battle, but lose the war’, but I don’t know if that is true in every case. i.e. Is there an implicit communitarian, solidarity and social consensus bias behind research approaches that emphasise participation and dialogue? (Fully acknowledging that many researchers would see this as compensating/offseting a dominant culture of libertarian, atomistic and polarised public life, and behavioural public policy also). Worth thinking about at least!

    • Great points, Stefan. One of the things I like about the IAP2 spectrum is that it recognises that the resources aren’t always there for full engagement and that you can choose an option accordingly. I suggest that it’s really important for researchers (which is my focus) to be clear about what they are doing – so if it’s informing, don’t pretend it’s co-production.

      Your point about asymmetry in ability to participate is also important and there’s growing attention to providing funding for the stakeholders who need this. And indeed money isn’t the only factor, so is time.

      And I agree that choice architecture or nudge theory raises important issues – often forgotten is that there will be some choice architecture in place, so we might as well choose the one that’s least harmful.

      All of this reminds us that none of this is easy – thanks again for you comment which really highlights this.

  5. I found the IAP2 spectrum a great entry point into thinking about participation and engagement. There is a lot to learn about in this field. Thanks for the helpful summary.


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