As you may know by now, “citizen participation” refers to the process of allowing citizens to participate in the public decision-making process.
When it comes to citizen participation, the government usually decides the extent to which citizens’ opinions will be taken into account. After all, not all types of participation are created equal. (There’s lots of different ways to get citizens to participate, and you’re sure to find a method that suits you).
The level of participation is inherently linked to the amount of trust between citizens and their governments. The more citizens are asked (and trusted) to participate, the more trust they’ll have in the administration’s legitimacy and ability to make decisions in the name of the common good. On the other hand, the higher levels of the participation ladder are also harder to organise. While the lower levels are usually associated with methods that draw mass participation with minimal engagement (such as voting or commenting), higher levels of participation offer more in-depth and thus smaller-scale participation, such as a citizens’ assembly.
Opinion-maker Stephen Boucher believes that citizen participation can only ever move forward, and that starting with the lowest levels of participation will eventually help you to move higher up the ladder:
Once implemented, citizen consultation is a process that can only move forward and there is no turning back once the movement is launched. Take the city of Paris: citizen consultation started on a small scale with open forums and suggestion boxes, before moving on larger and more meaningful participation processes such as participatory budgets and the funding of crowd-sourced citizen projects. This forward dynamic is inherent to the promise of consultation.Stephen Boucher
It’s our goal to make the highest levels of participation just as inclusive and large-scale as the lowest levels usually are, and that’s where digital tools can make a big difference. But first, let’s explore the five different levels of citizen participation a bit more in-depth, and find out what they can look like in the digital era.
What? This is the lowest level of citizen participation. At the information level, the administration keeps the public informed of its rights and responsibilities and commits to providing citizens with relevant information. Besides, it also means that the administration informs its citizens about decisions that have been taken, which strengthens the public understanding. One could argue that this level has the primary goal of creating public awareness.
How? This communication is traditionally done through press, pamphlets, posters, and websites. In online world, this first level of participation often means that the administration posts relevant information to the city’s website.
Drawback? Merely informing citizens boils down to a unidirectional flow of information. There is no real way for citizens to negotiate or provide feedback. Besides, the provided information is often not in-depth enough, which ultimately doesn’t stimulate trust or encourages citizens to engage. In order to build trust, a more participative process is recommended.
Example? The French municipality of Rueil-Malmaison used its participation platform to inform the community about business and isolation measures during the COVID-19 lockdown.
What? Beyond informing the public, the administration can also ask for its feedback on certain decisions and policies. In this case, citizens may feel as if their opinion is heard and valued. Unfortunately, it is hard to measure to which extent citizens’ views are actually taken into account. Consultation can be a valuable tool if citizens’ feedback leads to actionable to-dos and policy changes. If not, it’s little more than a smokescreen to validate decisions.
How? Consulting citizens can be done through ideation projects, surveys, offline neighbourhood meetings, public hearings and focus groups. In the digital era, citizen consultation means that citizens at least have access to an online platform to communicate their ideas. The most basic type of online consultation is the launch of a survey.
Drawback? The main disadvantage of this method is a lack of certainty that citizens will eventually be able influence decision-making. Too often, the effectiveness of citizen consultations is still measured by the number of citizens coming to town hall meetings or filling in hard-to-find questionnaires. This way, it’s harder for cities to reach certain social groups, such as young people or people with busy schedules.
Example? The Belgian city of Kortrijk launched an unprecedented digital referendum to consult its inhabitants on the implementation of a monthly car-free Sunday. It’s important to note that this was preceded by a thorough information phase to make sure that citizens could make well-considered decisions.
What? Involvement means that citizens have a bigger impact on public decision-making. In this third stage, the public has more of a say in the final decision, but ultimately the government still decides how they’ll take citizens’ advice into consideration. Nevertheless, when it comes to involvement, citizens’ voices are being heard and taken into account by the government.
How? Involving citizens can be done through boards, advisory or planning committees, and (online) workshops. In the digital era, involving citizens goes beyond merely consulting their opinion; i.e. it establishes a two-directional way of participation. Often, a voting mechanism is used to let citizens assess the ideas of their peers.
Drawback? At this level, the power still lies with the government. Even though they are taking citizens’ ideas into account, the government can always contest to their feasibility and decide not to implement them.
Example? A good example of the involvement phase is the participatory budget. Allowing citizens to allocate (a part of) the city budget is a great way to involve them in decision-making and build more trust, legitimacy and transparency.
What? At this degree of participation, the power is shared between the government and the public as if they were partners. The administration and its citizens collaborate on feasible solutions and co-create the city they live and work in. From planning to implementation, both parties work together and take decisions based on opinions and advices from both sides.
How? This form of participation can be organised through joint policy boards, citizen advisory committees or online participation platforms. In comparison to involvement, a collaboration between citizens and their administration includes the possibility for citizens to offer feedback on each others’ ideas. Citizens can post ideas, offer feedback on the ideas of their peers, and even the administration can offer its feedback on those shared ideas. This might seem like tedious task at the beginning, but with a tool like the CitizenLab platform, most of this process can be automated.
Drawback? The more opinions to take into account, the slower the decision-making process can move forward. An online participation platform can be a great way to process large numbers of diverse ideas in a resource-efficient way.
Example? The Austrian city of Linz launched a citizen proposals feature, which allows citizens to share their ideas with the city at any time, on any given topic.
What? The highest level of citizen participation occurs when the final responsibility for decision-making lies with citizens, rather than the government. In this scenario, citizens have a veto right, which means that the administration is required to implement the citizens’ decisions.
How? Citizen juries, ballots and delegated decisions are popular ways to empower citizens. From an online perspective, the empowerment of citizens is action-oriented and offers them the opportunity to start executing.
Drawbacks? Empowerment represents the highest possible level of citizen participation, but it is rarely reached. In practice, a lot of resources are required to be able to put such an extensive form of participation in place.
Example? The highest level of participation is found in the citizens’ assembly, a method of in-depth consultation that is often deemed to be “the future of participation.”
The 5 levels of participation each have their own purpose and strengths. And while we should always strive to rank as high on the participation ladder as possible, a truly great participation project combines different levels and participation methods on one platform.
Citizen participation made easy
Citizen participation can be implemented at various levels, and with different aims and outcomes. An effective citizen participation process is designed to strengthen trust between citizens and their administration, and is therefore beneficial for both sides. Curious to see how participation could work in your community? Get in touch!
Sources: E-Participation Index by UNPACS (2014), IAP2 Spectrum of Participation, Ladder of Citizen Participation by Arnstein (1969)