Citizen participation refers to the process during which citizens are given the opportunity to participate in the public decision-making process. The government can decide to what extent the citizen’s opinion will be taken into account. In this article, we explore the five different levels of citizen participation and ask ourselves the question: “how do they look like in the digital era?”.

Although one might think that citizen participation is a time-consuming and expensive activity, it has a lot of very beneficial sides that overpower the downsides. A high level of citizen participation can provide more ideas on public issues, public support for decisions and therefore avoidance of conflicts. Besides that, more trust and cooperation can be created between the government and the public through civic participation.

1. Inform

What? This is the lowest level of citizen participation. At this level, the government keeps the public informed of their rights and responsibilities. It also provides them objective information and informs them about decisions that have been made in order to strengthen the public understanding. Oneinforming could state that this level has the goal of creating public awareness.

How? Communication is done through the media, pamphlets, posters, and websites.

Drawback? Merely informing the citizens boils down to a unidirectional flow of information. There is no channel for feedback, nor negotiation for the public. Besides, the quality of the information provided is often of a low quality and superficial, which doesn’t encourage citizen participation in the end.

And in the digital era? In the online world, informing goes hand in hand with having a city website online on which citizens can stay informed. But it stops there.

2. Consult

What? Beyond informing the public, the government can also ask for feedback. The citizen’s opinion is valued. This is unfortunately often used as a smokescreen in order to keep the citizens happy while their opinion is not actually taken into

How? Consulting the citizens can be done via surveys, offline neighbourhood meetings, public hearings and focus groups.

Drawback? The main disadvantage of this method is the lack of certainty that the citizens will eventually influence the decision. The effectiveness of consulting citizens’ opinion is regularly measured by the number of citizens coming to town hall meetings or filling in a hard-to-find questionnaire. As a city, the scope of citizens you’re reaching out to is limited this way (younger and busier people are often missed out on using consultations). Also, a citizen can submit idea, but who will ever know how its idea is processed in this black box?

And in the digital era? Your residents have at least access to communicate their ideas digitally, in one way or another. The most basic degree of consulting is that they can fill in a form on the city’s website.

3. Involve

What? The influence of the citizen’s opinion is higher at this level. The public has more say in the decision, but ultimately the government decides how to take into consideration the advice. Nevertheless, citizens’ voices are heard and taken into account by the government.involving

How? Involving citizens can be done through boards, advisory or planning committees, and workshops.

Drawback? At this level, the power stays with the government. Even though they are taking into account citizens’ ideas, the government can always contest its feasibility and decide not to implement them.

And in the digital era? Involving citizens goes beyond merely consulting their opinion; i.e. a two-directional way of engagement is established. Often times, a voting mechanism is used to let other citizens assess the ideas of citizens.

4. Collaborate

What? At this degree of participation, the power is shared between the government and the public as if they were partners. Namely, they collaborate on feasible solutions. The planning and decision-making is acted upon together in order to take into account both opinions and advices to come to a final decision.collaborating

How? This form of participation can be undertaken via joint policy boards, citizen advisory committees or online participation platforms.

Drawback? More opinions to take into account can slow down the decision-making process. Yet, there are many (online) means available to process the rich diversity of ideas in an resource-efficient way.

And in the digital era? In comparison to the involvement level, a collaboration between citizens and (city) government encompasses the possibility to give feedback to each others’ ideas. In the first place, citizens can discuss the ideas of fellow ideas. Next to that, the government gives feedback to the ideas of citizens. Although this might seem a tedious task at the beginning, most of it can be automated if using the right tool.

5. Empower

What? The highest level of citizen participation is when the citizen has the dominant decision over the government. Citizen have the veto right. Therefore, the government will have to implement the decision of the citizens.empowerment

How? Citizen juries, ballots and delegated decisions are means to empower the citizens.

Drawbacks? Level 5 represents the highest possible level of citizen participation, but it is rarely reached. This is often due to the extensive number of resources that is needed to put such a form of participation in place.

And in the digital era? From an online perspective, the empowerment of citizens is action-oriented and gives them the means to start executing.

Citizen participation made easy

Citizen participation can be implemented at various levels and with various means. An effective citizen participation process would benefit both the government and the citizens. In other words, there isn’t such a thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. Nevertheless, it is clear that, thanks to digital solutions available today, governments are more and more providing their citizens toolkits to voice their opinions and get them engaged.
Sources: E-Participation Index by UNPACS (2014), IAP2 Spectrum of Participation, Ladder of Citizen Participation by Arnstein (1969)

  • andrew

    Arnsteins Ladder or IAP2 spectrum? We must remember the IAP2 spectrum is not a continuum and levels can be used at any stage of a well planned community engagement process.

    • Wietse Van Ransbeeck

      You’re right Andrew — it’s indeed based on the IAP2 spectrum. I’ll change it in the sources.

      Also totally agreed with your comment about the fact that it’s definitely not a continuum and that every stage might require a different engagement level.