[Third in a series of posts presenting our “Participation Schemas”. The first post was: “Open Government beyond open data and transparency” and the second “Characterizing Collaborative Participation”]
What? Intensity of collaboration
This first dimension is based on Arnstein’s ladder  and describes the various levels of ‘collaborative intensity’ exercised in a participatory process. It runs from the levels of Manipulation and Information, through Consultation and Advice, up to the levels of Collaboration, Delegated power and Delegated control. We have grouped these levels within the categories of Non-Participation, Consultative –or ‘innocuous’– Participation and Collaborative Participation, also adding a category of Conflict underneath.
Before explaining these categories we have to highlight something important: the use of Participation Schemas demands a critical and penetrant attitude to evaluate participatory processes. The statements and the intentions of the promoters of a participation initiative cannot simply be assumed as valid. A cautious analysis needs to be conduted to expose in the Participation Schema not just the ‘ideal that was aimed for’ but rather its actual practical realization. We must thus assess the extent to which participatory institutions really work and to what extent they fulfill their attributions. One participatory institution that, in practice, does not work should be considered as Non-participation or as one of the ‘Innocuous participation’ types, regardless of the characteristics attributed to them on paper or in official speeches.
Since participation processes are complex phenomena, it is often not possible to comprise them within a single level of collaborative intensity. The Participation Schemas indicate the maximum and minimum intensity levels that encompass the various collaborative intensities that are present in the participatory process.
Category 0: Non-ParticipationThis class aggregates in a single level, named ‘Manipulation’, two of the levels of Arnstein’s model: ‘Manipulation’, which corresponds to the gross deception of the public, and ‘Therapy’, which represents a type manipulation that seeks to soothe participants and adjust their attitudes.
This level is characterized by the manipulative intent of the participatory activities, which aim to keep people calm, docile and give them the impression that they are being heard… when in fact there is no intention to take their proposals seriously, except where it fits within the plans of the decision maker. With different levels of sophistication, many administrative participation spaces are designed by decision makers in a way that gives them control over the space, as a way to promote their own political agenda [2 & 3]. These spaces are thus used to ratify decisions that have been already taken, meet legal requirements, etc. Unfortunately, much of the political participation taking place nowadays is of this type.
Category -1: Conflict
Under the ‘Non-Participation’ category there is a category named ‘Conflict’. The inclusion of this category contributes to overcome one of the most important limitations of Arnstein’s model, namely that it only considers ‘Administrative participation’, the participation spaces organized by the government or, more generally, by the decision maker. By considering conflict levels, the Participation Schemas can encompass more easily the so-called ‘Autonomous participation’, which is spontaneously initiated by those affected or interested in a decision or problem. This way, Participation Schemas integrate perspectives coming from the community organization field  and establish a model that covers both ‘invited’, top-down organized participation spaces, along with the bottom-up ‘invented’ participatory spaces [5 & 6].
The ‘Conflict’ category represents negative levels of collaboration, characterized by mutual opposition and pressures. The category is divided into two levels: the highest is called ‘Legitimate Coercion’ and refers to those cases in which, without fundamentally violating the established legal frameworks, citizens use every means at their disposal to force the recognition of their demands. These actions run from the friendliest ‘persuasion’ up to real adversarial coercion, passing through various levels of ‘pressure’ . The actions are carried out through different strategies such as demonstrations, lobbying of all kinds, boycotts, nonviolent civic resistance and even civil disobedience. In many cases these strategies are the only recourse available to civil society –or specific minorities within it– to claim for their rights, especially when governments fail to offer channels of communication, dialogue and collaboration that allow an institutional channeling of the conflicts. Citizens become aware that existing participatory venues are not satisfactory and decide to show their discontent through the most diverse ways. Examples of these dynamics are provided by citizen movements as ‘Occupy’ o the ‘15M’ movement in Spain.
The lowest level is named‘Illegal Duress’ and refers to a much harsher situation. These are cases where the conflict escalates and strongly violate fundamental rights. They correspond to the cases of non-peaceful demonstrations, violent sabotage, kidnappings and even armed resistance. At first glance it may seem strange that this level is introduced as part of a scale that measures the intensity of collaboration of participatory activities. However, it is even more surprising that the literature on participation has generally ignored ‘conflict’ as part of its field of study, because the ultimate reason to create participatory mechanisms is precisely to prevent and avoid violent confrontations.
The most extreme cases of ‘Illegal Duress’ refer to those situations where the inability to establish viable negotiation channels degenerates into violent or even bloody conflict. As the the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”. Accordingly, when there are no real channels of expression, communication and participation which allow canalizing conflicts by other means, and instead tyranny and oppression reign, citizens are entitled to “recourse to rebellion”. Unfortunately, situations like those described may cause an escalation of mutual aggressions that finally leads to a real armed conflict, a scene of violence that exceeds the analytical capacity of our model.
Category 1: Consultative or Innoquous Participation
This category includes the levels of ‘Information’, ‘Consultation’ and ‘Advice’ and reflects the traditional participation levels by which a decision-maker convenes people to communicate and eventually improve his decisions. The category broadly corresponds to the levels proposed by the OECD  to characterize public participation in general, although they refer to the highest level with the ambiguous term ‘Active participation’ [9:41-44].
It also corresponds to what Arnstein named, somewhat pejoratively, ‘Token Participation’. This name is consistent with Arnstein’s strong normative bias, which led her to suggest that the higher the level, the higher the rung in the stair, the better would also be the participation. According to this view, it seems that ‘citizen control’ should ideally be applied in all cases, that participation is optimal when administrations step back and confer the decision-making powers upon the “citizens”. This approach is clearly wrong because public authorities can not abandom their role as guarantor of the ‘general interest’ and the rights of minorities. In fact, what determines which level of Collaborative Intensity is the most suitable in each case are the particular circumstances in which the participatory experience is developed (eg: the type of issue being decided, the characteristics of citizens involved, the political situation, etc.). There are times when a “consultation”, if done correctly and ethically, is the most appropriate participatory approach, and others cases when appropriate advisory linkages or even delegation of power are needed.
This is why Participation Schemas refer to this category as ‘Consultative or innoquous participation’, a term that describes much better and in a more substantive way what kind of participation is involved: precisely that in which the decision-maker requests information, opinions, visions from affected and interested stakeholders, but retains the ability to finally make the decision he considers appropriate. In a way it is a: “First you give me your opinion and I willl decide afterwards”, with all the good and bad subsequent effects. How much consideration is given to the visions and opinions expressed through participatory mechanisms depends entirely on the will of the decision maker, being this arbitrariness the reason why Arnstein named it ‘token participation’.
As noted before, this category consists of three different levels. The ‘Information’ level refers to the case where the government or decision maker provides citizens with some -or even a lot of- information about what they are doing or plan to do. Note that this level is already a significant improvement over the previous level, ‘Manipulation’. The level of ‘Consultation’, meanwhile, refers to the case where communication channels such as surveys, focus groups, etc. are created, which allow decision makers to receive some kind of feedback from the public about the public policies or decisions. Finally, the level of ‘Advice’ goes a little further and allows citizens, their associations and other groups to present their concerns and/or suggestions as part of a conversation.
Category 2: Collaborative Participation
At the upper end of this dimension lies the category ‘Collaborative Participation’ which corresponds to Arnstein’s somewhat ambiguous category ‘Citizen Power’. Our new name provides more descriptive value because this category essentially refers to a type of participation which is based on trust and collaboration. Its levels are ‘Collaboration’, ‘Delegated power’ and ‘Delegated control’, with increasing degrees of collaboration.
Arnstein named the highest level of this category ‘Citizen Control’. It referred to cases in which the authorities leave in the hands of citizens a majority of the votes for final decision-making. However, equating votes to control is, however, somewhat naive: participatory institutions rarely make decisions by using voting processes that can be considered reliable and, in any case, citizens are not a homogeneous group that is willing or able to defends citizens’ interests against other competing ones. In fact, it is normal that citizens that show up in participatory institution have links with political parties and governmental bodies and are therefore very much influenced by them . It may thus be that even in cases where, theoretically, all votes are given to citizen representatives public authorities still wield a firm and effective control of the participatory mechanism and the decisions made in it, as is frequently the case of Participatory Budgeting initiatives. Therefore, it makes little sense to talk of citizen control except in ‘autonomous’ participatory initiatives, which are initiated and driven by citizens themselves.
In Participatory Schemas the ‘Delegate Control’ level refers to cases where a participatory institution has been granted control over decision-making for a certain area or subject. The decision-maker maintains the responsibility of monitoring those decisions and could take the control back when, exceptionally, it would be required to safeguard the public interest. In general, however, the decision-maker would accept the agreements and resuls of collaborative participation. Such participation does not imply that public authorities ignore their responsibility to orientate policies, but rather that they choose to develop them through collaboration with other stakeholders. It should be noted that decision-makers are normally involved in the participatory institution and play a leading role in it, so they can convey their perspectives and defend both their interests and the general interest.
The next level is called ‘Delegated Power’ and applies to collaborative scenarios with lower levels of delegation and autonomy. It refers to those cases where the participatory institution is attributed just a limited and restricted set of ‘powers’. This way, it is possible to specify with more precission its responsibilities and capacities, and to introduce safeguard mechanisms, as the possibility of veto, review of decisions, etc.
Finally, the lowest level in this category is called ‘Collaboration’. In this case, while there is no explicit delegation of powers on the collaborative institution, the decision-making capacity is implicitly or explicitly shared according to principles and practices of ‘honest cooperation’ among participants, assuming that all of them work together to find and develop the best solutions. It is thus understood that the agreements and outcomes resulting from this cooperation should necessarily influence, in a meaningful way, the final decisions of the decision maker, as well as the actions of other participants.
[Continue reading next post: “Participation Schemas: Dimensions WHO, WHEN & WHERE” ]
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