Or more accurately, is the Spectrum of Participation an intellectual zombie – a model that stays alive despite being functionally useless?

For those of you not familiar with the Spectrum of Participation, it’s the central conceptual framework for community consultation in planning, especially in local government. It’s so central to thinking about planning that it’s almost impossible to contemplate community consultation without invoking the Spectrum.

But here’s the problem. I just reviewed a host of contemporary community consultation methods (to make an slide show for a new training workshop). No matter how much I bent the definitions, I couldn’t make what we actually DO in community consultation fit the Spectrum.

Here, item by item, is the problem:

INFORM: “To provide the public with…information…”

Er yes, we always communicate. Yet disseminating information alone can’t, by definition, be a form of consultation. And communication is, yes, inevitable. So having an INFORM level is kind of superfluous. The only reason for including it in the Spectrum is to make the point that it’s never enough by itself. In that case, why is it ON the Spectrum?

(There is an amazingly tense and fraught, and ultimately funny, LinkedIn thread where engagement consultant Brett Sangster innocently asked the question “Is ‘inform a legitimate level of ‘engagement’?” and prompted, so far, 327 comments, revealing a chaos of diasagreement on this question amongst engagement professionals.)

CONSULT: “To obtain public feedback…”.

Yes, that sounds exactly like what community consultation does and is. And, despite all sorts of attempts to push the boundaries, that’s where the great majority of community consultation efforts, and platforms, continue to lie. The reason being that’s all most authorities want or have time for. And, mostly, all that the public have time for as well. (Many of the really interesting innovations in community consultation are about mobile-enabled ‘1 minute consultations’, where the effort demanded from the public matches their actual level of interest. Those are definitely on the CONSULT level.)

INVOLVE: “To work directly with the public…”

Ah. This is the level I enjoy. Sitting down with people face-to-face. People can learn, and alter their positions, and relationships can be made, creating the possibility of trust. However it’s very hard to initiate this level, for the reason that most planning processes are so conventional, dull and irrelevant that it’s impossible to get citizens to give up their time. And fair enough too. If the issue is a ‘hot’ one, however, it’s easy to fill a workshop, and workshopping is infinitely better than the blood sport of public meetings. I personally think this is an area where we can do with a lot more fun and innovation.

COLLABORATE: “To partner with the public…”.

Here’s where the Spectrum floats away into fantasy. In principle, it’d be nice to partner with the public. However, partnering is about equivalence of power. And there is a immense disparity of power in plan-making that makes ‘collaborate’ only ever an aspiration. A nice one, but, sorry, the final decision is always with the power-holder, and it would be ridiculous, and disingenuous, to pretend it’s anywhere else.

Also, looking at real life examples, I really can’t distinguish Involve and Collaborate in the field. They end up being kind of the same thing: basically a group of people being workshopped by a facilitator, who occasionally allows them to influence the process.

(OK, I know of a couple of examples approaching partnership, but they are in only after near-death experiences by public agencies. They are exceptions that prove the rule.)

EMPOWER: “We will implement what you decide…”

This is where the Spectrum gets completely silly. In our society, power is not relinquished. The perceived risks for authorities are too great. I can see it’s nice to have there, like a glowing light on the hill, but when I train public officials I face a seemless wall of scepticism and self-doubt about this level. If I am being realistic it’s not a serious option. I suspect it’s just there as a fossil from Sherry Arnstein’s original 1969 Ladder of Citizen Participation. It’s neat. I can see it looks right. But it’s not the job of government to hand complete power to citizens. It’s not even a good idea most of the time. When agencies have ceded power, it’s almost always when citizens force their way onto the table, and even then it’s grudging and temporary. Take Landcare as an example: it looks like empowerment, but the funding schemes are withdrawn at a whim, and action is so mired in paperwork and accountability that it wears down active citizenship.

In summary:  3 of the 5 levels in the Spectrum do seem to have conceptual or reality problems. They don’t seem to make sense as intellectual categories either because they can’t be implemented or, in the case, of INFORM, aren’t actually a category of consultation. With this in mind, perhaps it would be more rational to have a Spectrum of Consultation with just two components:


I think that would be a much closer simulation of reality.

WHAT’S MISSING: Just listening

Interestingly, there’s a whole class of community engagement that’s absent from the Spectrum. It could be the most important kind of all.

Most of our public organisations have lost contact with their publics. They suffer from Chronic Engagement Deficit Disorder (CEDD) which cannot be solved by yet more formal and structured engagement processes. Exactly the opposite is required: engaging tactics that make possible just plain listening, where agency staff meet citizens without an agenda, and hear from each other as human beings.

Check out this video from Wyndham City Council. They call it a ‘listening post’ but really, it’s a ‘pop-up council’. You can see lots of different formal consultation processes under way in a central public space, combined with music, food and something for the kids, but what’s also happening is LISTENING WITHOUT AN AGENDA. Just getting the council managers, executives, the CEO, the Mayor and councillors, out of their offices and meeting rooms, and LISTENING to citizens, one-on-one.

I watched one of Wyndham’s council executives reporting on this experience in an internal forum, and his body language said it all. He was frankly delighted, and bubbling to express his appreciation of the process. For him it was a revelation. I would even say that CEDD is a disorder that public officials are hungry to have relieved.

Of course, such a tactic (actually any successful community engagement) depends on a commitment to hear. And that depends on one thing that isn’t measured in formal models: genuine curiosity.

With this in mind, I want to propose an alternative spectrum to help organisations decide on their community engagement tactics: the Curiosity-ometer.

The idea is: before any community consultation, honestly answer this question: “Where are you on the spectrum between ‘endorsement seeking’ and ‘open-mindedness’?” Being bracingly honest about this might reduce a lot of the wasted effort and conflict around community consultation.