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Degrees of Participation

Understanding the background and existing situation of various target audiences is vital for identifying the appropriate communication channels for communicating with them. It can often be a case of trial and error before the most efficient methods are identified, as different channels have different strengths and weaknesses. This is where testing and continuous evaluation are vital.

Depending on the purpose of the communication, multiple alternative communication channels may exist. Additionally, with social media and other online news outlets, there is a significant move away from one-way non-interactive communication to multiple more interactive modes of dialogue. Numerous efforts to classify these various methods have been undertaken in the last 50 years or more, the most useful being the so-called Arnstein Ladder, first developed in 1969, and which has been modified many times, for example as presented below:

Level of participation Examples of public participation tools
Interactive: Joint decision making Citizens’ juries
Interactive: Collaborate Citizens’ juries, scenario workshops, open-space conferences, citizen advisory groups/committees, group decision support, mediation forum, regional dialogue forum, local partnership, roundtables
Interactive: Consult/Exchange Interactive workshops, focus groups, delphi method, future workshops, group model building, working groups, consensus conferences, citizens’ panels, RISCOM Process, RISCOM Hearings, structured dialogue, foundation workshops, expert groups
Non-interactive: Listen Feedback channels, public comments, consultations, public meetings, surveys
Non-interactive: Inform Presentations, fact sheets, web sites, open houses, drop-in sessions

The non-interactive levels presented here are limited to one-way communication whereas the interactive levels comprise activities involving two-way communication. This results in different ways of organizing the participation, which can vary from simple to complex. Another difference between the levels concerns the frequency of participation activities. Some levels require continuous involvement so that the public can provide regular inputs whereas in other levels the public is not involved regularly but only at one time or on limited occasions. The higher up on the ladder a process or a tool is, the more active the participants become in terms of collaboration, and the more directly they may influence decision making. Stakeholders thus take on increased responsibility and accountability. This may be a motivating factor for some stakeholders who seek a high degree of influence on the planning or realisation of the respective project.

A useful tool for considering which activities are suitable for particular situations and audiences, and which takes into account issues such as frequency, likely size of audience and type of stakeholder, was developed as part of the EC (Implementing Public Participation Approaches in Radioactive Waste Disposal) project within the Seventh Euratom Research and Training Framework Programme (FP7) on Nuclear Energy of the European Commission (grant agreement number: 269849), and is available for free and unlimited use here.


In an era when information spreads quickly and often in an uncontrolled manner, timing makes the difference in winning allies or losing supporters.

For stakeholder engagement, it is crucial that the right people are involved early in the process. Communicators need to listen to different audiences to determine the degree to which they see themselves as stakeholders in a project. In addition, stakeholders’ concerns should be addressed early and constructively. Regular opportunities should be created for two-way communication with key stakeholders. It is important to have regular communication to keep stakeholders up to date.

Timing is particularly crucial when changes are underway. When situations are in flux, stakeholders may have greater uncertainty and look more actively for sources of accurate information.

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