What is the Spectrum of Public Participation?

The Spectrum of Public Participation was developed by the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) to help clarify the role of the public (or community) in planning and decision-making, and how much influence the community has over planning or decision-making processes. It identifies five levels of public participation (or community engagement).

The further to the right on the Spectrum, the more influence the community has over decisions, and each level can be appropriate depending on the context. It is important to recognise they are levels; not steps.

For each level it articulates the public participation goal and the promise to the public.


  • Public participation goal: To provide the public with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problem, alternatives, opportunities and/or solutions.
  • Promise to the public: We will keep you informed.

Community engagement is a two-way process, which means that the first level of the Spectrum, Inform, is not really community engagement because it only involves a one-way flow of information. The US Environment Protection Agency suggests that:

The Inform level of public participation does not actually provide the opportunity for public participation at all, but rather provides the public with the information they need to understand the agency decision-making process. This level is on the Spectrum to remind agencies that sometimes there is no opportunity for the public to influence decision-making and simply informing them is the appropriate activity. When you conduct the “inform” level of public participation, it is important to recognize that you are not trying to persuade or manipulate the public in any way. As such, the inform level is not the same as a public relations campaign. Rather, the inform level of public participation requires the agency to serve as an honest broker of information, giving the public what they need to fully understand the project and decision and to reach their own conclusions as to the appropriateness and adequacy of the decision.

In some ways it would be better if Inform was not a separate level of the Spectrum but its inclusion serves as a reminder that information is an important foundation for community engagement. Some practitioners and writers suggest that the Inform level should be placed across the Spectrum (e.g., above or below it) to demonstrate that “effective engagement with stakeholders at all levels on the Spectrum requires a strategic flow of information”.

Despite it not being community engagement, the Inform level can be quite appropriate in many situations including letting people know about changes to legislation, health promotion messages (e.g., this great video likening sexual consent to drinking tea) or informing people about benefits they might be entitled to.


  • Public participation goal: To obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives and/or decisions.
  • Promise to the public: We will keep you informed, listen to and acknowledge concerns and aspirations, and provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision. We will seek your feedback on drafts and proposals.

Consult is quite a low level of community engagement being “the basic minimum opportunity for public input to a decision”. Essentially it involves obtaining feedback about plans, ideas, options or issues, but with little interaction. The promise is to “listen and acknowledge” issues raised, but not necessarily to act on them.

At this level it is particularly important to be quite clear about the focus of the consultation and what is not negotiable. Consult can involve little interaction (e.g., surveys or written submissions) or it can be more interactive (e.g., focus groups, public meetings). Consult largely involves one-way communication – feedback from the community – although there is still an element of two-way communication through the promise to “provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision”.

Consult is particularly appropriate when there is little passion or complexity in relation to an issue and can be useful for obtaining feedback about a draft plan or for canvasing a range of views early in a longer planning process. For example, Newcastle Regional Libraries are beginning a strategic planning process and are consulting with a range of stake holders. The purpose of this stage of the process is to identify potential issues needing to be considered in order to guide the next stages of the planning (which will involve more collaborative processes).


  • Public participation goal: To work directly with the public throughout the process to ensure that public concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered.
  • Promise to the public: We will work with you to ensure that your concerns and aspirations are directly reflected in the alternatives developed and provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision.

At the Involve level, the community is invited into the process to a greater extent than with Consult. As can be seen, the goal is to work with the public throughout the process: it is not a one-off. While the promise implies that issues raised should be taken into account, decisions at this level are generally made by the organisation or department rather than the public.

Again it is important to be clear about what is negotiable and that the decision-making will not be made by the community. The higher level of participation required by the public, means this level can be appropriate when people are have some investment in an issue, but it is not very controversial nor has major implications for other people.


  • Public participation goal: To partner with the public in each aspect of the decision including the development of alternatives and the identification of the preferred solution.
  • Promise to the public: We will work together with you to formulate solutions and incorporate your advice and recommendations into the decisions to the maximum extent possible.

The Collaborate level is about partnership and sharing power. The promise sets high expectations as it promises to incorporate advice and recommendations “to the maximum extent possible.” It implies an interactive process with an emphasis on two-way processes.

While decision-making still lies with the organisation or department, there is much greater input from the community. Creating the trust needed and ensuring there is genuine engagement can be costly and time-consuming.

Because of the high level of participation, it is particularly useful for controversial issues and complex problems. There can be risks involved in processes at this level. If the promise is seen as being broken (e.g., if members of a community cannot agree of ways forward, or if some sections of the community feel their views were not taken into account), trust can be broken and future relationships with key stakeholders can be significantly damaged.

Collaborate requires interactive processes where there can be opportunities to explore issues in some depth. For example a design charrette:

Is an intensive planning session where citizens, designers and others collaborate on a vision for development. It provides a forum for ideas and offers the unique advantage of giving immediate feedback to the designers. More importantly, it allows everyone who participates to be a mutual author of the plan. (The Town Paper)


  • Public participation goal: To place final decision-making in the hands of the public.
  • Promise to the public: We will implement what you decide.

The Empower level places the final decision-making in the hands of the public. It does not necessarily mean it is the highest level of community engagement. Whereas Collaborate requires a high level of community engagement, Empower does not necessarily require the same degree of community engagement. At this level, a decision could be made by the community through a process that requires little interaction or engagement (e.g., a referendum).

If we adopt bottom up approaches to working with communities and are committed to social justice, however, the Empower level still implies interaction and engagement. It also requires us to ensure that those effected by decisions can have input into the process.

Government bodies can be reluctant to establish processes at this level because of a perception that they “are not permitted to delegate their decision-making authority to the public”. For example the City of Newcastle states:

In local government the elected Council is responsible for making policy, strategic and budget decisions. As such, empower has limited application and refers to community development and community capacity building initiatives whereby Council provides opportunities and resources for communities to contribute their skills and talents.

Likewise, the Local Government Association of South Australia explains:

Under the Local Government Act 1999, the only decision-making power which is likely to be placed in the hands of the public is that of electing Council Members every 4 years. The Act empowers an elected Council in South Australia to make policy, strategic and budget decision except where delegated to staff, a committee, or a subsidiary, but delegations for decision-making cannot be made to the public. 

As Carson argues, however, that the promise of the Empower level is not about statutory authority but a promise to “implement what you decide”. Responsibility for the decision can still lie with the elected body while honouring the promise. She gives the example of “a state government minister who has allowed the affected community to make controversial land-use planning decisions and promised to implement their decision”.

Empower implies that this process is in relationship to significant issues. Providing people with the opportunity to make decisions about minor issues is not necessarily an example of operating at this level (e.g., giving people the power to decide whether they pay with cash or a credit card is not operating at the Empower level).

It is also important to recognise the Empower is used in a specific way in the Spectrum and is not the same as empowerment. Empowerment, in the broader sense, is the “ongoing capacity of individuals or groups to act on their own behalf to achieve a greater measure of control over their lives and destinies”. Empowerment (helping people to take control of their lives), can occur in many different ways and in many different contexts, and thus has a much richer meaning than the manner in which Empower (placing the final decision in the hands of the public) is used in the Spectrum.

Using the Spectrum of Public Participation

Many practitioners and organisations find the Spectrum very helpful. The IAP2 claims that the Spectrum is “quickly becoming an international standard” and, while this claim is partly marketing, it certainly has some validity in some sectors. In Australia, the Spectrum forms a basis for many state and federal government guides to community engagement (e.g., Department Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Department of Primary Industries) local government community engagement plans (e.g., City of Newcastle, Latrobe City and the Local Government Association of South Australia) and a range of other organisations (e.g., Australian Water Recycling Centre of Excellence and Trinity Grammar School).

While not as widely used in other parts of the world, it is still relevant and has been used in a range of contexts (e.g., The United States Environmental Protection Agency [4], the British Forestry Commission and Vancouver’s Engage City Task Force).

Example tools

Prior to 2014, the Spectrum of Public Participation included example tools for each level: Inform (fact sheets, web sites, open houses), Consult (public comment, focus groups, surveys, public meetings), Involve (workshops, deliberate polling), Collaborate (citizen advisory committees, consensus-building, participatory decision-making) and Empower (citizen juries, ballots, delegated decisions).

The example tools were removed to prevent people picking a tool and assuming this meant they were operating at that level. How a tool is used is just as important, if not more so, than what tool is selected. If a citizen advisory committee is quite tokenistic and does not really play a meaningful role in decision-making then it is not operating at the Collaborate level. The goal and promise to the public are what determine the level; not the tools used.

Many tools can also be used for more than one level (for example workshops can be used at consult, involve, collaborate and empower) and omitting the tools from the current Spectrum helps to remove some of this confusion.

Selecting a level

The Spectrum is not a flow chart. They are not steps in a process – starting on the left and working to the right – so selecting a level needs to be based on the specific context.

Higher levels are not necessarily “better”. If an issue is not controversial and does not provoke passionate feelings, a lower level maybe more appropriate, but for issues which are complex and controversial, it can save time in the long run to choose a higher level.

Sarno and the United States Environmental Protection Agency [4] suggest that the central question is “How much potential influence on the decision or action are you willing to provide to the public?” While this is a very important question, it is also important to consider how much influence the community wants to have, and potential consequences of selecting various levels. As Hardy [7] argues:

The level often needs to be negotiated, and communities have shown that they can challenge the level of engagement, especially when particular stakeholder groups have been overlooked in the process.

Selecting a level of participation does not mean that the level cannot change, (e.g., it might be discovered that an issue was more controversial than thought, and so a higher level might be adopted) nor is the selected level the only one that can be used. It can be quite appropriate to provide ways of engaging the community at lower levels than the level selected. For example, some people may not have the time and energy to participate in day long workshop held at the Collaborate level, but might still want to have the opportunity to contribute their ideas.

The level is only part of the picture
Community engagement needs to have strong ethical base. Selecting appropriate levels is important but the way we engage the community and who we engage are also vitally important.

The Spectrum of Public Participation is underpinned by seven values:

Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.
Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision.
Public participation promotes sustainable decisions by recognizing and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including decision makers.
Public participation seeks out and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision.
Public participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.
Public participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.
Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision. (IAP2)

The IAP2 also collaborated with the National Coalition for Dialogue and the Co-Intelligence Institute to develop seven core principles for public engagement:

Careful planning and preparation: Through adequate and inclusive planning, ensure that the design, organization, and convening of the process serve both a clearly defined purpose and the needs of the participants.

Inclusion and demographic diversity: Equitably incorporate diverse people, voices, ideas, and information to lay the groundwork for quality outcomes and democratic legitimacy.

Collaboration and shared purpose: Support and encourage participants, government and community institutions, and others to work together to advance the common good.

Openness and learning: Help all involved listen to each other, explore new ideas unconstrained by predetermined outcomes, learn and apply information in ways that generate new options, and rigorously evaluate public engagement activities for effectiveness.

Transparency and trust: Be clear and open about the process, and provide a public record of the organizers, sponsors, outcomes, and range of views and ideas expressed.
Impact and action: Ensure each participatory effort has real potential to make a difference, and that participants are aware of that potential.

Sustained engagement and participatory culture: Promote a culture of participation with programs and institutions that support ongoing quality public engagement.

These types of values and principles need to guide our work. In particular it is important to consider who is involved in processes. Ensuring that the people affected by decisions are engaged, including developing specific strategies for engaging people who are often excluded or are challenging to engage, are essential in designing community engagement.


Since Arnstein proposed a ladder of citizen participation, almost 50 years ago (ranging from manipulation and therapy, to delegated power and citizen control) there have been a number of attempts to classify levels of community engagement. The Spectrum of Public Participation is one of the best attempts so far. A recent version includes some little graphics which help to differentiate the levels. While they are unable to capture the full complexity of the spectrum, they are a nice update.

The Spectrum is a useful tool in thinking about, and planning, community engagement that has helped many practitioners in a wide range of contexts. Although there are examples where it has been used poorly, it provides a valuable starting place and can, in fact, be used to challenge poor community engagement practice.

Source: Sustaining Community