The end of Tokenism
If consultation standards have risen, who should take the credit?
This is a Summary of Rhion Jones’ address to the LG Comms conference in Manchester on November 6th
Back in 1969, an American academic called Sherry Arnstein published a Ladder of Participation which, to our dismay, has been taught in colleges and universities to this day. She was a respected, left-leaning, American academic who, in retrospect, produced work that captured her distaste for corporate power and suspicions of municipal and federal governments. She dismissed consultation as ‘tokenistic’, a label that has stuck in the minds of many critics and which has regularly led to calls to abandon what many people came to regard as an ineffective form of citizen participation in favour of something more concrete.
The trouble is, those alternatives are themselves hugely problematic. The Arnstein Ladder itself talks of placation, partnership and delegated power before ascending to the dizzy heights of citizen control. We have consistently preferred a more recent adaptation of Arnstein by David Wilcox in 1994, which recognises that one can go beyond consultation by deciding together, acting together and ultimately supporting other organisations to which power has effectively been delegated. All these models can, under certain circumstances, work effectively, so there is no objection in principle to any of them. Our problem was that branding all consultation as tokenistic was a gross insult to hundreds of professional policy and communications staff throughout the UK public service. If ever consultations were tokenistic (and some undoubtedly were) – they are not now!