Re-imagining the IAP2 Spectrum


For a LONG time, I’ve been working with, applying and thinking about the IAP2 Spectrum. It’s a powerful tool for public engagement, and has been a standard in the practice for 25 years. Built on a foundation of Arnstein’s Ladder, it can support understanding, provide focus to a process, build commitment, and clarify expectations.

I’ve been a licensed trainer of the IAP2 5 day Foundations in Public Participation training program since 2005, and an Assessor, Coach and Mentor for new candidate trainers in the program since 2011. Most of my public engagement practice has been in the realm of conflict, controversy and high emotion, and I’m constantly learning about what works (and what doesn’t!) in public engagement situations where the stakes are high.

I’ve been thinking about the IAP2 Spectrum…

I’ve been mulling over the writing of this blog for a long time, but was finally spurred to action by Max Hardy’s reflections on the IAP2 spectrum in his blog earlier this year. (Thanks Max for your awesome work!) If you haven’t read his blog, you should — it gives a great overview of what the IAP2 Spectrum can do, and some lessons learned in applying it.

As some background, in November 2013, I drafted a Blog about change, referencing some ways I thought the IAP2 Spectrum could be improved. I was pretty brief about the IAP2 Spectrum (and to be honest, a little flippant) and the blog was really about change not about the spectrum, but in that blog I stated that:

“The IAP2 spectrum needs to be re-thought because it is presented as if the decision-maker has the control, and that the Inform and Consult levels are irrelevant at best in our complex, controversial world, and at worst are part of the problem by contributing to polarization and conflict through suggestion that those levels are acceptable in situations where there may be an outcry to be heard, but that the organization doesn’t want or is unable to meet the demands. I think I probably also said that the “empower” level suggests that the organization or decision-maker has the ability to empower others, without considering that communities and individuals have power of their own that is not conferred on them by the decision-maker.”

Earlier that same year, I wrote a blog about some “myths” of public engagement, and specifically addressed the challenges of “setting clear expectations for involvement”, which the IAP2 Spectrum can sometimes (but not always) address. In a challenging way, the IAP2 Spectrum is frequently used as a tool to attempt to impose one organization’s expectations on participants — which isn’t the intent of the tool. You can review that blog from June 2013, and the comments about expectations are pasted here:

“We teach the IAP2 Certificate in Public Participation, and we teach advanced course in the field as well. We believe a meaningful engagement process creates an opportunity to be straight with participants about constraints, givens, challenges and limitations. It is important to clarify what is in your control and what is not. However, we have seen many times that what organizations and students in training take from this idea is that if they identify what they are not prepared to talk about or share influence or decision on and clearly communicate this to participants, that this will be accepted and everyone can move on and talk about the issues that are open for input.

The challenge with this thinking and presentation is that just because you have identified that the item is not in your control, or you are unable to allow for influence, or there are reasons why you are not prepared to engage on the item does not necessarily mean that this is acceptable to your participants, matches their desires, values or needs.

If your participants want to talk about an issue – and you don’t – you are going to talk about their issue until they are satisfied and ready to talk about your issue. There is an illusion of control in the suggestion that being clear about expectations means that people will accept those expectations. They might accept them if they meet their needs, values and motivations for participation. But if they don’t agree then they will want to talk about the issue, although you can always tell them no. That doesn’t mean they will hear you or stop talking about it. Just because you were clear about your expectations doesn’t mean you can tell other people what their expectations should be.”

In what ways might we re-imagine the IAP2 spectrum?

The world is different today than when the spectrum was created in the early 1990's. I think it might be time to re-imagine some new ways to enhance this important tool.

  • I agree wholeheartedly with Max’s eloquent description and explanation of the how the Spectrum works and the differences between the levels so I won’t repeat it here. He did a great job explaining the intent and goal of each level and the commitment to the public. He also explained how it isn’t a step by step approach, moving from left to right, and that a level on the right isn’t better than one on the left.
  • Many organizations have taken the IAP2 Spectrum, overlaid some different words for the levels and called it their own. Some have taken the IAP2 spectrum, adopted it as policy, but removed the “Empower” level. I’m not talking about that kind of re-imagining.

I’m talking about re-imagining this core tool of the public engagement practice so that it reflects a changing world, and supports practitioners, communities and organizations to keep commitments and engage meaningfully in inclusive, whole-hearted and appropriate ways.

I believe that when commitments are kept, and a process is meaningful, then trust is built with PARTICIPANTS. But not necessarily with the public at large, so watch out for who is NOT participating. Defining the levels of involvement needs to reflect EVERYONE. Choices about non-participation are not reflected in the spectrum, and who DOESN’T participate is often as powerful as who does.

I think that Collaborate is the most powerful level on the IAP2 Spectrum because it requires partnership, shared power, and commitment to creative problem solving. However…I think that collaborate is far more powerful, the higher the number of people who are involved in this way. In Max’s blog he suggests it is hard to collaborate with more than 15 people, but my experience is different. You can collaborate with hundreds and thousands of people — think large scale crowd sourcing, community wide visioning or planning, or any community based conflict transformation process. When you look at it from a community or grassroots perspective, collaborating with huge numbers of people is the basis of social change: look at Idle No More and any other protest or advocacy group that has made us think and act differently.

Now the Collaborate level can be complicated, time consuming and messy, especially with lots of people involved — but it is also powerful, transformative and deeply impacting. In my view, collaborate isn’t equal to small numbers of people, and because of that it presents huge opportunities to affect meaningful change.

The spectrum presents from the sponsor or decision-maker viewpoint. And frankly, this might work for the sponsor or decision-maker, but it is hugely challenging for many groups, communities and cultures.

It can create adversarial reactions where none were intended, by reinforcing inequality, or reinforcing systems of power based on position, influence, benefit or economics. It can be alienating and create disengagement of those already marginalized, by reinforcing a low level of influence or control on decision-making. It can deter participation when interpreted through the lens of history and colonialism. It often reinforces power imbalances that suggest the power is in the hands of the sponsor. And in the world we live in today, just because a decision-maker might be the sponsor, doesn’t necessarily mean they hold the power. Or just because the law, regulation or policy says they are the decision-maker, doesn’t mean the will of the people can’t change that situation.

I love how Becky Hirst has reimagined the IAP2 Spectrum by re-writing it as if the community were the decision-makers (see the image below).

What would our conversations look like if we had a spectrum that put PARTICIPANTS at the centre of the power structure? Or if we reflected power in the interactions on the levels of the spectrum?

Reverse IAP2 Spectrum by Becky Hirst Consulting

Health Canada created an adaptation of the IAP2 Spectrum many years ago, and they reflect the role and level of influence of the organization versus participants by graphically changing the size of the circles in each level (with the blue circle as Health Canada decreasing as you move right).

Public Involvement Continuum, Health Canada

I have said more times than I can count, that the INFORM level of the spectrum should go along the bottom of all the other levels of the Spectrum. As a foundation to any kind of meaningful engagement, you need interactive, effective communication processes. And while activities that take place at the INFORM level alone can be really effective public awareness or public information campaigns, they don’t meet the definition of public engagement on their own.

What if we set clear parameters for when INFORM was appropriate? What if we explicitly aligned the factors of complexity, controversy or high emotion with the required level of involvement?

In the example below, the levels of involvement increase based on the degree of political sensitivity / potential impact or outrage up one axis, and the degree of complexity along the other axis. As an IAP2 trainer, I explain how an increase in these factors necessitates a higher level of participation, but the IAP2 Spectrum itself doesn’t present this information. This can sometimes lead organizations to incorrectly focus on expectations or managing and controlling a situation, rather than recognizing that if the situation is emotional, controversial or complex it REQUIRES more involvement.

Consider this matrix below, which takes the IAP2 Spectrum levels of involvement, overlays them on the matrix that considers increasing level of complexity and emotion, AND adds example techniques.

Excerpt from Warringah Council (Australia) Community Engagement Matrix, 2011

What if we went steps further into the depth and richness of public engagement, organizational culture, capacity and community roles and responsibilities and reflected that in a spectrum?

Imagine the depth of reflection and consideration that would be required to identify and apply this tool created by Community Momentum. It would reduce simplistic interpretations that take place with the IAP2 Spectrum, and also increase understanding that effective and meaningful engagement is about more than the sponsor, more than the participants, and instead about how all elements of the whole system work together.

Credit to communitymomentum.org for this image

We could re-imagine the levels of involvement in ways that reflect the intensity of effort, investment and resources for engagement on one hand, as well as the level of social connection, social capital and capacity for participation on the other hand.

The diagram below created by Dialogue Partners and applied to a recent community building project takes a whole new look at the levels of involvement and the requirements and commitments that must be in place at each level.

Each level (or step) has been renamed to characterize the primary form of participation that takes place at that step. For example, the 1st level is “grassroots, flexible and interest based engagement” and the 2nd is “relationship and connection based interaction”. These steps are not reliant on a sponsor or decision-maker and put participants — whoever they may be — at the center of the conversation, creating a right AND a responsibility for the participation that takes place. When combined with the requirements for participation on axes of the matrix, you can see how much effort and investment is required to make the conversation happen, and also how much social capital and connection must be in place for effective engagement.

We’ve added a 5th step focused on building capacity, skills and knowledge for participation — as an underlying foundation for meaningful engagement. We think this capacity piece is crucial to good engagement, and should be reflected in the Core Values and Code of Ethics as well (but that is a long blog for another time!)

We’ve even added in sample techniques to help demonstrate the activities that might take place at each level.

In some of Dialogue Partners recent work in community recovery to natural disaster, we found communities, agencies and groups had enormous difficulty applying the IAP2 Spectrum to what was happening on the ground. As a result, our team at Dialogue Partners created a new continuum for community engagement that focuses less emphasis on decision-making, and more emphasis on long-term, ongoing implementation and community building.

What if we re-imagined the Spectrum with a focus on the whole picture? What if we put less emphasis on project by project approach to decisions and public engagement and put more emphasis on community building, long-term sustainability and working together within the system?

Image created by Dialogue Partners

With Max as my partner, I hope to host a conversation on “Re-imagining the IAP2 Spectrum” at the IAP2 North American Conference. I thought I’d start the conversation with this blog. If our session proposal doesn’t get accepted, I’m still prepared to explore the opportunities for change with other practitioners, organizations and community members.

And to be clear, this isn’t a conversation that takes place at any specific level of the IAP2 Spectrum. There isn’t a sponsor or decision-maker. IAP2 hasn’t asked for this input. And I’m not proposing we protest, blockade or petition IAP2 for change.

This is OUR practice, our communities, our work. Let’s have an open conversation about what is working, what could change, how we could meet more needs and advance the practice.

Imagine what a Spectrum might look like if we all put our hearts and minds together to improve the practice.