The Wheel of Participation (or Empowerment)

25 June 2009


I was speaking about Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation the other day to a group of students and I said that I thought it’d been eclipsed (in the past forty years) by other, better, models. I noticed an embarrassed look on the teacher’s face. Perhaps they had not updated their model?


Well, in South Lanarkshire (which is Glasgow, actually), the Scots have nailed it and come up with a much better model.


I can just imagine them, on a frosty Scottish night, putting another log on the fire and dreaming up this elegant model. It’s called “the Wheel of Participation”.


You can download the full 1998 article in the British journal, Planning, by clicking on this link: Davidson Spinning wheel article1998


Here’s the actual reference:   Davidson, S. (1998) `Spinning the wheel of empowerment’, Planning, vol 1262, 3 April, pp14–15.


The authors are local municipal practitioners working to redefine the `ladder’ of citizen participation originally proposed by Arnstein by offering an innovative approach to conceptualising the various dimensions of communication and engagement processes. They argue that a correct approach to public engagement could revitalise the planning system. To engage local communities effectively in the planning system, new and innovative approaches are required.


The Wheel of Participation helps to minimise ambiguity associated with consultation, including reliance on inappropriate techniques and unclear objectives (see the illustration below).


The Wheel highlights four overarching approaches to community involvement:

  • Information

  • Consultation

  • Participation

  • Empowerment


The concept is that, with community involvement, a decision would be made as to which quadrant of the Wheel the project belonged. Then the appropriate strategy or strategies would be selected. The Wheel will only work equitably as a model if this pivotal decision is taken collaboratively. Otherwise, in the hands of cautious proponents, all projects could be deemed as `information-only’ projects and only limited approaches selected. The various categories of communication and engagement processes identified in the four quadrants of the Wheel are summarised below.


The Wheel of Participation                                                       Drawing by Steph Vajda


  • Minimal communication
  • Council deciding on all matters itself, without community consultation (except when legally required to do so, via the minutes of committee meetings.
  • Limited information
  • Telling the public only what you want to tell them, not what the public wants to know.
  • Good-quality information
  • Providing information which the community wants and/or needs, e.g., discussion papers/exhibitions for development plans, guidance notes for conservative area development.


  • Limited consultation
  • Providing information in a limited manner with the onus often placed on the community to respond, e.g., posters and leaflets.
  • Customer care
  • Having a customer-oriented service, e.g., introducing a customer care policy, providing a complaints/comments scheme.
  • Genuine consultation
  • Actively discussing issues with communities regarding your ideas before taking action, e.g., liaising with tenants’ groups, customer satisfaction surveys.


  • Effective advisory body
  • Inviting communities to draw up proposals for the department to consider.
  • Partnership
  • Solving problems in partnership with communities, e.g., a formal partnership.
  • Limited decentralised decision-making
  • Allowing communities to make their own decisions on some issues, e.g., management of community halls.


  • Delegated control
  • Delegating limited decisions-making powers in a particular process or project, e.g., tenant management organisations and school boards.
  • Independent control
  • Council obliged to provide a service but chooses to do so by facilitating community groups and/or other agencies to provide that service on their behalf, e.g., the delivery of care services contracts by the voluntary sector.
  • Entrusted control
  • Devolving substantial decision-making powers to communities, e.g., tenant management.

For information:


Davidson, S. (1998) `Spinning the wheel of empowerment’, Planning, vol 1262, 3 April, pp14-15


  1. Hhmm. Nice, but how do I get access to the cited article? I cannot find the journal anywhere…

  2. Here is the actual reference:

    Davidson, S. (1998) ‘Spinning the wheel of empowerment’, Planning, vol 1262, 3 April, pp14–15.

  3. Okay so, Arnstein’s ladder is used for measuring. You mentioned that the wheel is a decision making tool where proponent and citizen decide how to go ahead in terms of participatory scheme. Wendy, would you say that the wheel can also be used as a measurement tool for determining the degree or type of participation what was used in a project?

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