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How Not to Use the IAP2 Spectrum in Engagement

We recently saw great piece on common misunderstandings and misapplications of the IAP2 Spectrum – a widely used tool in our field created by the good people with the International Association of Public Participation – shared on our NCDD discussion list, and we found it valuable enough to share here. The reflections come from Max Hardy of Max Hardy Consulting, an NCDD organizational member, and we encourage you to read his piece below or to find the original on his blog by clicking here.


Hardy logoReflections on the IAP2 Spectrum

I remember well how thrilled I was to come across a thoughtful framework for community engagement, the IAP2 Spectrum, in the late 1990s. Developed by some highly skilled and generous practitioners in North America, it has since become the most recognizable brand and image related to the field of community engagement. The IAP2 Spectrum has become synonymous with the association itself and is now proudly referred to policy statements and guidelines for hundreds of organisations, especially in Australia and New Zealand. Sadly the IAP2 Core Values have not had similar attention or profile, but that is a blog for another time.

During my time with Twyfords we probably explained the IAP2 Spectrum (and ran exercises drawing upon it) to thousands of students, practitioners, elected representatives, professionals in a multitude of sectors. Unfortunately, it has in many instances been misused, abused or at least misunderstood. Even where it is understood and applied, it has not always been helpful or offered the intended clarity. So here I want to talk about what the Spectrum is about, what it is meant to do, how it has been misinterpreted, and also what I consider to be some limitations of the framework. (I need to stress that I am not pretending to offer the definitive view of these matters; our application and understanding of the Spectrum continues to evolve).

What is it?

It is a framework that explains the different levels of engagement that organisations can engage their stakeholders/communities. The further to the right on the Spectrum, the greater the influence the community has to influence decision-making. At each level a different promise to the community applies – a promise that decision-makers can be held accountable to. Each level requires a different type of interaction.

The Inform level simply offers to provide information throughout a process about work being undertaken by an internal or expert team leading up to a decision being made. The promise is simply keeping people informed – some would say it is about helping people to understand. No input or feedback is sought from the community of interest.

The Consult level is about putting forward options or a proposal for which feedback is sought. The promise is to listen to the community of interest’s feedback, to carefully consider, then make decisions and finally explain how this feedback has been taken into account.

The Involve level invites input and ideas from the community to help develop options/potential solutions. The community participates earlier in the process than for the consult level. The community is part of developing solutions, not merely commenting about plans or solutions being proposed by an organisation. Ultimately the organisation will still make decisions, but they promise that the decisions will be informed by ideas and input.

The Collaborate level is a significant jump. It’s about partnering and sharing power – to the maximum extent possible (a phrase that has been used, confused and misused). It takes more time and effort. A range of stakeholders/community members work together with the sponsoring organisation to define the scope of the decision to be made, to develop options, to assess those options against agreed criteria in an attempt to arrive at consensus. Although more time consuming and expensive it is the shortest route to an implementable solution for highly complex/controversial decisions.

The Empower level is essentially delegated decision-making. It is where an organisation promises to do whatever the ‘community of interest’ decides.

What I like about the Spectrum

Although drawing upon much earlier work of Sherry Arnstein (Arnstein’s Ladder) it is the most helpful framework around – still – for showing that engagement can happen at different levels, requiring different types of interaction. The ‘Promise to the Public’ layer is quite simply written and helps everyone to check with decision-makers and project leaders whether this is the promise they are really making, when throwing around words such as consult, involve, collaborate and empower. The descriptions of the levels help to make more visible the kind of process that is being pursued and promised.

I also like the layout. It is not meant to be a hierarchy, it is a continuum, and this is presented quite helpfully. The layout and neatness of it has helped it to become the major reference point for a decade.

Some common misunderstandings of the Spectrum

  1. You start at the left and go right. Some have misunderstood the framework completely, thinking that you start off Informing, then you Consult, then you Involve etc. It’s a framework and a not a process guide.
  2. At the Inform level a decision has already been made (like the DAD approach; Decide Announce and Defend). It may seem like a subtle difference but this is not the case. At the Inform level the public is kept informed about progress being made by an internal working group, until a decision is made. No input or feedback is sought – people are just progressively informed about what is going on.
  3. Once a level is selected, that is what you have to do throughout. This is not necessarily the case. IAP2 does not actually stipulate this, but those trained in the IAP2 Certificate are told that it is very important to work out the highest level on the Spectrum you will go for any given process. All the levels to the left of that level also apply.
  4. The further to the right on the Spectrum, the better it is. This was never the intention and it is why the Spectrum runs left to right – so that it does not appear to be a hierarchy like Arnstein’s Ladder. IAP2 has attempted to convey through the training, that it depends. It is about finding the most appropriate level. Trying to Collaborate on something fairly straightforward, where there is little passion or complexity, would be a waste of time. Doing a simple Consult level process for something highly complex will probably result in having to start all over again, after having done some damage.
  5. It is up to the organisation to decide what level, and be clear about it, then everything should run smoothly. In my experience this is nonsense. 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.

Some things I have learned from practice

Along with a number of other practitioners, I have found that the Spectrum is a much more flexible framework perhaps than it was first envisaged. For any given process it is common to move to a different level of on the Spectrum on a number of occasions.

For instance, if a Consult level process is not going well (i.e., a community group is very unhappy with the options being presented, and instead want to be involved in developing options), it is possible that the process will need to go as high as Collaborate for a time until trust is rebuilt. If sufficient trust is built an organisation may be finally told to just get on with it, and move as far back as Inform. Yes – it does happen!

Flexibility also applies to working with different groups at different levels at the same time. Collaborating with more than 15 people is very challenging. Generally when working at Collaborate there will be other groups and individuals with whom an organisation will need to actively be informing, consulting and involving. Keeping the broader community engaged is critical. Developing trust between the broader community and those who are at the table collaborating is a real challenge, but one that must be attended to.

Another learning, and this emerged from a great sessions facilitated by Professor Bojinka Bishop in Salt Lake City back in 2002 (I think), is that Collaborate is often a stronger level of engagement than Empower. The reason for this is that at Collaborate, the sponsoring organisation(s) are there working through an issue, or decision, or plan, with a diverse range of stakeholders. They are all in it together, whereas as Empower, the organisation(s) delegate decisions to external stakeholders. Often this means that less complex issues are delegated, and that the organisation becomes more removed from the process. Paradoxically, collaboration can be more empowering than the empower level because of the investment in building longer term working relationships and the level of importance given to the process. There have been exceptions to this – but that is a blog for another time.

Some limitations of the IAP2 Spectrum

Again, these are my personal views, but they are based on plenty of experience. I believe we expect way too much of the Spectrum if we believe it will safeguard an engagement process, and provide clarity for all. It is useful – but on its own not sufficient.

There are some limitations to its usefulness (as with any framework) and assumptions made that may not be helpful. Here are some:

  • The IAP2 Spectrum is written as if there is only one sponsoring organisation involved. Even if you look at the Collaborate level it is assumed that collaboration will influence the decision to the maximum extent possible. If multiple organisations co-sponsor the process, then collaboration is not an option – it is fundamental. Without thorough collaboration a decision will not be made, and partnering will break down.
  • Secondly, the IAP2 Spectrum is written in a way (and this is perpetuated by the Certificate Training) that the organisation can do its own research and risk analysis and determine, by itself, the most appropriate level on the Spectrum. In my experience, this is often negotiated, and the community wants to be part of that conversation – especially for projects that are controversial and complex.
  • Thirdly, the Spectrum assumes that the organisation is the entity initiating the process. This is not always the case – engagement can be initiated by the community, or a particular community group, and the Spectrum, and supporting information, does not really make provision for this.
  • Lastly, it assumes that the process is essentially about influencing a decision. Once a decision is made, then what? In my experience, the process itself is incredibly important as to what happens after decisions or plans have been determined. If ongoing relationships are important to implementation then that needs to be considered in determining the level of the Spectrum. Anything less than Involve is unlikely to help build the system’s capacity to make those decisions sustainable.

In conclusion

Well there it is. Turned out to be much longer than I thought. If you got to the end, well done. So what are your thoughts, experiences, and observations? Oh, and if ever you say to me that your organisation uses the IAP2 Spectrum as its policy framework or methodology, chances are I will ask you to consider the above. For me, clearly, the IAP2 Spectrum in a policy or strategy document will not necessarily give me confidence that it is being used well or consistently. But it can be useful, and those who generated it have given us something worthwhile.

You can find the original version of this piece by visiting www.maxhardy.com.au/reflections-on-the-iap2-spectrum.

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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