Who’s Got the Power? A Critical Consideration of Citizen Participation in Research

This week’s guest post comes from the KT Core-ner, NeuroDevNet’s KT Blog. It was first published on February 19, 2016 and is reposted here with permission. 

By: Anneliese Poetz, KT Manager, NeuroDevNet

It is common for KT activities to be limited to dissemination of KT products such as research summaries, infographics or research reports/articles. Sometimes these products are created without consulting the stakeholders who represent the intended target audience, and what is typically measured and reported on is the numbers of these products distributed.  Dissemination is necessary, but usually not sufficient, to create impacts from research.

The two main approaches to Knowledge Translation are end-of-grant (dissemination) and integrated Knowledge Translation (stakeholder engagement/consultation). The evidence on successful KT has demonstrated that iKT approaches are more successful at creating impact. When I think about iKT I am reminded of the topic of my PhD dissertation which focused on a process analysis of a stakeholder consultation approach for informing government decision-making.  One of the frameworks I cited in my literature review was Arnstein’s (1969) ladder of citizen participation in community decision-making within the context of the ‘broader power structures in society’. Arnstein’s (1969) ladder of citizen participation ranges from one extreme to the other, at one end citizens have all the power and at the other end they have no power at all.  Citizen power is sub-divided into “citizen control, delegated power, and partnership” (citizens have all/greater power) while tokenism is represented as “placation, consultation, informing” and non-participation in community decision-making is referred to as “therapy and manipulation” (non-participation, no power).

Arnstein's ladder of citizen participation

An iKT approach is important for maximizing the uptake and implementation of research, toward impact. Recently, I found myself wondering how Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation could map onto a research decision-making context.  For example, when a researcher takes an iKT approach to their work, they inform their research questions, methodology, KT products (type, key messages, delivery method, etc), workshops and other activities (toward moving their research findings into uptake and implementation) by using information about their stakeholders’ needs as a result of careful observation (of stakeholders as well as the current state of society, industry, government etc.) and listening to stakeholders.  However, as the subject matter and research process expert, the Principal Investigator/researcher (has to) use discretion in terms of how, where, and why stakeholder input contributes to the overall design and execution of their research (assuming stakeholders are non-researchers).  In this way, it is unrealistic to expect that citizens/stakeholders should be given complete control.  Even if stakeholders are researchers themselves, the Principal Investigator (PI) of the project has obligations (for example) to the funder of their research to reasonably deliver what was promised in their initial grant proposal.  In this way, the PI can be viewed as having more power than their stakeholders in terms of the research process.

However, in order for planned KT activities to result in successful uptake, implementation and impact of research, stakeholders need to feel that: they have been heard and their input is valued; their (information and other) needs are being met by the research project; the KT product(s) created will be useful/helpful to them and/or their clients.  In this way, stakeholders have potentially tremendous influence over the PI’s ability to achieve change through their research output(s). Persuading successful partnership engages stakeholders so that research can, should (and will, if possible given their organization’s capabilities) be used in practice and policy.  Often, they must surmount potential barriers such as stakeholders’ experiential (and other) knowledge, values and job descriptions as well as political and financial restrictions.

According to Arnstein’s ladder taking an integrated approach to KT helps to shift the power from researchers toward stakeholders, and into the “partnership” stage during which both stakeholders and researchers (PIs) redistribute power.  Stakeholders become more open to using research in practice and PIs become more able (through understanding stakeholder needs) to make the necessary adjustments to their research and KT approaches to enable uptake and implementation by these stakeholders.

It is reasonable then to say that effective, integrated KT takes place at the “partnership” level of Arnstein’s ladder.

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