Reflections on the IAP2 Spectrum

Reflections on the IAP2 (International Association for Public Participation) 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 sough – 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 (ie, 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. Keeper 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 than 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.



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  1. Sandy Heierbacher on January 20, 2015 at 6:56 am

    Huge props on this excellent post, Max! You’ve done a wonderful job outlining many of the faulty preconceptions people have about the IAP2 spectrum, which I think is extremely important for our field. I have seen many people express these misperceptions over the years — like the idea that the further right you go on the spectrum, the better the process, and the idea that you “choose” one level and stick to it. Yet I haven’t seen such an effective outline of these misperceptions.

    We’ll plan to cross-post this on the NCDD blog, and link to it in our resource center when we mention the spectrum.

    I was especially intrigued when you wrote 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.”

    I’m a big fan of Participatory Budgeting, which is considered to be at the Empower level in most cases. However I’ve struggled with how to articulate my concerns with how limited PB can actually be in the big picture of city governance and city budgets. Yes, people are empowered to make a final decision, but a collaborative process that pertains to the overall city budget (not just a small portion of capital funds, for example) could be much more empowering for citizens and stakeholders.

    The limitations you mentioned were very helpful to read as well. I wonder what the spectrum would look like if it were broadened (to not just the sponsoring organization, to not just “a decision,” etc.). The NCDD Engagement Streams ( presents public engagement as having four broad purposes — exploration, conflict resolution, decision making and collaborative action). I wonder what a blending of these frameworks might look like.

    • Max Hardy on January 20, 2015 at 9:03 am

      Many thanks Sandy. Yes there is no shortage of frameworks. Collective Impact is another.

      I’m very happy to be a part of any attempts to revisit, refine and renew frameworks. Even more importantly is how these frameworks translate into action and inform practices that build trust and tap into collective wisdom. PB is great; but as with citizens’ juries, it is at the discretion of organisations to decide the scope of the exercise. Sadly the greater the impact on decisions, the more constrained is the scope.
      Thanks for cross-posting and linking to your excellent NCDD resources!


      • Geoff Woolcock on January 21, 2015 at 4:54 pm

        Terrific reflections Max, especially when they come from such a rich diversity of experiences.
        I know it’s relatively early days re Collective Impact in Australia but as the most popular contemporary engagement framework (not least because CI is seen as the best way of sourcing philanthropic $ in the absence of public spending), I’m struck by how unsophisticated the thinking and articulation of community engagement within CI is…. it’s as if the engagement box has automatically been ticked simply by people’s willingness to identify a common problem and some collective ways to respond to it… accompanying this naivety often seems to come an ahistorical take on most communities that risks disrespecting prior efforts to address same/similar problems, a sure recipe to kick start community engagement on the wrong foot.

        cheers, Geoff

        • Max Hardy on January 23, 2015 at 9:49 am

          Thanks Geoff. Appreciate your thoughts. Would like to hear more about your observations about CI given the momentum it’s gaining.

      • Tom Atlee on February 18, 2015 at 5:29 am

        Thanks SO much for your blog post, Max. You say “Even more importantly is how these frameworks translate into action and inform practices that build trust and tap into collective wisdom.” My initial explorations in that a decade ago are in essays on “Designing for Community Intelligence” and “Principles for Public Participation” – both written as part of an effort to understand how multi-process engagement programs could generate more systemic collective intelligence and wisdom. I’m delighted you brought that aspect into consideration in your interchange with Sandy. There’s so much yet to understand in that realm!

        • Max Hardy on February 18, 2015 at 7:21 am

          Thanks Tom. Your work around collective intelligence is legendary, and has influenced my thinking and practice for many years.

          Encourage all to check out Tom’s links at his co-intelligence website.


    • Cynthia Roomes on January 24, 2015 at 12:56 am

      Sandy – thanks for the links to NCDD, and reference to PB. Much appreciated!

  2. Tim Bonnemann on January 20, 2015 at 8:16 am

    Nice post, Max.

    In the first paragraph, I think you meant to say: “Sadly the IAP2 Core Values have *not* had similar attention…”

    • Max Hardy on January 20, 2015 at 8:58 am

      Hi Tim and many thanks. It’s fixed. I could do with a proof-reader! Thanks also for Mting it on Twitter!

  3. Pip on January 22, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    Hi Max,
    I found your blog really interesting with some good analysis and I would like to quote it my research (PhD candidate Monash). I did try to print a copy but the print is grey and unreadable. A big ask, but would you be able to email a copy. You will be properly referenced,
    I am particularly interested in using the words on how IAP2 is being misinterpreted and the clear way in which you explain the ‘correct’ way.
    Anyway, thank you again for such an interesting post.
    Pip Hanrick

    • Max Hardy on January 23, 2015 at 9:50 am

      Hi Pip

      Sent! What is your PhD research topic?


  4. Some weekend reading | Sustaining Community on January 23, 2015 at 7:01 am

    […] Reflections on the IAP2 Spectrum by Max Hardy […]

  5. Cynthia Roomes on January 24, 2015 at 12:52 am

    An invaluable resource Max, so very well considered. Thanks for sharing. I have evolved a model the ‘Well Connected Cycle of Community Engagement’, and am working on a discussion paper, may I include a link to this page?

  6. Robert Waldon on January 24, 2015 at 1:17 am

    Very well said Max!

    Before you Blog on the Core Values, have a look at what is going on at iap2Canada.

    Carry on, and consult all!

  7. Nadine B Hack on January 24, 2015 at 11:43 pm

    Max – thoughtful analysis of the pros & cons of methodology and sponsorship of IAP2 as a platform to promote collaboration.

  8. Rhonda on January 28, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    Hit the nail on the head there Max . Great read – and capturing of what happens (or does not happen) on the ground in practice.

  9. Michelle Blicavs on January 29, 2015 at 10:54 am

    Hi Max
    Great article. I often meet people or chat with them about IAP2 and they think engagement is all about the Spectrum. It’s still the highlight of training and the most used tool, but often requires greater explanation and understanding.

    The Australasian Community Engagement Model takes up your thoughts on communities leading engagement and the fact there is often not one driving force or organisation behind engagement anymore.

    But it’s still a key tool and we know it opens many doors that has allowed engagement to expand to sectors we may not have otherwise connected with. IAP2 is proud of the Spectrum and the Core Values and they will remain the core foundations of engagement practice internationally.

    • Miriam Hobson on January 29, 2021 at 12:49 pm

      Hi Michelle

      do you have a link to this model?

  10. Wendy Lowe on January 29, 2015 at 11:52 am

    HI Max: Nice piece. I had a realization recently about the involve level. I had always seen the consult level as a once or twice opportunity to solicit reactions from the public and the involve level as more frequent and intensive opportunity to solicit reactions throughout a decision making process. But I realized that another reason to move to involve from consult has to do with the diversity of perspectives. When there is only one or two ways that the public sees as issue, then the consult level may be adequate. But often times the monolithic public is really a complex array of people who have different issues and values. Techniques at the involve level provide the opportunity to bring people together so they hear the complexity of issues and values first hand.

    I like your note about Bojinka’s contribution. The empower level can be as simple as a vote. Simple majority is hardly satisfactory to most of us. The result at the collaborate level can be much more well informed, comprehensive, and hence, enduring.

    • Max Hardy on February 2, 2015 at 11:10 am

      Thanks Wendy and lovely to hear from you! Good thoughts too!

  11. Tim Bonnemann on March 12, 2015 at 4:45 pm

    As IAP2 celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, it’s worth noting just how much things have changed since then. Plenty of new concepts have emerged in the participatory democracy space, a wide variety of organizations are well established and continue to innovate, changing the landscape of civic engagement and public participation.

    If and to what extent the IAP2 framework (which to me consists of the Core Values, the Code of Ethics, the Spectrum and – for all practical purposes – the training) needs to evolve going forward in order to keep up and stay fresh is a huge question that isn’t being talked about enough – yet. So thanks for this timely post. I hope others will pick up the thread and develop it further.

  12. Stephani Roy McCallum on March 13, 2015 at 1:33 am

    Max – this is an awesome blog, and an inspiration to get me to write one that has been running through my head for a long time. Here is my contribution to the conversation – focused on re-imagining the IAP2 Spectrum.

  13. Jacinta Cubis on April 9, 2015 at 5:45 pm

    a belated thanks for these insights Max. I’ve seen the spectrum being widely misinterpreted but also thoughtfully applied. I think it depends on the person. At its simplest, I’ve found it’s really helped to open a conversation with colleagues about why they want to talk to a community or their audience – what’s their purpose?

  14. IAP2 Spectrum Review: The Big Picture on May 29, 2015 at 8:03 am

    […] January, Max Hardy shared his Reflections on the IAP2 Spectrum, in which he outlined some common misunderstandings, personal lessons learned and some of the […]

  15. […] Hardy, M. (2015, January 19). Reflections on the IAP2 Spectrum [Blog post]. Retrieved from […]

  16. Anna Clarke on February 10, 2016 at 7:35 am

    Hi Max
    Read your blog with a great deal of interest as well as the many comments too. Im a Community Development practitioner in Northern Ireland (25+years) and community engagement is a key feature within many of the CD training and learning programmes i facilitate. Also, Im doing a MSc in Community Planning and Governance and thinking about researching approaches to community engagement using the IAP2 model in relation to engagement processes used by multi-agency partnerships and local government agencies here in NI, but it would be great to have some international examples to examine by comparison. Would love to keep in touch!

    • Max Hardy on February 10, 2016 at 8:57 am

      Thanks so much for initiating contact Anna. Happy to provide some examples and to do some collaborating ourselves! Also suggest you take a look at Tamarack Institute in Canada and check the collective impact framework/approach.
      Out of curiosity how did you happy to stumble across my blog?

  17. Bojinka Bishop on March 18, 2017 at 12:29 pm

    Hello Max,

    I just came across this and am pleased you remembered my presentation in 2002. And am glad it enriched your work and thinking. Thank you for the acknowledgment!

    • Max Hardy on April 8, 2017 at 2:04 pm

      Lovely to hear from you Bojinka. Sorry for the slow reply. I do hope all is well with you and please let me know if ever you are heading down here to Australia. It would be lovely to reconnect in person.

  18. […] by looking through, what I think, is one of the best critiques of the Spectrum, by Max Hardy; Reflections on the IAP2 Spectrum. DRUMBEAT’s underpinning theoretical model offers a range of non-threatening engagement methods […]

  19. […] For this purpose, I have reflected on the connection in greater detail by looking through, what I think, is one of the best critiques of the Spectrum, by Max Hardy; Reflections on the IAP2 Spectrum. […]

  20. […] For this purpose, I have reflected on the connection in greater detail by looking through, what I think, is one of the best critiques of the Spectrum, by Max Hardy; Reflections on the IAP2 Spectrum. […]

  21. Through the Looking Glass – The Jeder Institute on September 2, 2020 at 12:38 pm

    […] community-led way such as; IAP2’s public participation spectrum (particularly when approached like this – the best reflection on the spectrum that I have read, by Max Hardy), deep democracy, […]

  22. Tisha Greyling on April 5, 2021 at 7:28 pm

    Only about five years late on commenting on your excellent piece here Max :). Been asked to write two paragraphs about community engagement based on the Spectrum for a book about a heavy industry – TWO paragraphs haha but there it is. Was looking for some succinct, clearly stated messages, and am going to borrow from your blog text. Will reference.

    Btw, two points about ’empower’. Whereas the Spectrum uses legal definitions – empower meaning ‘invest with legal power’ – words take on different semantic connotations in different areas. Here in southern Africa, ’empower’ is akin to ‘capacity-building.’ So I always add the word ‘mandate’ as a verb next to ’empower’ on my Spectrum slide and take care to explain the difference.

    Secondly, some points were raised by commentators about the ’empower’ level not being as strong as the collaborate level, not involving the sponsoring organisation, simple yes/no voting etc. I have never viewed the empower level as this, never taught it as this. For me, the empower level assumes the process has met the objectives of all levels from inform through to collaborate with engagement of all interested and affected parties prior to placing the decision in the hands of the public. There are many case studies illustrating this, from designing a public park to where to site a pollution control dam for a mine.


    • Max Hardy on August 30, 2021 at 8:57 pm

      Thanks Tisha. Very useful comments as per usual. It is interesting how the levels can be interpreted differently – how we explain them differently too!

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