Engaging with citizens is often associated with positive results such as increased transparency and accountability, as well as innovative delivery of public policies and services. However, creating channels for citizens to express their needs and preferences is only a part of the equation. Often misinterpreted are the steps necessary to design and implement engagement processes that ultimately produce desirable outcomes. For governments, NGOs, and donors alike, there is great interest in understanding what works and what doesn’t in public participation. Join our host, Tiago Peixoto of the World Bank, and three other citizen engagement experts, the OECD's Joanne Caddy, Vera Schattan Coelho from El Centro Brasileiro de Análise e Planejamento, and Involve's Deputy Director Edward Andersson, in a conversation about innovative participatory practices that promote the effectiveness of governments and development projects.
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Calls for increased citizen empowerment are heard from across the spectrum, ranging from governments and donors to CSOs and multilateral efforts such as the Open Government Partnership.
But while the claims for citizen engagement abound, less discussion is dedicated to how to design and implement participatory processes that deliver their expected benefits, such as increased accountability and better delivery of policies and services. As part of this problem, not enough attention is paid to the various outcomes that participatory processes may engender and what they mean for policy and development.
For instance, in some cases participation may lead to disappointing results, such as citizens' mistrust of government, elite capture and public opinion polarization. Conversely, participation can also be associated with surprisingly positive outcomes, such as increased levels of tax compliance and reduced infant mortality. But how can we explain these disparities in results?
Shedding light on the question of when, why and how participation works is precisely the objective of this conversation. Thus, to kick off the debate, I would like to start by considering seven questions:
- How can we measure the success of citizen engagement initiatives?
- How essential are processes of organisational and institutional change?
- Can political will towards increased participation be stimulated?
- What role does organized civil society play in citizen engagement processes?
- How can we foster inclusiveness and what are the impacts of different methods of participant selection (e.g. open, randomized)?
- Can we learn anything from the private sector about listening to external audiences?
- What is the actual role of technology (if any) in participatory processes?
Needless to say, the issues raised by these questions are far from exhaustive. Maybe some are even secondary. But I believe that considering them might bring us closer to answering an even more fundamental question: that is, how can we leverage the dispersed knowledge of citizens to shape decisions that affect their lives?
To start the conversation, we've invited three people working in different areas: Joanne Caddy of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); Vera Schattan Coelho of the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP); and Edward Andersson of Involve.
Governments alone cannot solve the complex, urgent and entrenched challenges facing our societies today. Climate change, soaring obesity levels, poverty and growing inequalities of income and opportunity all call for a new approach to improving policy outcomes. One which engages citizens in defining the problem to be solved, mobilises the best available data, thrives on transparency and is driven by dialogue. Crucially, this new approach can only be considered successful if it gets everyone — citizens, governments, businesses, households, civil society organisations — to move beyond dialogue to taking action.
My own home province of New Brunswick, Canada was witness to this kind of paradigm shift a few years ago, when the premier at the time launched the audacious goal of “self-sufficiency” for a peripheral, struggling province that had only ever survived on fiscal transfers from the federal government. What followed was a series of initiatives, large and small, which used public engagement as the main lever to get everyone — chambers of commerce, the pulp and paper industry, students, mayors — to identify a specific tractable problem together, and then commit to taking concrete action. In doing so, they would hold one another to fulfil their commitments in a new form of mutual accountability (check out "It's more than talk" by Don Lenihan for more details).
Innovations in this area emerge daily from across the globe, as a result of initiatives launched by governments, businesses and civil society organisations alike. Some of the most powerful approaches combine online and face-to-face engagement to mobilise previously "silent voices" or tap into existing decision-making processes in new ways.
Framed thus, public engagement becomes an essential feature of modern governance and a powerful means to achieve shared goals by mobilising the ideas, energies and resources of a wider public. It is high time we treated public engagement as a field of public policy that has come of age. Doing so would oblige us to guarantee enabling legal and policy frameworks, set clear objectives for public engagement, clarify expected outcomes, account for the public and private resources used and to ensure assessment, evaluation and accountability for results. Nothing less.
Since the late 1980s, direct civil participation in public policies is embedded in the Brazilian Constitution as a mean to promote accountability, priority setting and local problem solving. This official policy has been implemented through a national framework of participatory forums linking the local, the state and the federal levels. Among these forums, the health councils have become one of the most widespread and influent. Their successes and shortcomings throughout the last three decades provide lots of evidence for analysis and raise many questions, two of which I highlight here:
- How can effective participatory mechanisms be implemented?
- How can the performance of these mechanisms be assessed?
Successful implementation depends on the combination of several elements: committed public officials, mobilized citizens, and innovative design features. Each of these elements alone will be insufficient to overcome the enormous difficulties of bringing the citizenry into the policy process. Indeed, success almost invariably requires the simultaneous presence of state actors interested in building alliances with civil society, of citizens and civil organizations that display interest in participating in public policies, and of design features that reduce the asymmetric distribution of resources among participants.
To assess the performance of these forums, it is important to look at: a) Who is taking part, in terms of socio-demographic, political, and associative characteristics of the participants; b) The information provided and how the practice of deliberation, bargaining, and confrontation are balanced in the meetings; c) The connections that are being established between these forums and other branches of the political system, the health system, as well as with other public and private organizations.
Looking at these two dynamics — implementation and daily work — helps to understand successful cases and also think about what needs to be improved in less positive experiences.
Participative methods have a long history in development practice; in fact, many leading engagement practitioners in the UK started their careers working on Participatory Appraisal in development projects.
My organisation Involve works to highlight and promote good examples of participative practice in the UK and beyond. The last decade has seen some very interesting innovations. In certain sectors participation and engagement have gone from being fringe activities to being legally mandated activities. There is more citizen engagement and it is taken more seriously than it was ten years ago; however, the practice often leaves much to be desired. A view shared by many practitioners, including Involve, is that bad citizen engagement is worse than no citizen engagement at all, as it reduces trust.
Common problems relating to engagement include tokenism (engaging citizens primarily to look good, without the real chance for influence), engaging at the last minute, and processes which fail to reach those most in need.
Involve recently researched a publication looking at some of the most innovative citizen engagement from around the world (the report From Fairy Tale to Reality is available on our website). I thought I would highlight some of the key innovations that I hope to see in the future:
Devolving — In Estonia, the 'My Estonia' process of community clean-ups and brainstorming workshops involved tens of thousands of citizens, largely because government let go of control and allowed local groups to self-organise. This may seem like a risky strategy to state actors, used to having full control, but can yield huge dividends.
Deliberating — Experience from organisations like AmericaSpeaks shows that even in the most controversial areas, it is possible to set up spaces where informed deliberation is encouraged. Much citizen engagement never gets beyond the surface level of the debate, and deliberation can help with this.
Diversifying — The question today is not whether to use online or face-to-face methods; rather, some of the best processes combine both. Processes like "Geraldton 2029 and beyond" in Western Australia use dozens of different methods to reach different groups of citizens, with some methods specifically aimed at Aboriginal groups, young people, etc. The quest for a "one size fits all" engagement is a futile one.
It is a very exciting time to be active in citizen engagement — lots of innovation is happening and the boundaries of what is possible are shifting. I’m looking forward to an interesting discussion.