Strengthening Citizen Participation in Local Governance

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, March 14, 2012 to Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary (Updated August 4, 2023)

The involvement of citizens in the political process is an essential part of democracy.  Tactics and strategies for increased citizen participation in local governance can be seen around the globe.  In the municipality of Nejapa, El Salvador, the municipal government partnered with local NGOs and sought to increase public involvement in local politics, resulting in huge increases in access to potable water, latrines, and electricity for its residents. In India, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) has been deeply involved in a collective process which has shaped and influenced the Campaign for the Right to Information in India. MKSS makes the case that without access to information and transparency there can be no genuine participation of all members of society, particularly the poor, in democracy. This dialogue served as an opportunity for those involved in strengthening citizen participation in local governments, as well as those interested in it, to discuss these questions and share their experiences and ideas.

What does it mean to strengthen citizen participation in local governance and why is it important?

Citizen participation in local governance involves ordinary citizens assessing their own needs and participating in local project planning and budget monitoring. It is important for improving public resource management and reducing corruption, by making public servants and political leaders accountable to the people. For citizen participation to work, transparency of government information is needed, as well as the inclusion of members into decision-making from groups whose concerns are being addressed. Excluding the weak and powerless from decision-making is a cause of poverty because it denies them rights and creates unequal power relationships. Brazil has addressed this by introducing a number of mechanisms to enhance citizen participation, including its Participatory Budget and its public policy councils.

Civil and political rights, including freedom of expression and access to information, which are at the basis of political participation, are human rights in themselves. Citizen participation requires trust, belief and wholeness - trust in their co-participants, belief that participation can make a difference, and feeling socially included. To ensure strong participation of citizens in local governance, citizens need to understand and want to exercise their right to participate in local political issues. They need to feel confident and know where and how to participate, while local institutions should be prepared to facilitate the citizen participation. Engaging citizens in local governance improves accountability and the ability of local authorities to solve problems, creates more inclusive and cohesive communities, and increases the number and quality of initiatives made by communities. One way to increase awareness and to empower citizens to have a voice is through increased access to technology and in particular social media. The potential of public media working in conflict regions is especially interesting, says one participant, for opening spaces for debate and dialogue and improving transparency and the hidden social structures that generate corruption.

A project in Pakistan is building the capacity of teacher training institutions to teach good governance, human rights, gender and youth development and empowerment, and the positive role of media in promoting these concepts with the hope of producing a core of teachers capable of teaching these values to high school students in conflict areas. In the Philippines, where the tradition of human rights activism is grounded on a moral basis of being human, asserting human rights tends to be associated with opposition politics. While activists accept the risks and costs of promoting human rights, those for whom they struggle can be made more vulnerable if human rights issues are not translated into citizens' rights. In Portugal the last few decades have brought major social changes, improving the standard of living of some but leaving many ‘stateless citizens’.  In countries such as Portugal and the Philippines we see the need for human rights to be operationalized, and for a focus on education to solve social challenges. Around the world, community based organizations do much to bring about real social transformation and empowerment of people - the Civil Rights Movements of USA, the Dalits and Tribal Rights movement in India, the freedom movement in India or South Africa, the Labor Rights Movement in Russia, and the Women’s rights movements across the globe serve as examples that people do not need to be socio-economically well off or even highly educated. What is most important is the ownership of people with full commitment to the mission of the movement.

How have you strengthened citizen participation in local governance? Share your stories!

One participant identified three adjustments in tactics that promote more effective and sustained citizen participation in local governance: understanding and using formal institutions of power, electing and appointing local officials, and bringing together citizens' groups and government officials to jointly formulate program plans. A project in Uganda is working to create an interactive platform to provide stakeholders with key information, bring together the various actors involved in local governance, empower citizens to demand accountability from elected leaders, and ensure equitable distribution and provision of goods and services. Other projects experimenting with online and mobile technologies to increase citizen's participation at the local level include the World Bank’s participatory budget monitoring at the local level in Eastern DR Congo. In Cambodia, an Oxfam’s partner uses voter scorecards and volunteers with mobile phones in remote localities to monitor if elected representatives keep their election promises.

Education and training are crucial in empowering citizens to effectively participate in local governance, especially in communities that have experienced significant political change and must quickly learn how to find and vet timely political intelligence. In the Palestinian territory, youth centers, run by youth parliaments, teach adolescents about the democratic process and provide them with positive life experiences. In Brazil, INESC works in poorly performing, under-resourced schools, to strengthen the capacity of youths to secure their rights through the monitoring of public budgets and policies that affect them. The Youth Participatory Budgets in Portugal bring to the political arena citizens not yet able to vote in regular elections due to age and show that with the right means and good communication the youth, often accused of having little or no interest for the collective good, participate in fruitful and creative ways. Fahamu in Kenya introduced participatory budget as a way for communities who felt that their only avenue for engagement with the government was through NGO's to directly participate in county governments. Along with a mentorship program to strengthen movements Fahamu uses State of the Union campaign to sensitize the African Union, member states and the wider African public that many important decisions being taken at the continental level risk the not being implemented at local levels unless there is a change in the policies and practices of state and inter-state actors.

In Brazil, an NGO trained police officers to help them understand the vital role they can play as defenders of human rights as well as the many advantages of interactive security. In the Philippines, Education for Life complements the official government training program for local officials on formal aspects of governance by focusing on the village level to reach the marginalized and train communities in appraisal, development planning, and peace building. With limited funding, instead of having paid full-time staff they developed some of the leader-graduates to become community-based educators. In Latin America, as a whole, political parties have been very important in promoting and adopting citizen participation processes in local government and examples show the importance of an accessible and empowering participatory budget, decentralizing, and being in a municipality where the political elite does not vehemently opposed new channels of citizen participation.

One participant shared the challenges and opportunities experienced by practitioners in the Philippines.  Since the 1970s, community organization in the Philippines has had a “conflict-confrontation” approach to building up people power. As greater power was given to local governments and a shift in orientation took place from “politics of resistance” towards the “politics of participation” citizens' participation in local governance has significantly increased. For younger democracies the change to democracy is not always easy; citizens can be branded as opposition for questioning state related actions. It is thus important to invest in community-based leaders to insure sustained mobilization of village residents.

How do you measure the impact of stronger citizen participation?

Using a theory of change can be a useful tool in measuring impact.  According to one participant, the first step is to building a theory of change around citizen participation which needs to be periodically revisited. Next, indicators measuring short and long term change must be identified. Because the path of progress that citizen participation will take cannot be predicted, practitioners need to remain alert to changes, positive or negative. In some cases, it may take many years for the desired impact to be noticed, while for others, progress can be noticed in a much shorter time, but every project should have clear phases after which an evaluation can be conducted and project leaders can see if any progress has been achieved.

In Pakistan, for example, media is playing a crucial role in creating political awareness among the citizens. It has assumed the role of watchdog of democracy by providing unbiased information to viewers through talk shows, current and international affairs programs and comedy shows on political themes. The media, particularly citizen journalism, can also be used to measure the impact of citizen participation.

Another method of measuring change around citizen participation is outcome mapping, which facilitates in measuring indicators that are meaningful, helps to understand power at local levels and can be a great tool for integrating monitoring fully into management decisions in what needs to be an adaptive, opportunistic program to be successful.

Studies of participatory budgeting (PB) have documented important effects on the quality of local democracy, on government spending patterns, on living conditions, and on individual participants.  While these effects have not been seen in all places using PB, there is growing evidence that when practiced well, over time PB has significant, positive, and measurable impacts. In Portugal, municipalities that have been nurturing PB invite citizens to participate in the process online and in so doing target a different group of people than those who usually participate in in-person meetings or regular assemblies. Adopting PB is a political decision that has to be decided by the board of a municipality and particularly by its mayor. Some committed politicians think of it as an instrument to improve local governance, and others implement it with no political will. Because of the strong top-down management approach, many processes collapse if conducted by skeptics. In Latin America, PB does not seem to be as consistent in Latin America with many local governments not renewing PB or simply not implementing it. One participant concludes that “where PB is best able to contribute to sustainable development (Brazil), it is not especially widespread across municipalities and tends not to persist, and that where PB seems to be less effective thus far (Peru, the Dominican Republic), it is often more widespread and sustainable because it is mandated by law”.

What challenges have you faced? How did you overcome them?

When developing a local agenda, it is important to consider citizenship rights, democratization, plurality and rights of minorities. Stimulating interaction between the public and civic actors at the local level allows information to reach local stakeholders, providing them with a holistic view of the actors and relations involved and helping local actors make better-informed decisions on strategic routes to take for participation in their local settings. Undertaking nuanced analysis is key - participation in local governance can only be effective if it is context-appropriate. One weakness of analysis is focusing on how things are 'meant' to happen and less on how things 'really' happen, highlighting the need for a deliberately deep and wide analysis of power relations in local (or even national) context. Furthermore, not knowing the external players is another problem leading to many programs choosing to focus on short term gains or minor matters and not really making a long term difference.

Relating experience at local spaces in iterations with the government is difficult, especially in contexts where citizens do not exercise their rights. One participant concludes that to empower civil society organizations, decision makers should be influenced to create a suitable environment for the active participation of citizens and citizens trained in the skills, competencies, mechanisms and methodologies to participate.

Resources and tools for strengthening citizen participation

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Conversation Leaders

keyhude's picture
Kerem Ciftcioglu
Helsinki Citizen's Assembly
niyves's picture
Yves Niyiragira
Parul Sheth's picture
Parul Sheth
Shaishav Trust - India, Fulbright Humphrey Fellow
Miriam Rau's picture
Miriam Rau
Youth Can's picture
Amjad Ali
Youth Organization United through Hope (Youth Can)
Ben Goldfrank's picture
Benjamin Goldfrank
Whitehead School of Diplomacy, Seton Hall University
Jo Rowlands's picture
Jo Rowlands
Alexandre Ciconello's picture
Alexandre Ciconello
INESC - Institute for Socioeconomic Studies
Edicio's picture
Edicio dela Torre
Education for Life Foundation
Jane Lonsdale's picture
Jane Lonsdale
Makarand's picture
Makarand Sahasrabuddhe
ff's picture
Francisco Freitas
Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra
Sergio's picture
Sergio Calundungo
Action for Rural Development and Environment (ADRA)