The meteoric rise of "citizen engagement"
Almost all development agencies promote some form of citizen engagement and accountability, often framed as 'voice', 'demand-side governance', 'demand for good governance' or 'social accountability'. The current World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, recently put it that, "citizen voice can be pivotal in providing the demand-side pressure on government, service providers, and organizations such as the World Bank that is needed to encourage full and swift response to citizen needs". There has, in turn, been a mushrooming of useful operational guidance on different "tools" for social accountability - i.e. steps, inputs and methodologies - that guide discrete interventions, ranging from citizen score cards to participatory expenditure tracking.
One might, however, be forgiven for thinking that some of the debates on citizen engagement need an injection of realism; especially as contextual factors can make or break a "tool's" implementation. A review of experience to date would be one good place to start.
The meteoric rise of "citizen engagement"
Citizens are assigned various roles in the development process (service users, project beneficiaries, and consulted stakeholders). But how can citizens move from being just users and choosers of social services to makers and shapers of policies and processes so that they can ultimately lead their own development?
“The most effective citizens are the most versatile: the ones who can cross boundaries. They move between the local, the national and the global, employ a range of techniques, act as allies and adversaries of the state, and deploy their skills of protest and partnership at key moments and in different institutional entry points.” Blurring the Boundaries: Citizen Action Across States and Societies
- The World Region
- Citizen Action
- Citizen Engagement
- Citizen Demand
- Citizen-Centric Government
- Development Research Center on Citizenship
- and Accountability
- Citizenship DRC
- Governance Reform
- Demand Side of Governance
- social change
- Civil Society and Governance
- Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue
A desperate, totally fed up young graduate sets himself on fire in a small, provincial town in his country and within weeks eddies of violent protests by citizens all over the country bring down an authoritarian regime. And everyone is stunned by both the suddenness and the scale of it all. But the philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), would not have been surprised. He would have reminded the world of three things that he always said in the course of his long life:
In liberal political and constitutional thought, the passions are feared and often decried. The constant appeal is to reason: rational thought, rational debate, and rational solutions to problems. Even in the work that we do in CommGAP, the ideas we are committed to include:
1) Rational debate and discussion in the public sphere (inclusive and democratic) focusing on the leading challenges facing the political community; and
2) Informed public opinion arrived at through a process of open debate and discussion, where relevant information is available to citizens, and all sides to the issue are fully canvassed by proponents. In all that, the appeal is to reason.
Imagine that you are an old lady from a poor household in a town in the outskirts of Chennai city, India. All you have wanted desperately for the last year and a half is to get a title in your name for the land you own, called patta. You need this land title to serve as a collateral for a bank loan you have been hoping to borrow to finance your granddaughter’s college education. But there has been a problem: the Revenue Department official responsible for giving out the patta has been asking you to pay a little fee for this service. That’s right, a bribe. But you are poor (you are officially assessed to be below the poverty line) and you do not have the money he wants. And the most absurd part about the scenario you find yourself in is that this is a public service that should be rendered to you free of charge in the first place. What would you do? You might conclude, as you have done for the last 1-1/2 years, that there isn’t much you can do…but wait, you just heard about a local NGO by the name of 5th Pillar and it just happened to give you a powerful ally: a zero rupee note.
The potential that Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have to contribute to economic growth in developing countries is undeniable. In terms of what ICT in general and e-government in particular can do specifically to improve governance and accountability, we often hear about their positive impact on government transparency and responsiveness, on government efficiency and effectiveness, and finally, on citizen access to information, services, and opportunities.
The number of governance reform processes in which communication plays a role appears to be vast. Which of these are of vital importance? How exactly can communication help? And what does research have to tell us?