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Trying to See Like a Citizen

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

"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 skill of protest and partnership at key moments and in different institutional entry points."
This quote and other interesting nuggets come via a new report on citizen engagement from the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability (Citizenship DRC) at the UK's Institute of Development Studies (IDS).  Thought-provoking and based on a decade of research spanning 150 case studies in nearly 30 countries, the new report contains a wealth of organized thought on both the changing role of citizens in development and the shifting sands of citizen-oriented development policy. In fact, I found myself highlighting so many different portions, I'm just going to split this post in two.

First, let's look at the evolution of the governance and accountability agenda, as viewed through a citizen-centric framework. The Open Budget Blog has a good breakdown of IDS's categorization of three main governance policy approaches. First, there is the 'supply and demand' model, in which government institutions are strengthened (providing the 'supply' of services to citizens) while, simultaneously, citizen mechanisms for demanding accountability are strengthened (the 'demand' side), and the hope is that it all evens out to everyone's benefit in the end. As the post points out, this type of approach tends to occupy the most space in official policy rhetoric, but in reality, most resources flow toward strengthening the supply side. Moreover, having worked on demand side issues for several years, I've often felt that viewing systems of governance *solely* in these purely binary terms fails to capture the complexity and multifaceted nature of citizen identity and experience. The Citzenship DRC report places emphasis on "seeing like a citizen" - and, let's face it, when we take off our policy hats and actually see like the citizens we are, we rarely think of our citizenship in these binary terms either. Note that I highlighted the word 'solely' - for, as I'll note in a minute, I do think there is some value to this construct.
The second model highlighted is the 'matchmaker' model, which emphasizes good governance as a function of the relationship between states and societies. This better gets at the complex relationship betwen citizen and state, although it tends to be more of an intellectual approach than a concrete programmatic reality at this point (caveat: certainly, there are programs that employ this approach, but the bulk of donor governance programming is not directed here). Also, it tends to neglect the importance of intra-state and intra-civil society relationships.
The third model emphasizes that "actors within the state also play a critical role too, opening and closing opportunities for citizens, championing and sustaining reforms, and protecting the legitimacy and safety of the movements." It is in this last area that we're now seeing a lot of interesting thinking around coalition-building for policy reforms, centered on the notion that building political will for governance reforms requires action by a number of actors working in shifting coalitions that cross-cut both civil society and the state at various strata. This line of thought acknowledges that sustained governance reform necessarily goes beyond finding those rare "policy champions" and often means overcoming blocking coalitions, negotiating support within key layers of bureaucracy, building links between key civil society and state actors, and raising public awareness.
Ultimately, though, I do think all three models add value to the policy discourse on governance. For instance, even if the binary model of 'supply and demand' tends to be reductivist, the metaphorical construct is particularly useful when one wants to discuss accountability issues, for instance. Civil society does not *always* have to be in opposition to the state, but it should always retain as a key function the ability to act as a watchdog. Taken in combination with the other two models, you have a complex array of possible roles for civil society (including not just NGOs but the public at large) that may get us one step closer to achieving sustainable governance reforms.

Part two, coming shortly: thinking about citizen-centered approaches to sectoral issues.

Photo Credit:© Jamie Martin / World Bank (on Flickr)

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