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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.
The World Bank Group, in partnership with CIVICUS, the Government of Finland and InterAction will host a conference on citizen engagement on March 18, 2013 to highlight the value of engaging with citizens for effective development.
The Citizen Voices conference will focus on citizen engagement and feedback systems that strengthen the quality of policy making and service delivery, where the impact on the poor is most direct. The conference aims to explore how citizen engagement is essential for effective development, move from knowledge to action, and establish concrete partnerships for scaling up at global and national levels.
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 organizational 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?
Parallel to the event, and running until the end of this month, the World Bank has launched an online conversation on citizen engagement to help tackling these and other issues. Needless to say, the 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?