From citizen feedback to inclusive institutions: 10 lessons

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Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank

Over the last couple of years a small team of us have worked on an initiative to incorporate the regular, systematic feedback of citizens into the design and execution of World Bank programs. I would like to share some of our experiences working together with governments, civil society organizations and citizens in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa on this citizen engagement initiative.

First, citizen engagement is not new. For instance, the early work by Robert Chambers, “The Origins and Practice of Participatory Rural Appraisal and Michael Cernea’s “Putting People First” date from 1980s and early 90s and were quite inspirational for many of us who have worked issues of gathering and acting on citizen feedback.
At the same time, something important has changed. There has been an increasing demand by civil society and citizens to have a greater say in public decision-making, and a desire among many governments to be more inclusive and responsive to citizens’ needs. Also, the rise of innovations in technology has provided citizens with new and unprecedented opportunities to directly engage policy makers and demonstrated the potential to facilitate “Closing the Feedback Loop” between citizen and governments.

In 2013, citizen engagement became a strategic priority for the World Bank.  The institution committed to a corporate goal of achieving 100 percent beneficiary feedback by 2018 in all World Bank Group operations with clearly identifiable beneficiaries.
While this goal is a real opportunity to move the citizen engagement agenda forward, it also raises many challenges for our daily work. For instance, how can the World Bank’s effort enhance the participation of people in local decision-making processes in a sustainable manner? Can citizen engagement initiatives go beyond listening to people and in fact make the development process and institutions more inclusive? Can it give citizens the opportunity to co-design and co-implement programs in partnership with governments, civil society and the international donors?
Here are 10 lessons learned:  
1. We need to go beyond citizen engagement and rethink our very model of governance.  More specifically, we need to move beyond traditional models of governance -- where citizen input is received just once per election cycle, or sometimes not at all -- to one that is more open, inclusive and responsive to citizens, and where citizen input is sought on a regular basis, including from the most marginalized groups.
2. Citizen engagement can enhance development results. Engaging citizens can improve the delivery and quality of public services , enhance the management of public finances, and bring about greater transparency, accountability and social inclusion, resulting in tangible improvements in people’s lives.
3. Citizen engagement allows us to broaden the development dialogue to include the views and perspectives of traditionally marginalized groups, leading to more inclusive institutions—governments, development organizations, and donor agencies alike. This can strengthen public consensus for important reforms, and provide the broad political support and public ownership necessary to sustain them.
4Citizen engagement signifies a cultural change in the way we go about development , whereby local communities drive the process of development that shapes their lives. We see the most sustainable results when citizens become active agents rather than passive recipients.
5. To make citizen engagement meaningful, governments and citizen groups need to work together  to develop institutionalized methods of receiving and responding to citizen input.
6. Empowering citizens to make their voices heard is not enough.  We have to go beyond just listening to citizens; rather, we need to support governments to build institutional systems that incorporate citizen voices in decision-making processes, and thereby increase the responsiveness of government programs to people’s real needs.
7. We need to rethink why people participate. This is critical for building citizen engagement programs that work. It is common to employ what we call the rational choice model – the idea that participation will increase if participation benefits are higher than participation costs. This is to some extent true, but many studies have shown that citizens are strongly driven by psychological and intangible factors, such as a sense of civic duty and belonging. We need to devote resources to increasing a sense of citizenship amongst both citizens and government. 
8. We need to rethink the frequent assumption that government and citizens are necessarily in opposition  to each other— that governments want to be secretive and closed, and that citizens inherently distrust their governments. In fact, we’ve seen a plethora of actors in both governments and civil society who seek to work together in partnership to solve major development challenges.
9. We need to rethink whether existing approaches from North America and Europe are in fact replicable or transferable to developing countries.  We have learned that it is essential to place citizen engagement initiatives into the local socioeconomic, political and cultural context.
10. Finally, we need to rethink how we implement citizen engagement programs to have a larger impact.  We have learned that citizen engagement programs tend to be much more effective when implemented within a much broader context of government reforms.
To learn more about the impact of citizen engagement on development, see our new publication: Closing the Feedback Loop and sign up for our MOOC on Citizen engagement


Soren Gigler

Senior Governance Specialist, Innovation

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