Citizen Engagement - Seven Questions, One Conversation


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Citizen Voices

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?

Join the conversation on Striking Poverty and follow the conference live on World Bank Live.

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Soeling Kim
March 19, 2013

President Kim said :
In Nepal, the poor today have much greater voice in determining the public services they receive. By combining national poverty data with participatory social assessment tools, the poorest communities in Nepal can be identified and empowered. Community members voice their concerns and needs, enabling decision makers to target more systematically where needed infrastructure should go, to determine which services a local health clinic should provide, and to report how many children are attending schools. As a result, school enrollment has increased by an average of 2.1%, child immunizations by 5.3% and access to safe drinking water by 6% in more than 59 districts covered by the program."

There is much more to the standard of public service delivery than whether or not the "customer" is content.

Consider that cholera from Nepal was brought to Haiti and caused huge suffering in that disaster-struck country. Why did the Nepalese not eliminate cholera in their country?

Can Haiti file a suit against Nepal for damages ? No. Can the Nepal government at least have to hear the "voice" of the devastated Haitian families on the topic of cholera? No way, no accountability.

Diseases that spread like this and fast infect people should be a very high priority for the World Bank regardless of whether one village anywhere wants prevention of contagions and the neighbor village does not.

If this service preventing contagions is not delivered everywhere, then disease will spread and kill again and again. Just ask the Haitians.

March 15, 2013

I don't have an answer to most of these questions.

To #3, I can say from personal experience, that even though I'm using easily-accessible cartoons to do so, it's still very hard to get people interested in political reform. Maybe I need to include more cute cats in my work.

With #6, you bring up a very good point. Some private companies have better voter turnout rates than some legitimate governments. That needs to change.

I'm looking forward to the conference. :)