Citizen participation and citizen engagement in governance are buzzwords in the civil society and non-profit sector.
Citizen participation takes place when citizens attend government consultations, observe processes, monitor projects, respond to surveys, gather and analyze data and report findings, etc. A government agency can claim to be inclusive, attentive and responsive to citizens’ needs when it features one or two or a combination of these tools in their processes, whether it’s planning, budgeting, spending or auditing. These tools for participation help improve the quality of government services because the authorities can hear direct feedback from the citizens, know what the service users or citizen customers want, and fix reported problems. Any government manager genuinely concerned with the agency's performance should be interested in citizen participation, in the same manner that private businesses make sure they understand and get feedback from their customers to be competitive in the market.
On the citizens’ side, participation also translates into empowerment to exact accountability from government. Such approach to participation is what we have come to know as social accountability.
Citizen participation happens because citizens volunteer to do it, either on their own or in response to initiatives organized by civil society groups. In both cases, the citizen volunteers carry the cost of participation, which is often unrecognized or dismissed as inherent in the definition of participation, i.e., it should always be voluntary. There’s no clear financing of such work because these are supposed to be part of civic duty—good governance being a public good. It’s dependent on donations (most civil society initiatives, for example, are implemented using grant money from international donors) and expectedly has short-term project perspective. It does not usually graduate from pilot stage and is very difficult to scale up. It’s almost always a brain-crunching exercise and a real struggle to define the long-term sustainability of these efforts. How do you attract and keep a steady supply of volunteers? How do you ensure that they are always organized, trained and motivated to engage government? Without a reliable source of financing, all the sustainability plans in many beautifully written project proposals are gibberish and just made to comply with the mandatory section on sustainability. Despite the soundness of the design of many initiatives and their high impact on improving public services, very few of these citizen participation efforts could actually be sustained and institutionalized.
Now, with the emerging preoccupation with citizen involvement in governance, it’s high time that we seriously consider a “business model” that will reframe the workings of citizen participation based on voluntary work. This model should avoid ad hoc operations and enable repetition, as in sustained cyclical repetition, of effective practices. Since it is practically a way to improve governance, the government managers should be the primary users of these tools for participation. They should avail of these like they would avail of common services, such as security, janitorial, or consulting services. As such, government offices should have budget allocation for it and should be ready to pay for it. In short, the key financing for citizen participation in governance should come from the government itself.
These are the reasons:
The government needs citizen participation and benefits from it. Any government program requires information from citizens as public service users and consumers, like any product requires market research through focus group discussions, surveys or other monitoring and evaluation tools. In governance, citizen participation is what provides the information. This point, of course, assumes that public managers have appreciation of the value of such information in their performance and in the work of government in general. So if they really see the need for it, they should buy it.
Participation entails real work, and real work deserves just compensation. People spend personal time and energy training for social accountability work, actually executing required activities, and delivering tangible outputs, such as reports containing vital information for the public managers. While these may take only a few hours, they could also last days and even months. Given this demand, it’s just fair to ask for compensation. Note that online survey respondents (who are customers themselves) get paid for the questionnaires they accomplish and private companies hire secret shoppers (who are customers themselves) to monitor the quality of customer service. If private sector can recognize such work as worthy of payment, why can’t the government?
Government financing can attract wider participation. Established and well-known civil society groups with their own network of volunteers may have already dominated, or worse, monopolized, opportunities for citizen participation. Government agencies contact these same groups in consultations or assessments because they are the ones with remaining, though perhaps diminishing, funding from international donors. The use of government funding for citizen participation, through a well-crafted policy, would remove such dependence and, in the process, attract and incentivize more citizens and citizen groups to participate.
Government-financed participation offers additional income. Not many volunteers can afford to forego work and subsequent income for a day or two just to monitor a government project. Some financial incentive for participatory work, therefore, would make it more bearable. Unemployed or underemployed individuals may also be attracted to the opportunity for the additional income they can get. Even the poor, who are willing and able, can earn by serving as monitor or assessor of the government’s anti-poverty program. Let’s just hope there’s a way to exempt this income from any tax.
Government can justify setting the standard for participation if it pays for it. While citizen participation aims for inclusivity, there should still be standards for it, especially if it’s regarded as a kind of service or job. Standards for selection, training and quality control must be imposed on participation efforts. That’s the way it should be since information from participation will be used for decisions. Even members of the poor, disadvantaged and marginalized sectors should, with proper assistance, go through these processes before they serve as citizen monitors.
Government financing is the answer to the sustainability question. The government is in the best position to keep the best citizen participation tools and practices through continued government allocation of budget for it. If participation is proven to make government services efficient and effective, by all means, let’s use public money to sustain it. This is better than seeing the initiatives go to waste because donor funding has run out or shifted to another, trendier projects.
This idea of government financing of citizen participation is admittedly not simple and invites not a few criticisms. At first blush, it may even sound like an oxymoron. It’s more consistent with volunteerism and there’s a nagging voice telling us that it should never be a paid work. I have seen the limitations of this view and some practical concerns must be attended to if we want citizen participation in governance to be truly effective. This essay hopes to open up discussions and inquiries around the implications of this idea, such as the following:
What laws or policies will govern the funding and payment of citizen participation activities? Who should manage the fund?
From which revenue will the government source the fund for citizen participation?
Will the funding and payment apply to all types of participation or only those dealing with social accountability?
Would there not be any conflict of interest when citizens receive payment from the same government office that is the subject of their monitoring?
Will payment not demean the volunteer or civic spirit behind participation? Is it tantamount to the commercialization of citizen participation?
How do we prevent misuse of funds for citizen participation, including channeling of funds to bogus and/or corrupt citizen organizations?
There are many more questions. Is this an opportunity or a threat? For people like me who want to constantly reimagine and innovate on ways to realize citizen participation, this idea is worth exploring and testing.
Read part 2: The government can pay for citizen participation
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