12 November 2015

The government can pay for citizen participation

by Dondon Parafina

Note: This is part 2 of the blog titled, “The government should pay for citizen participation”.

All throughout the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Global Summit 2015, which was held in Mexico last October 27-29, I tried to steer discussions around the idea of government financing of citizen participation. I purposely used this opportunity to sound off this idea.

The feedback was promising. In one session, an African noted that it is ideal but would not happen in their country in the immediate future. Perhaps in 50 years, he added. A Sri Lankan remarked that he never thought of that track of support for civil society work on accountability, but it made a lot of sense. The American moderator praised the idea and agreed that institutionalization of citizen participation logically entails financing by the government itself. The Indian moderator in another session opined that it’s a viable arrangement that will require a policy and systems study.

Let me level up the discussion and bravely claim that there are indications that the government can actually pay for citizen participation in public governance. I do not mean only that it should pay in principle; I believe there are also practical reasons  that it can do so.

Yes, the government can pay for citizen participation without compromising the cherished independence and autonomy of the citizen sector. Certainly, this will not be easy. It will require some adjustments in the way government views citizen participation and in the way citizen groups view the value of their social accountability work.

Here are the indications:

There’s big potential for government buy-in for citizen participation. The citizens’ active and direct engagement in government processes is arguably a growing trend worldwide. While country governments’ support for it varies and is subject to many constraints, positive openings and clear entry points have emerged for interested civil society groups to pursue it. Various transnational multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs), such as those cited in
Brockmyer and Fox’s 2015 study, may be credited to have helped make these possible.

Take the case of Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which has 48 implementing countries and Open Government Partnership (OGP), which has 66 participating eligible countries. There are other MSIs with less formal membership guidelines, such as Construction Sector Transparency (CoST), Open Contracting (OC) and Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT). These MSIs, through the informal interface of government, civil society and private sector stakeholders, have convinced governments to adapt certain standards and prescriptions, which always have a citizen participation component.

The civil society-initiated projects of the Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA), the Affiliated Networks for Social Accountability or ANSAs in Africa, East Asia Pacific, South Asia and Arab World, and the Partnership for Transparency Fund (PTF) also emphasized close collaboration of civil society with government agencies. GPSA has 42 opted-in countries though actual country projects are more limited in number, the ANSAs’ engagements covered around 29 countries in four regions, and PTF had small but effective projects in 53 countries.

The covered countries in these MSIs could go as high as one-third of the United Nations’ 192 official members. Note that the UN itself provides and encourages space for citizen participation, especially now with the introduction of the social development goals or SDGs. SDG #16 articulates the need for participatory institutions and policy making for a sustainable global society. Specifically, in 16.7, it targets to “ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.” This theoretically expands the number of potential countries that will recognize and support citizen participation practices in public governance.

Many governments in the world, therefore, already have the pre-requisites to appreciate citizen participation and to even set it in motion through policies. With a little more push from civil society and a little more persuasion from international bodies, these governments can deepen their experience of and develop a real buy-in for integrating citizen participation in governance work. Buy-in should eventually literally mean buying into the idea of citizen participation through financing. Public managers, however, must eventually realize by themselves the value of citizen participation, embrace it as part of the process—not an added burden—and be convinced that it’s beneficial to their overall functioning. Operationally, I think it would be easier to do this if citizen participation could be linked to an already existing practice within the bureaucracy. I see that link in the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) requirement of every project and program.

Budgeted monitoring and evaluation (M&E) activities can take the form of participatory M&E. M&E is already a recognized spending item for government because it’s embedded in various projects and programs. While some still struggle with, if not outright resist it, the concept and its function are already almost mainstreamed in government operations, which entails that they also have allocated funding for it. They use it for procuring consultants or consulting services to conduct the M&E activities. Take the case of the Philippines, which sets a budget for M&E at not more 3% of the total cost of projects; it is contained in the General Appropriations Act and has a memorandum circular that defines the scope and conditions for the use of the M&E fund.

Now, what are social accountability tools but M&E tools that use the participatory approach? Citizen participation in public finance management stages can happen through participatory M&E or PM&E. If government managers will view citizen participation as a way for them to obtain citizen feedback on the performance of projects and programs, then citizen participation activities may well be funded through the M&E budget.

The government agencies may directly pay citizen monitors/assessors or they may engage the services of civil society organizations for it. Mongolia’s procurement law provides a role for civil society co-evaluators in the bidding process and the government has allocated budget for it, which is made available for qualified individual civil society member. However, engaging the organization rather than individual is still the preferred mode. Why CSOs? Because the CSOs are assumed to be the expert practitioners in using social accountability tools and other participatory approaches. They’re also assumed to have the constituency or have the ability to form the constituency of citizens that will be involved in the PM&E activities.

Note that there are other types of citizen participation that could not be categorized as PM&E. Examples like these can be further analyzed in a separate discussion
Government’s procurement process can bring out the most competent providers of participatory M&E services.

There is one way through which the government can credibly use public funds for citizen participation. That is public procurement! This is a difficult truth to swallow for the civil society. But it is an established procedure with assumed standards and safeguards. Interestingly, it is through public procurement that citizen groups can be properly selected and their conflict of interest checked and cleared. Thus, the independence of the citizen participation initiative and the citizen participants are safeguarded as well. Yes, the procurement transactions could be corrupted, but that’s where constant advocacy and vigilance come into play. Civil society, as a sector and not as individual groups, needs to ensure that the government resources for citizen participation are used properly and responsibly. All awards should be above board.

Note that funding of citizen participation through public procurement diversifies fund sources for civil society organizations. It will be added to the usual grant funding facility that civil society taps. If it’s not too much to ask, perhaps government can also relax the tax implications of securing contracts with government on citizen participation projects.

To many perhaps, procurement of civil society services is still too remote a possibility or highly implausible at this time (remember the African delegate in the OGP Summit 2015 who said they may have to wait for 50 more years before it happens in their country). If that is the case, then perhaps a more indirect mode of supporting it could be an option.

Government can partner with a reputable intermediary institution to manage funds for citizen participation.

The government can come up with a social investment fund or dedicate funding for a social action program to help civil society facilitate citizen participation in public governance. The government can channel these funds through a reputable institution like a UN agency, say UNDP, for management (credit to Henrik Lindroth, ADB consultant and friend, who introduced this idea to me). The UNDP can even mobilize additional resources from multilateral donors to match the government commitment.

Various units or offices of the government can define their PM&E needs and enroll them in the government’s UNDP-managed funding facility. It’s the UN that will call for applications from the civil society and administer the projects as well. This way, the government units’ needs are addressed while civil society avoids potential co-optation when relying on government for funding. This practice, however, should mature into government’s familiarity with participatory tools and the growth of the network of civil society service providers.

As the saying goes, if there’s a will, there’s a way. If we go by the abovementioned indications, the opening up of opportunities for citizen participation in public governance is a positive development. Indeed, there are many ways through which the government can ably and proactively respond to the necessity of setting up mechanisms to support and finance citizen participation. 

Mr. Redempto "Dondon" Parafina is the Executive Director of ANSA-EAP.

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