The linkage between public participation and transparency is well established. Clearly, well-developed strategies for public participation build trust, promote accountability, strengthen commitment of all stakeholders towards improved governance, and directly limit the potential for corruption.
The level of public participation varies from simply sharing of information to active engagement of citizens in the implementation and management of projects and services. Tools to build different types of participation also range from stakeholder consultations and public hearings to community watchdog groups and public-private partnerships. The common thread that runs through the various tools, however, is the commitment of the local government to share information and engage the community in an open dialogue. The views of the citizens must not only be heard but also reflected in development decisions, thus making governments responsive and accountable to the community.
The purposes of public participation are clear – to promote transparency, encourage openness in government, and build ownership of development decisions as well as programmes and projects. Specifically, public participation:
Encourages citizens to be more engaged in the decision-making processes that have an impact on their local community.
Serves to advance citizens’ understanding of how government works and confers upon them the capacity to access governmental decision-making processes.
Provides the public with the opportunity to influence and participate in development programmes and projects.
Linkage to Transparency
Public participation aims at bridging of the gap between the government, civil society, private sector and the general public, building a common understanding about the local situation, priorities and programmes. Public participation encourages openness, accountability and transparency, and is thus at the heart of inclusive decision-making. The level and the nature of public participation in local governance issues are often used as indicators of a healthy civic culture.
How it Works – The Key Elements
Public participation can take various forms. UN-HABITAT’s Toolkit on Participatory Urban Decision-Making provides a comprehensive review of tools which can be used to encourage and strengthen stakeholder participation in decision-making processes at the local level. Some of the tools which have a specific role in augmenting transparency are summarised below. However, it is also important to note here that public participation is implicit in many other tools (and examples) cited in this Toolkit, for instance: 2.1 – Municipal Checklist; 2.2 – Urban Corruption Survey; 2.3 – Municipal Vulnerability Assessment; 2.5 – Report Cards; 2.29 – Participatory Budgeting, etc.
Tools to promote public participation. The make-up of a community and its perception of local governance will influence the level and configuration of public participation. There may be mechanisms already in place, for instance, public hearing components during government meetings, whereby individuals can comment on local government policy. The elements highlighted below are not exhaustive, but are offered as examples of means employed in communities that have wrestled with transparency and corruption problems.
Study Circles – Study circles can be a useful format to discuss transparency strategies in urban governance. The approach involves channelling discussions through a series of stages. It enables participants to discuss alternative views to specific issues and to exchange ideas on, and experiences with, local government administration. The most important feature of study circles is the participation of a diverse group of individuals, representing different educational and professional backgrounds. As communities wrestle with corruption, particularly those in transition democracies, study circles can provide the framework to develop long-term goals for good urban governance.
Citizen Advisory Boards – Generally structured around specific issues, such as economic development or housing, citizen advisory boards can be another effective form of public participation. Comprised of community volunteer residents, such boards provide local authorities with information and recommendations pertaining to local issues. Citizens get an opportunity to play a meaningful role within the government structure, through establishment of a working relationship with government employees and officials. Considering the level of independence with which the Citizens Advisory Boards operate, they can serve as a useful safeguard against corruption and help in establishing transparent decision-making practices.
Government Contract Committees – Local government officials often play a large part in the award and administration of government contracts. With up to billions of dollars in government contracts available, it is incumbent upon governmental decision-making entities to establish a venue for citizen participation and oversight of such contracts. Whether through ad hoc selection committees or through permanent citizen oversight and compliance boards, such committees can shape the ethical culture of government contracting. Furthermore, this form of public participation can be an initial step or component in ensuring an open public procurement environment.
Public Hearings – Public hearings are fundamental to the operation of open, democratic government administrations. As local authorities deliberate over policies and other administrative matters, public hearings afford citizens an avenue to address policy makers on important local issues, particularly budgetary concerns. By the same token, it also allows public officials to request comments and information and access expert advice from the public. Public hearings mean public deliberation and debate and can hold the key to engendering transparent decision-making processes.
Public Watchdog Groups – Public Watchdog Groups are community-based organizations or grassroots associations, whose key role is civic activism and dissemination of information pertaining to government initiatives. Unlike citizen advisory boards, these groups have no formal relationship with government entities. Such groups monitor local government issues and policies, correspond with media and government authorities, attend public hearings and speak for or against public policy proposals. Human capital, more so than financial capital, drives the success and effectiveness of these watchdog groups. It is thus important that these groups generate visibility with government officials and entities, but maintain an independent spirit. In cities across the United States, public watchdog groups played a significant role in promoting local governance reforms and demanding stronger anti-corruption measures and laws.
Key actors in promoting public participation. From the aforementioned tools for encouraging public participation in decision making, it is evident that a broad range of stakeholders could take the lead in promoting or advocating for these activities.
The Government: Although public participation can manifest itself in many ways, local as well as national governments must take a proactive role in ensuring that opportunities for public involvement exist. The decision to include citizens in contract committees, for instance, rests with the government. The success and effectiveness of public hearings, citizens’ advisory boards and other such tools also depends in large measure on the commitment of local government to transparency and public participation.
Civil Society Organizations: The civil society is not only best placed to act as watchdog, but also to mobilise public opinion for or against local government policies and practices. Civil society organizations often spearhead the formation of Watchdog committees and citizen advisory groups and facilitate the activities of such associations. Their role is thus crucial to building a culture of participation in any city of community.
The Private Sector: The private sector is increasingly playing a large role in civic affairs, whether through participation in local development programmes or public-private partnerships. The private sector could play an important role in enhancing public participation by extending support to media campaigns and participating in Advisory Boards.
Operation Firimbi - Kenya
Battling Corruption through Public Participation in Krasnoyarsk, Russia
Further information and contacts
Mazingira Institute, P. O. Box 14550, Nairobi, Kenya.
Tel: +254-20-4443229/4443226/ 4443219, Fax: +254-20-4444643
UN-HABITAT, PO Box 30030, Nairobi 00100, Kenya.
Deputy of the Krasnoyarsk city council ,and Chairman of the Commission for local government, non-governmental organizations and the media.