Enhanced Citizen Participation – the challenges

By Joshua Osah: Project strategist and evaluator

As we look forward to the launch of MobiSAM in the first quarter of 2017, there is significant optimism that the effective use of the application will lead to the facilitation of enhanced citizen engagement with local government – and at a later stage, joint decision-making by both parties.

This sentiment shared by the MobiSAM team and judging from preliminary interaction with a number of communities in Makana, resonates with the general attitude toward citizen engagement in local government.

There is good reason for this shared vision. Firstly, there is the generally agreed upon notion that Makana residents pay taxes, and as such, have a right to determine how these taxes are spent.
Then there is the view that with increased citizen participation in decision-making, marginalized sections of the municipality that are often left off the development agenda by organs of state tasked with consultation and development of policy will be consulted more closely.

If only it were that easy.

Referring to Ward based data from the recent MobiSAM Baseline survey in Makana in the charts below it becomes clear that residents’ membership to Civic Organisations in Makana does not exceed 14% of any one of the Wards that were combined according to demographic markers.

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Therefore it becomes clear that in order to achieve this ideal concept of greater citizen participation, a number of challenges need to be addressed. I will pose these challenges in the form of questions as a way of illustrating the current challenges faced by the MobiSAM team and our partners as a way of hopefully stimulating responses from potential readers:

Where there is an increased and simultaneously dispersed or shared responsibility in decision-making (inclusive of citizens), who will take responsibility for accountability in the event that things go wrong?

Concern should be given to the potential that with dispersed responsibility, accountability becomes diluted. This dilution may arise due to the increased opportunity for finger-pointing by both parties. Each party (government and citizens alike) can legitimately lay claim to the fact that the other party is equally responsible.

Is there a possibility that where the community as a whole or their representatives become more entitled to greater input in public decision-making, that the rights/powers of elected government will increasingly become undermined? Or is there a belief that the government should not have any rights/powers? If so, what happens to law and order?

It has to be anticipated that with increased power or entitlement there will be an increased tendency for residents or citizen groups to undermine elected officials. Hence, we all need to think about how such a scenario will be addressed or contained.

Lastly, are local citizen groups homogeneous, and do they all want the same thing?

This is an important question to ask, as community based organisations and their representatives and civil society in the developing South are the domain of an elite class of development workers. A situation in which the illusion of representation may prevail, but which in reality reflects the views of only a select few individuals and organisations.

Although these are complex questions which pose a number of potential challenges, as a team in collaboration with our partner organisations we look forward to continuing our work in enhancing local citizen participation in local governance.  Gaventa (2004), shedding some light on the above mentioned questions, recommends that in considering increased citizen participation we need to:

  • Reinforce legal provisions which promulgate clear guidelines that clarify the appropriate rules of engagement. This should include an articulation of responsibilities and accountability. With such policies in place, accountability can be better dispersed or managed.
  • Identify and deal with power relationships – especially biases which result in the exclusion of marginalized groups from processes of participation. Simply put, the needs of such groups also need a voice.

Pointing to the complex and socially embedded nature of the issues MobiSAM has to respond to in working to develop our approach Gaventa’s (2004) insights confirm the need to tread carefully and in a considered way whilst working to facilitate increased participation in systems of local governance.

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