Why civic education matters in citizen participation

By Yeukai Mukorombindo

This post seeks to highlight the role(s) and importance of civic education in implementing citizen participation initiatives within the administrative boundaries of Makana Municipality.

Citizen participation can be defined as the participation of ordinary citizens in governance and public policy processes[1]. Therefore, citizen participation initiatives aimed at monitoring and evaluating government service delivery performance has been widely promoted in developing countries.

MobiSAM short for: Mobile Social Accountability Monitoring, is a citizen participation tool aimed at increasing communication, participation and accountability between Makana Municipality and its citizens around local government services.

Reasons for the proliferation and popularity of citizen participation initiatives are based on claims that citizen participation mechanisms bring about several public policy benefits such as improved public sector efficiency and better delivery of public services whilst at the same time empowering citizens, deepening democracy; increasing local government responsiveness and accountability[2].

In a hope to realise these benefits, citizen participation legislation and mechanisms have become a core part of the development policy agenda. However increasingly lessons emerging from such initiatives are highlighting that legal frameworks for participation legislation, participation tools and initiatives alone are insufficient to guarantee that effective participation will take place.

The reason why partnering participation initiatives with legislation is not always successful is that often there is a gap between the laws governing participation, the opportunities themselves and what people are equipped to do in practice. If citizens are to exercise their rights and participate in governance processes, they also need to acquire relevant information and participatory skills.

The basis of citizen participation in a democratic society is an informed, reflective and critical citizenry.

Civic education plays an influential role in participation outcomes. The uptake of participation opportunities and tools is often low, due to the fact that participants may have insufficient knowledge and capacity for effective input. This therefore raises questions of how to successfully create and implement citizen education and awareness building initiatives.

Citizen education and awareness drives, require that policy related information and documents be relayed in user friendly formats which are accessible and understandable to the general citizen. Therefore, information needs to be presented in an understandable format and conveyed through appropriate media. This often requires translation of documents into indigenous languages as well as the use of visual techniques.

The local media as well as the use of indigenous languages can be critical tools for local government to use in making information accessible to the general public.

The internet’s networking capabilities are creating economic opportunities for governments to engage all citizens. Social networks have expanded the communication channels between government and fellow citizens. It has also contributed towards creating an environment of equitable citizen influence by allowing all people at all levels in society to form part of a vibrant debate and discussion regarding policymaking processes.

Furthermore, the use of citizen education programmes can be used to build the capacity of  citizens to understand information contained in public policy documents.

When citizens are armed with accurate and accessible information on resource performance and service delivery, they can meaningfully engage in a public debate on governance.

Although MobiSAM officially started out as a way of improving Makana Municipality’s communication and responsiveness around Grahamstown’s water services through the use of mobile phones, the project has since expanded beyond that. It is now seeking to establish itself truly as a citizen participation tool by implementing a range of civic education activities which includes producing materials in various languages which can be used to capacitate citizens to understand their rights and information contained in public policy documents. MobiSAM is also conducting training workshops targeted at equipping citizens on how to effectively participate in local government processes.



[1] Andersson, K. P., & van Laerhoven, F. 2007. “From local strongman to facilitator: Institutional incentives for participatory municipal governance in Latin America.” Comparative Political Studies, 40(9),1085–1111.

[2] Wampler, B., &McNulty, S. 2011. Does participatory governance matter? Exploring the nature and impact of participatory reforms. Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars: Washington, DC.

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