Sunday, January 16, 2022

Citizen Participation: Another critical component of Public Policy

The answers to the above nagging questions are best captured in a 2018 research study by T. Malokwane and M. T. Lukamba titled: “Citizen Involvement in the Formulation of Public Policy” where it is observed that some governments do not engage citizens sufficiently in the process of public policy formulation.

The authors add that it remains relatively unclear as to why governments evade engaging citizens in the formulation of policy and conduct random and cursory consultations in order to enshroud the lack of consultation.

The research paper that seeks to demonstrate that while citizen engagement has traditionally been the bedrock of policy formulation in Botswana, “there has been a decline in the culture of citizen engagement in policy formulation over a period of time”, and interrogated the concept of citizen involvement linking it to citizen participation.

After finding fault with a number of approaches in policy formulation that excludes effective citizen participation, it is recommended that stakeholders should strive to actively foster collaborative participation because the exclusion thereof in policy formulation “produced unfavourable policy outcomes and effects”.

The paper also calls for further research in the area of policy formulation in Botswana so that causal linkages could be established between policy formulation and other areas of public policy making processes such as policy implementation and evaluation.

Citizen participation is described as the involvement of citizens in a wide range of activities that relate to the making and implementation of policy including the determination of levels of service, budget priorities, and the acceptability of physical construction projects in order to orient government programmes towards community needs.

Citizen involvement means the public’s ability to take part or participate in the nation state’s processes and activities especially concerning preparation of public policy and the critical decision making that affects their day to day lives.

Various scholars are agreed that citizen engagement refers to ways, activities or processes for involving citizens in the public policy process. Basically citizen involvement entails engagement of citizens as participants in the development of public activities such as public policy formulation.

Occasionally scholars are found to utilize the concepts ‘citizen involvement’ and ‘citizen participation’ to refer to the same process and it is distinct that “citizen participation is a process which provides private individuals an opportunity to influence public decisions. Citizen participation has long been a component of the democratic process.  Public involvement means ensuring that citizens have a direct voice in public decisions”.

It is also observed that many agencies or individuals choose to exclude or minimize public participation in planning efforts claiming “citizen participation is too expensive and time consuming”. Yet, many citizen participation programmes are initiated in response to the public reaction to a proposed project or action.

However, there are benefits that can be derived from an effective citizen participation in the planning process namely: information and ideas on public issues, public support for planning decisions; avoidance of protracted conflicts and costly delays; reservoir of goodwill which can carry over to future decisions; and spirit of cooperation and trust between the agency and the public.

Public policy formulation is a process that requires various stakeholders and may be a difficult one or result in failure if citizens are left out of the planning process and for citizens to be involved in policy formulation process, they must first have a reason and interest in politics, concerning regarding public issues, a sense that their actions will make a difference and a sense of civic responsibility.

It is argued further that in addition to this psychological participation in the political process, the availability of certain resources may have profound effect on citizen involvement. Countries across the world have engaged (through either involvement or participation) citizens in policy formulation.

It is further buttressed that “it is critical that citizens are engaged at the initiation of any public policy for purposes of ownership and smooth policy formulation as well as implementation”. Involving citizens in the formulation of public policy is necessary for modern-day governments.

The theory and practice of public administration is increasingly concerned with placing the citizen at the centre of policy makers’ considerations, “not just as target, but also as agent. This is a very important aspect in policy making because the policies are made for the people therefore they should be made with the people”.

Citizen involvement is credited for educating the public and development of a sense of citizenship. Citizen involvement is equally important as it is needed in building commitment and capacity of the government and citizens.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recommends that government invest adequate time, resources and commitment in building robust legal policy and institutional frameworks thereby developing appropriate tools and evaluating their own performance in engaging citizens in policy making.

Citizen interest allows involvement in the decision process from an early stage related planning procedure and encourages citizens input in the panning process as it presents the views of the entire community on specific issues to ensure that the proposed plan mirrors their aspirations. This will consequently affect the citizen’s ability to comprehend the decision making process.

It is argued that “it is significant to involve citizens in public policy formulation so as to defuse tension and conflict over public decisions” and equally, “information should be availed to the public in the same way government expects citizens to usher it with information. Poorly designed and inadequate measures for information, consultation and active participation in policy making can undermine government relations with the citizens”.

The participation of the public in policy formulation can be effective only when that decision can have an impact in their community. That policy should have interest in the community demands otherwise there is a possibility of rejection by the citizens.  

It is imperative that the citizen be more involved in the public policy formulation process and have a better understanding of the same process for instance, a truly responsible government will ensure that citizens understand and actively consider policy choices that are before the society. This is likely to increase the efficiency of the policy being formulated at implementation stage.

It is argued that the denial of the public to participate in policy formulation is often linked to how government perceives a ‘citizen’ and the term ‘citizen’ includes just about anyone within a particular society or community regardless of their gender, social standing ethnic group and vulnerability state.

Some public administrators insist that “a citizen is instead the owner of the government and as such, citizens are not just the masses following the elites being the government. They posses power and can certainly control the government. As such, involving citizens at the centre of policy formulation stage provides an opportunity to citizens to have their government make choices informed by their input”.

Public participation is perceived as one of the milestones of democracy and local governance. Public participation in the making and implementation of policy as such is indispensable for sustaining democracy and promoting good local governance and administration.

The paper concludes that “citizen involvement in Botswana has often times been relegated to one sided consultation. There have been several incidents where public officials refused to engage citizens at kgotla meetings following their public address and this negates the intentions of the consultation exercise as communication in this instance was only one way”.

Another research paper titled “Citizen Engagement in Public Policy Making Process in Africa: The Case of Botswana” contends that “decentralized planning remained a national political priority within the period under study, and that the government was committed to it”.

According to the paper, the inherited traditional kgotla system of democracy provided the framework within which citizen engagement in the policy process was actively promoted. “Consequently, the engagement of citizens in Botswana has become part and parcel of the public policy making process”.

The article is a documentary and historical analysis of the experience of Botswana in citizen engagement in the public policy making process before and during the administration of Festus Mogae that ended in April 2008. The paper also examined how the government engaged its citizens in the policymaking process prior to, and during Mogae’s presidency.

The paper observes that the democratic content of governance in Africa is still a matter of serious concern as it is dominated by a “top-down approach” which is a hangover from either the long period of military dictatorship in many of the countries or from the authoritarian one-party system in some of them.

It is also decried that “the political panorama in modern Africa is sadly one of destitution and hopelessness, for democracy and political stability seems elusive as rain in a season of drought”.

The paper notes with some level of satisfaction that “the 1990s and beyond have witnessed some changes in the willingness of many African countries to adopt democracy as a preferred system of government even though this trend has been seriously hampered by internal conflicts and wars in many of these countries”.

Also African countries have declared to take joint responsibility for “promoting and protecting democracy by developing clear standards of accountability, transparency and participatory governance at the national and sub-national levels”.

However, Botswana is singled out as an exception since it at independence opted and remained faithful to its choice of a representative democracy. It is arguable if such success could have been recorded if the citizens were not carried along in the public policy making process, or alienated through a top-down approach to develop planning.

It is acknowledged that in Botswana, “decentralization is a national political priority, and is well formulated in the Constitution as well as in other policy documents, such as the National Development Plans”.

Clearly, decentralization has high priority in Botswana than in many African countries. The success of Botswana in this is usually attributed to its inherited traditional kgotla system (i.e. the age-long popular participatory village public gathering of forum utilized for both political and administrative purposes).

“Yet in our view, the kgotla system can be described as the critical part of the necessary conditions, while a focused national political leadership and its commitment to the principle of bottom-up planning on the other hand, can be described as the most important part of the sufficient conditions”, states the research paper authors.

According to the paper, decentralization for active citizen participation has become one of the greatest challenges facing governments in the twenty-first century. It is one of the new challenges for public administration in the 21st century and citizens are seeking new ways to express their voice, and through better information, access to the media and lobbying techniques, they have the tools to do this.

Yet a little insight into history reveals that this challenge is not new but rather has been a re-occurring phenomenon at different points in time. It is also argued that “strengthening relations with citizens is a sound investment in better policy-making and a core element of good governance…it allows government to tap new sources of policy-relevant ideas, information and resources when making decisions…and equally important, it contributes to building public trust in government, raising the quality of democracy, in which parliaments play a central role”.

Citizen involvement has a number of positive effects on democracy as it increases issue knowledge, civic skills, and public engagement, and contributes to the support for decisions among the participants.

The paper further acknowledges that “the kgotla system can be regarded as the modern day democratic imperative of citizen engagement in the public policy making process in Botswana. In modern day Botswana, the kgotla has come to signify the embodiment of good governance measured by popular participation, consultation, accountability, transparency, and rule of law”.

The research paper concluded that decentralized planning in Botswana remains a national political priority and government is committed to it. The inherited traditional kgotla system of democracy provides the framework within which citizen engagement in the policy process is actively promoted. Consequently, the engagement of citizens has become part and parcel of the public policy making process.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper