Citizen participation in local governance
Many countries are now embracing participatory local governance models – various forms of state decision-making processes that mandate local representatives to include and consult with citizens. These provisions are increasingly enshrined in policy and law, as many countries pursue ambitious decentralisation agendas. They can take a wide variety of forms, such as:
- public consultations on local development plans
- town hall forums to share information or receive inputs during annual budget-making
- open local government meetings that permit citizen observation and Q&A sessions
- allowing civil society representatives to shadow financial audits of government offices or projects.
Barriers to participating effectively
This trend shows enormous promise, and is a celebrated success of proponents of inclusive governance practices. However, most of these citizen participation opportunities involve at least some notable barriers to entry. Participating effectively in these spaces may require:
- overcoming social norms around the public role of women, minorities, and youth
- defying class hierarchies
- understanding complex local government processes
- finding free time to prepare for and attend meetings
- taking risks to challenge public leaders.
These factors make it more likely that citizens with greater resources, privilege, and social status are more likely to dominate these spaces.
The will of the people?
The views and priorities articulated in citizen participation spaces are often interpreted as the voice of ‘the people’ and this is a problem. Development priorities requested by citizens become ‘people’s plans’, and financial allocations advocated by citizen groups become ‘people’s budgets’. But in many cases, these might be better labelled ‘the plans of dominant class people’ or ‘men’s budgets’.
The questions we must address are: who is speaking for ‘the people’ in participatory governance models, and whose views are standing in for the views of ‘the public’?
These questions were central to the study tour CARE Bangladesh hosted in July, on the JATRA project funded by the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability, for 25 participants from 12 countries in the Local Governance Initiative and Network (LOGIN).
Establishing pro-poor and gender equitable citizen forums
The analysis and mapping process, described in the first blog in this series, is used to categorise hamlets and neighbourhoods into three categories: primary elites, secondary elites, and excluded or marginalised areas. CARE facilitates the creation of a citizen forum in each union, made up of representatives of poor households and vulnerable groups, half of whom are women.
Citizen forum members are nominated from each of the areas identified in the third category of communities – those who are not from primary or secondary elite areas. These communities are most often landless and dependent on large land-holders for temporary labour opportunities. They are often characterised by being in more remote locations, having fewer and worse roads, longer distances to travel to schools and health facilities, and poorer sanitation.
Representatives from these areas rarely run for office or win elections, resulting in their under-representation in decision-making spaces. However, CARE has worked in many of these areas progressively for more than 10 years, especially investing in ‘natural leaders’ from among poor households and women’s solidarity groups, building up a cadre of socially-aware and publicly active citizens prepared to take on roles in the citizen forums. In this sense, JATRA’s citizen forums benefit from long-term investment in social capital among marginalised groups.
Using citizen forums to make law a reality
The citizen forums are then supported by CARE to play a critical role in preparing poor and marginalised communities to claim their rights and maximise the participation spaces available to them. Many of these opportunities were established by the country’s 2009 Local Government Act, which decentralised more planning and decision-making to the lowest level of elected government and created a legal framework for citizen voice and public transparency.
Among other provisions, the Local Government Act 2009 mandates local councils to hold two rounds of public planning and budgeting meetings in each fiscal year (in each ward): the first to consult community members on local priorities, and the second later in the year to share a progress update on implementation and expenditure. The act also requires local councils to include members of the public in each of their mandated sectoral standing committees, with quotas for women, which have a role in planning and overseeing key local services.
Citizen forums in action
Since the enactment of the law, CARE Bangladesh has focused on helping poor and marginalised citizens to make the most of the provisions of the law. Throughout the programme cycle, the citizen forum became a central vehicle for this.
CARE trained citizen forum members on the act, its provisions, and the various ways local governments are required to consult with, include, and respond to citizens.
We also trained citizen forums on the process for Bangladesh’s annual planning and budgeting cycle: how much money local governments receive for which purposes and how to analyse the best opportunities for influence.
Citizen forum members then work with their home communities to prepare for public budget meetings, to foster interest, to build confidence by explaining government processes, and to help communities plan their shared priorities and select their spokespersons.
Making strategies, solving problems, ensuring accountability
In the JATRA project, CARE then supported citizen forum members to prepare for and take up seats reserved for the public on prominent local government committees. This means they have a say in strategy-making and problem-solving on issues related to health, education, local sanitation, nutrition, women’s rights, disaster risk reduction, and more.
CARE also trained citizen forums to conduct social audits, run community score card processes, and participate in Union Parishad evalutions. During social audits, the forum establishes a social audit committee of poor citizens and guides this committee through a structured review of an unsatisfactory public infrastructure project.
These social audits have resulted in greater accountability measures for contractors, the commitment of additional funds to upgrade facilities, and creative solutions for persistent problems like annual flooding in important public places.
Community score cards are used by citizen forums to assess the effective allocation and use of annual local council budgets, grading the use of the budget against the plan and against the Union’s sectoral priorities. After consulting with their home communities, citizen forum members participate in the Union Parishad annual evaluation and give a red, yellow, or green rating for each councillor on their performance against a set of key indicators. Councillors strive to improve their ratings, and can be seen deliberately taking actions to improve year on year.
Participation of marginalised groups
The work of the citizen forums has stimulated broad participation from people from poor households and from women in annual planning and budgeting meetings.
Prior to the project these meetings were either not happening at all or achieving close to the legal minimum of 5% of citizens attending. By the end of the project more than 12% of the total voting population of each area were attending these public meetings, with the increase being driven by greater interest from marginalised communities and poor women. Although many women in rural Bangladesh claimed that attending meetings related to the local government’s budget is a man’s responsibility, by the end of the project nearly half (49.6%) of the attendees of open budget meetings in the project area were women.
Demonstrable influence of marginalised groups
Since the projects began, representatives of poor households and neighbourhoods have put forward a significant number of well-developed and well-evidenced proposals to local government, many of which have been funded and implemented.
By 2017, 56% of the demands or issues raised at public budgeting meetings in the project area came from people from poor and excluded communities, 20% of which were placed by poor and marginalised women.
Changing long-standing social norms
Through their work, citizen forum members develop regular face-to-face relationships with elected representatives and local elites, a rarity for anyone from their communities. During the study tour, one long-serving Union Parishad chairman directly credited his local citizen forum for upending the class-based social norms that were preventing people from their communities from approaching and making demands of their local governments.
Community members from poor areas now feel they have allies with access to government and are more willing to approach their Union Parishad members directly or with the support of their citizen forum. Local leaders are increasingly receiving feedback from typically-overlooked constituents and have begun to recognise this group as an organised political force that they must be accountable to.
The new visibility and consolidated voice of the poor is shifting Bangladesh’s elite-driven politics and centring the voices and priorities of previously-excluded people. CARE has found that citizen forums are an effective vehicle for pro-poor and gender equitable participatory local governance when they are:
- specifically designed to be representative of their own particularly marginalised areas and groups
- supported to become experts on local government processes in their areas
- promoted to seize citizen participation opportunities themselves
- focus on mobilising, organizing, and building the skills of their own communities
The voice of ‘the people’ is then amplified from those at the margins.
Written with contributions from Murad Bin Aziz, CARE Bangladesh.
This blog is the second in a 3-part series reflecting on key themes from the recent LOGIN study tour hosted by CARE Bangladesh. The first in the series focused on CARE Bangladesh’s unique approach to participatory power analysis, which informs their programming on local governance. The final instalment in this series will focus on understanding why local government representatives, often balancing elite interests, might be motivated to respond to poor and marginalised groups.