What does it mean to strengthen citizen participation in local governance and why is it important?

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What does it mean to strengthen citizen participation in local governance and why is it important?

To help start the conversation and keep the focus of this discussion thread, please consider the following questions:

  • What does it mean to strengthen citizen participation in local governance?
  • Why is this effort important?  How does it strengthen human rights?
  • What would strong citizen participation in local governance look like?
  • What is the impact that you seek (on communities, systems, policies and governance)?
  • Who is involved in this work?

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

Meaning of Citizen Participation in Local Governance

citizen participation in local governance means the ability of ordinary citizens to assess their needs, contribute to develop their local public projects, then watch their implementation, and watch the local public budget. This process of participation can be achieved by positive participation in the elections, attending hearing sessions, taking part in community task forces. I think participation in local governance is very important because it enables citizens to prioritize their needs and watch public allocations and resources to the public projects. This will lead to better management for public resources and less corrupt practices.  

Increase in participation = decrease in corruption?

Hany Ibrahim wrote:

I think participation in local governance is very important because it enables citizens to prioritize their needs and watch public allocations and resources to the public projects. This will lead to better management for public resources and less corrupt practices.  

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on what citizen participation is and why it is important, Hany!  I agree that achieving government transparency is an important reason to strengthen citizen participation.  Furthermore transparency is not just an end in itself - it allows citizens to fully participate in their governance.  In our tactical notebook Right to Know, Right to Live: Building a campaign for the right to information and accountability, Sowmya Kidambi of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) writes:

The Right to Information (RTI) campaign of the MKSS is symbiotically connected to an understanding that without information and transparency there can be no genuine participation of the poor in democracy, no ability to demand and access their rights.

Can we say that increased citizen participation in local governance leads to a decrease in corruption?  Has that impact been documented?

Increase in participation = decrease in corruption? Yes/often

kantin wrote:

Can we say that increased citizen participation in local governance leads to a decrease in corruption?  Has that impact been documented?

Many scholars of local-level citizen participation have argued that this is true, mostly on the basis of case studies.  This article looks at a broad set of cases of participatory budgeting in Brazil and also finds evidence for the claim: 




I have to agree with you in saying "increased citizen participation in local governance leads to a decrease in corruption". Many of the case studies are accompanied by data supporting an increase in corrupt official arrests, and media and agency investigations. Thanks for the WB site resources link. I'm certain the information will be most helpful.  

Participatory Democracy


You'll find, above, a link to information on Brazil's effort to emulate and improve on the US democratic republic format.  The elected officials' duties are to build and support ongoing public participation in coops that meet to determine tax rates and HOW to SPEND their tax money.  The 2nd job of elected officials is to oversee the approved actions of the people in spending their money to assure minimal graft and that the will of the people is fullfilled.

Citizen Participation in Local Governance

Participatory Democracy, as implemented in Brazil, would work fine here by ending the effect of lobbying on funding, returning taxing authority and spending authority to local levels, where every voter can have input.

On the importance of citizen participation

Starting with a theoretical point:

Following a rights-based approach to development, poverty is the result of the denial of rights and unequal power relationships. Inequalities in power lead to exclusion of the weak and powerless. It is unlikely that a decision taken in absence of a particular group of people reflects their opinions, interests and concerns. To redress this situation, it is important that citizens have the means, skills and moral support and the platform to participate meaningfully in (public) decision-making that affect their live. Additionally, those in power (including local government bodies and private secotr actors) need to be more accountable to people over whom they have an influence. This is valid at all levels of governance, from local to global.

Civil and political rights (e.g. freedom of expression, access to information, access to justice, freedom of association, etc.) which are at the basis of political participation, are human rights in themselves. However, they are also crucial instruments and sometimes even pre-conditions for achieving economic, social and cultural rights. For example, if information on local budget and policy priorities in eduction is not publicly available, citizens will face challenges in actively participating in and influencing local decision making on this topic and holding local representatives accountable.  


Knowledge and Programme Adisor Political and Social Participation


On the importance and impact of citizen participation

In strengthening the capacity of citizens to participate in local governance, it is important to contribute to the improvement and enhancement of the forms, spaces and democratic mechanisms where citizens can engage in the local government action.  This is very important because it can provide opportunities for citizens based on their experiences, beliefs, desires and expectations to influence local governance.

To ensure a strong participation of citizens in local governance, it is first important that they understand and wish to exercise their right to participate in local political issues.  At the same time, local institutions should be prepared to facilitate the citizen participation.

As a result of engaging citizens in local governance we have noticed that:

  • local authorities begin to improve their ability to solve problems of citizens,
  • there are various mechanisms and forms of consultation and accountability to communities,
  • communities with more level of participation tend to become more inclusive and cohesive, and
  • increase in the number and quality of initiatives collectively made by communities.
Strengthening Citizen Participation: a process with many aspects

Here’s one way to begin to think about the questions. Effective citizen participation in local governance requires a range of things to be in place, such as:

  • Confidence and self esteem on the part of the citizen – a sense of entitlement, a sense of being able and having the right to be part of things.
  • Knowledge of opportunities for participation – when and where are they? How do people find out?
  • Spaces and processes for participation – what kinds of spaces and processes are they? Who ‘owns’ them, who controls what goes on in them? How do people get into the spaces in order to participate?

 What else should be on this list? And what have we learned about how to help them to happen?

Other things in place

You are so right, Christina - and this reinforces the issue of avoiding generalisations, and making sure to be thinking specifically about the reality and dynamics of the context and people concerned.

I would argue that these three aspects of trust, belief and wholeness are things that can be built through participatory processes - if they're planned and facilitated well, and if they include plenty of space for people to listen to each others' stories in a non-judgemental way. But you would need to build good foundations before engaging directly with government and institutions - and there would be work to do on both sides, not just with citizens! I believe it is completely possible - but of course it takes time and patience.

What strong citizen participation in local governance looks like

One of the more popular examples of strong citizen participation in local governance is "participatory budgeting" (or PB for short), which is a process in which citizens contribute to decision making over at least part of a municipal (or regional) government budget through regular meetings with government officials and then, often, they monitor the government's implementation of the budget, trying to ensure that the government follows through.  Probably the most well known example of PB is in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where it has been practiced for over twenty years, but it has spread to hundreds of cities in dozens of countries across Latin America and the world (in Peru and the Dominican Republic, all municipalities are mandated by national law to use PB).  In some places, citizens participate as individuals; in others, they participate as representatives of specific organizations; and in others, there is a mix of both.  In large cities, there are usually decentralized meetings at the neighborhood or district level; in small towns or villages, there's usually one big meeting.  At these meetings, citizens evaluate the prior year's budget implementation, pointing out problems directly to city officials, and prioritize public works projects or programs for the next year's budget, either through consensus or by voting.  In some places, citizens prioritize by individual project/program, and in others, by more general categories (education, housing, water, etc.) first.  In some places, citizens also prioritize which neighborhoods/parts of the city should receive the project; in others, city officials use indicators of poverty or access to services to determine which neighborhoods face the greatest need; in yet other places, the part of the budget dedicated to PB is split evenly across neighborhoods or districts.  There is a lot of variety in how PB is organized (and it is not always successful in attracting or maintaining a lot of citizen participation), but a sign of strong citizen participation is where citizen decisions are reflected in the final budget and the implementation of it.

What strong citizen participation looks like - budgets are one

Ben - thank you for sharing the aspect of "participatory budgeting" regarding citizen participation in local governance.

For more information on how budgets can be used for monitoring government commitments - New Tactics conducted an on-line dialogue in 2010, Using Government Budgets as a Monitoring Tool that provides great ideas and resources.

The government budget perhaps reflects one area of culmination where citizens participate in their own governance. How resources are allocated shows how a government is responding to the overall needs of its citizens - looking to the foundation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as a foundation of ensuring participation and responsiveness. 

Regarding the role of budgets, I am reminded of Trevor Manual, the South African Minister of Finance in 1998 stated, "The budget is government’s operational plan to deliver a better life for our people. It sets out what you will pay in taxes, how we will spend that money, and what we will deliver. It is a synthesis of all our government policies. The budget is our contract with the nation."

I am very excited to learn what others think "strong citizen participation in local governance" looks like!

What does strong citizen participation look like?

Like Nancy and Ben, when I think of a community with strong citizen participation in their local governance I envision participatory budgeting along with other activities.  In his comment above, Hany lists a few others ways that citizens participate in governance:

  • positive participation in the elections
  • attending hearing sessions
  • taking part in community task forces.

When I envision a community that is participating in its local governance - I see a community where the gap between citizens and their government has disappeared.  It's great to read about Ben's example of "Porto Alegre, Brazil, where it has been practiced for over twenty years, but it has spread to hundreds of cities in dozens of countries across Latin America and the world (in Peru and the Dominican Republic, all municipalities are mandated by national law to use PB)"

I also like the way that Jo described the components of citizen participation:

  • Confidence and self esteem on the part of the citizen
  • Knowledge of opportunities for participation
  • Spaces and processes for participation 

And like Miriam mentioned in her comment above, I also envision a community where the rights of citizens are respected and protected.

What do you see when you envision a community in which citizen participation is active and effective?

Dear Nancy, Thank you for

Dear Nancy,

Thank you for your comment. I agree completely, however is important to highlight the obligation imposes on governments that ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The article 2(1) specifically requires a government to take steps “to the maximum of its available resources” to achieve progressive realization of ESCRs. INESC, together with Ann Blyberg - International HR Internship Program - is the co-chair of Article 2 Project (ESCR and budget working group from IBP - International Budget Partnership). The goal of the project is to develop an in-depth, methodologically sound, and amply illustrated understanding of the implications of these specific obligations (together with the non-discrimination principle) for how a government should formulate, allocate and expend its budget. INESC have also developed a methodology calls "Budget and Human Rights"  that have helped us to analyse budget through human rights perspective. This is our entrance gate to get citizens mobilized to monitor the public policies.

Ethical Citizen Media to strengthen citizen participation

It is interesting to see the many important perspectives on how to strengthen citizen participation in governance. When the general public is active and transparent in issues that directly influence their livelihood, governments notice such activism. The outcome influencing laws, policies, and services that affect the entire community. The effort to strengthen citizen participation is important because the process opens doors to opportunities, as well as levels the playing-field between governments and the people. Human rights improve when citizens have equal access to means of communication and freedom of speech. Strong participation in local governance comes in the form of citizens, government officials, NGO's, and companies (news services, and goods manufacturers etc.) working together in a communal fashion. For instance, Eway Global Media & Technologies works with government agencies and NGO's to increase access to technology, mobile devices, and the Internet ;in order to empower citizens to have a voice. When government officials hear this voice, laws are changed and systems respond by adjusting to the voice of the people. Infrastructures can be improved, and school systems advanced. Access to the newest technology and economic improvement can also be by-products. The method we are implementing involves a combination of social media journalism to increase awareness. Organized civil protests utilizing Ethical Citizen Media (ECM) tactics are also employed to include every voice. With ECM regular citizens become journalists by discussing issues in social media communities, and in their homes. This method has been successful through a coordinated project with Eway and Achievers' Rock Commission Ministry International in Ibadan Nigeria to address gas subsidies. According to media, partner, and government responses, officials are paying attention to the voice of the people. The next objective is to replicate the method in Nairobi Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ethical Citizen Media and Communication for Development

Thankyou, this is a fascinating and particularly inspiring area of work, and good to learn about Eway. It would be really interesting to know how the projects in Kenya and DRC get on in improving citizen awareness and participation in governance. I particularly agree with the point 'Human rights improve when citizens have equal access to means of communication and freedom of speech', and also that 'When government officials hear this voice, laws are changed and systems respond by adjusting to the voice of the people. Infrastructures can be improved, and school systems advanced'. This, I believe, is often the case. Participation through media and 'communication for development' (C4D) is a really powerful means by which to amplify the voices of the poor and marginalised (especially in communities with lower literacy rates) and break down barriers between such groups, governance and key services. Such initiatives have also been used more broadly to boost development projects, awareness of disaster-risk reduction, and have shown to have had a positive effect towards realising the MDGs -especially in the field of public health. The potential of public media working in conflict regions -as I imagine your proposed DRC project may do- is especially interesting, particularly with regards to the prospect of opening spaces for debate and dialogue and improving transparency and the hidden social structures that generate corruption.

Of course there are also some problems to be overcome, not least that a lack of training and access to technology often prevents marginalised groups -and unfortunately many women- from taking part in such initiatives, putting them at a distinct disadvantage. Lack of funding also makes projects in the poorest and most rural areas difficult to sustain, and there is always the risk of 'capture' of media outlets, and direct threats against 'outspoken' journalists -especially if they stand for braodly unpopular or taboo issues -the tragic murder of Zakia Zaki, the female owner of Radio Peace in Afghanistan in 2007 serving as a perfect example. In conflict regions, I also imagine media can serve to exacerbate social tensions as well as relieve them, and more research on this issue is probably required.  Such citizen and private media projects therefore also require adequate protection and safeguards. I have already posted GSDRC resources elsewhere on this forum, so apologies, but if any are interested in this subject, there is a good query report on this subject here: http://www.gsdrc.org/docs/open/HD758.pdf

...and a full Topic Guide on Communication and Governance here: http://www.gsdrc.org/go/topic-guides/communication-and-governance/the-ro...

Who is involved in strengthening citizen participation?

Darren Bunton wrote:

Strong participation in local governance comes in the form of citizens, government officials, NGO's, and companies (news services, and goods manufacturers etc.) working together in a communal fashion.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and examples, Darren!  I am glad that you mentioned a few of the actors that can be involved in strengthening citizen participation in local governance!  By the looks of his comment below, Amjad Ali would add teachers to this list:

  • Citizens
  • Government officials (anyone in particular?)
  • Nongovernmental organizations (what is their role?)
  • Companies (interesting!)
  • Teachers

Who else is involved in stregthening citizen participation?  What role do they play?

Who else is involved

Who else is involved in stregthening citizen participation?  What role do they play?

As mentioned elsewhere, media (non-profit and commerical) plays a very important role in informing citizens, but also creating the space for citizens to have their voice heard. Additionally, religious institutions can have influence on local governance.


Thanks Mariam for sharing the

Thanks Mariam for sharing the views which really suits the political situation in Pakistan and the role of media. Media in pakistan is playing a major role to regulate the affairs of the government and maintain, to some extent, check and balance.

Threk-e-Insaf (TPI), the new emerging political party in pakistan, led by Imran Khan is supported a great deal by the pakistani media and as a result majority of the youth are motivated to be the member of the new party.


There are some other actors...

I definitely agree with the idea that the media or religious institutions play an import ant role in terms of informing citizens and in terms of creating a space for citizens to have their voice heard. Nonetheless, several other options become more and more important, especially when we consider some particular groups of citizens. I am of course thinking of the Internet and particularly of the possibilities that are available thru social media apparatus.

Citizen media - a powerful tool for citizen engagement

Agreed - social media and new technology has opened so many possibilities for citizen journalists around the world!  Citizen media is an important part of engaging citizens in the political process in holding the institutions accountable.  Darren also mentioned in the importance of citizen media in gov't participation in his comment:

Ethical Citizen Media to strengthen citizen participation

If anyone is intereted in learning about citizen media tactics being used by practitioners, check out our 2011 dialogue on Using Mobile Phones for Citizen Media

Teachers training institutions and local governance...


As on the basis of the implementation of the project related or focused on teacher training institutions in an effort to improve capacity of teachers to address issues of human rights, good governance, gender and youth, and role of media in promoting democracy and human rights.

The project’s immediate objective is to build the capacity of selected teacher training institutions to teach concepts of good governance, human rights, gender and youth development & empowerment, and the positive role of media in promoting good governance, democracy and human rights and issues pertaining to women and youth. In the longer term the objective is to produce a core of teachers capable of teaching these values to high school students in conflict areas, contributing to critical thinking and analysis of key issues of concern to their communities, thus providing an important counterweight to extremist ideologies.  


Teacher training and local governance

Thanks for this Amjad, can you please share project documents on this? Sounds really interesting, Jane

Translating human rights into citizens rights

Since this is a dialogue about new tactic in human rights, I like to contribute this conceptual basis for citizens' participation, whether in local or national governance.

IN the Philippines, the traditiona of human rights activism is grounded on a moral basis - being human. Asserting our human rights tend to be associated with a critical stance toward the "duty bearers" and is often associated with opposition politics.

Most human rights activists don't have a problem with this, since we accept the risks and costs of protecting and promoting human rights. But in our experience, the people with whom and for whom we struggle can be vulnerable, not just politically and physically, but internally, if their human rights issues are not translated into citizens' rights.

Although there is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants to which governments are signatory, and there are usually human rights provisions in national constitutions, the enforcement of human rights need national and local legislation and mechanisms. Knowing these is no guarantee of success, but if we do not invoke these, even the people we work with may think deep inside that our advocacy for human rights will succeed only under another government.

Especially in a situation of repression and resistance, this makes them vulnerable to accusations that they are part of or at least sympathetic to opposition forces. They may very well be, but it prevents them from fully exploring the possibilities of the existing processes.

This is the reason why citizens' participation in local governance offers many possibilities. The processes and leaders of local government are more accessible, especially to people whose capacity to participate in public life is localized and limited in many ways e.g poverty, education.

That is why it is essential to have education in citizenship (beyond the formal "civics" course), focused on actionable issues and combining discussions with "practicum" - actual meetings with local officials, including preparatory activities and post activity reflections.



Operationalizing Human Rights

It is interesting to read that across the completely different cultural and geographic contexts, many contact points can be established in terms of the difficulties citizen face. In that respect, I definitely agree with the centrality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Portugal, during the last decades there was space for major changes in our social structure. Today we can notice that, while part of the population could achieve much better standards of living, some particular groups have little or no voice and fail to influence the policy making process. In other words, one may find a growing number of ‘stateless citizens’ who are not able to grant a minimum of protection by the State, people who establish no linkages with the family or the local community anymore. I am referring specially to the elderly, who often have to deal with a blend of personal issues: severe poverty, lack of education, little access to health care, little support from the community, etc. Therefore, like in the Philippines, it is becoming clear the Human Rights must be operationalized and become a ‘de facto’ element. Also the importance of education to citizenship is becoming more and more acknowledged as a way to solve some of these challenging issues and prevent future problems. In other words, building the capacity to participate in public life is an objective in itself because no one should be ignored and people must be able to influence every decision and every process. Maybe that is part of the explanation for the growing popularity of the Participatory Budgeting processes in this country.

Importance of People's Participation and its impact

Citizen’s participation means active involvement of “common people” in the decision making process about all the decisions which are affecting their lives directly or indirectly. The people know about their issues as well as their needs far better than any outsiders. So they can suggest the best solution or outcome to the situation. When the solutions are imposed on people without their involvement, either it is not accepted or people don’t play active role in effective implementation of that. Contrary to this, when the decisions are made “with” people (and not “for”) people, there is much more effective implementations and also level of governance and transparency in efficient use of resources.

People have to understand importance and value of participation and it cannot be imposed on people. It has to be bottom up, not top down and so it has to begin with involvement in governance at the local level. It is very crucial because it not only gives right to people about influencing policies, programs and laws affecting them but this process of participation also nurtures ownership of people to practice and implement those laws, policies and programs effectively. Ultimately it leads to sustainable and quality social change in society.

When people are participating, it changes their status from “beneficiaries” or “service seekers” to that of “rights holders.” It is biggest shift and long lasting transformation not only in lives of people but in the communities and society as a whole. When people are involved in governance, one can experience “democracy” in action in its true spirit. There are several people’s movements which have influenced to bring or change new laws, policies, and programs. Right To Information act is an excellent example of people’s participation which was run and facilitated by MKSS in India. There are many successful examples in India and across the globe.

Comonent of effective participation and Role of stakeholders

The role of Community Based Organizations (CBOs) or People’s Organizations is most important in planning, developing, implementing, monitoring, evaluating, strengthening, maintaining, sustaining and replicating any movements. The strong CBOs can bring the real social transformation and empowerment of people in its true sense and spirit. For this people need not be highly educated or intelligent. Rather most effective movements of the world are run, led and supported by so called lower socio-economic-educated people with very limited or no political power and resources. The civil Rights Movements of USA, the Dalits and Tribal Rights movement in India, the freedom movement in India or South Africa, the Labor Rights Movement in Russia, the Women’s rights movements across the globe are few examples where people who were involved in these movements were not socio-economically higher level or highly educated. But what is most important is the ownership of people with full commitment to the mission of the movement.

The other important component which is very important for effective participation is nurturing of the collective leadership in change making process. It is rightly said that “the power corrupts and the absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When there is a collective leadership, people can keep and check which balances the power. Leadership will be there but it will be shared leadership. This helps in strengthening movement by bringing together adding the complementary strengths and by eliminating complementary weaknesses. Indian Freedom Movement is an example of this concept (though not the perfect.) It also ensures sustainability of the process and movement as the process is owned by people and not by leaders.

For the effective participation of people, the right kind of education and awareness is much needed component. This is not formal education, but informal and non-formal education to be provided to people at the time and space suitable to the people. It is also essential to provide this education in conducive environment in an interesting participatory manner, in language of people. When people make informed choices and decisions, they are committed to it and they live it.

The other essential component in effective participation is that it is inclusive and not exclusive. It must be open to all and not eliminate anyone on basis of gender, race, religion, language, ethnicity, class, caste, religion, color, ability, age etc. There must be equal and fair representation of all different groups.

Creating safe, legitimate, and formal spaces and platform for people to participate is inevitable for guaranteeing operative people’s participation. The bottom up movements which are emerged from grassroots must be nourished by inviting the people’s views in formulating the policies and programs at local and larger level.

The role of the NGOs, or Voluntary Organizations is of a catalyst in building up, strengthening and shaping the people’s movement. It trains and nurtures the leaders and people. It builds team of people which shares responsibilities. Role of organizations are to generate people friendly resources, create safe spaces, document processes, conduct participatory action research with people, provide participatory training to people and all other stake holders, mobilize resources, help people to network effectively to advocate and become protagonist for change. The organizations also develop the effective grassroots models which demonstrate success of the people’s movement and also its visibility and legitimacy in the larger society. That helps in spreading, expanding, and replicating processes at wider level which ultimately create favorable environment in bringing positive change or social transformation.

Examples of informal ed & creating spaces?

Thanks, Parul!  Have you seen effective and innovative ways that CSOs have implemented the non-formal education for citizens that you describe? Also, can you share examples of how CSOs are creating "safe, legitimate and formal spaces and platforms for people to participate"?

It would be great to hear these stories!

Lessons Learnt

To engage effectively, citizens do not only need adequate understanding of their roles and responsibilities, but also knowledge and skills on how to execute their responsibilities.

Evidence from our governance programme in Turkana County, Kenya, shows that participation has been instrumental in guarding against abuse of office by public servants and political leaders. When the Turkana community was actively engaged in social audits of public projects, the public servants and political leaders quickly realised that they were actually accountable to the people. As a result, there were instances when the leaders took action to suspend or dismiss corrupt officials and they were forced to refund the stolen money. There were also cases where under-funded projects were allocated additional funds to necessitate completion. All these were in response to community pressure for accountability. Had the people not participated in the social accountability initiatives, these would have been missed opportunities.

All in all, full and inclusive participation by the marginalised citizens greatly contributes to sustainability of development initiatives, strengthens local capacity, gives a voice to the poor and marginalized and link development to the people’s needs.

Have you faced challenges in engaging citizens in initiatives?

Jerusha wrote:

All in all, full and inclusive participation by the marginalised citizens greatly contributes to sustainability of development initiatives, strengthens local capacity, gives a voice to the poor and marginalized and link development to the people’s needs.

Thank you for sharing your experiences strengthening citizen participation in Tanzania, Jerusha!  I am curious to learn more about how you engage citizen to participate in these initiatives.  Is it challenging to gain the trust of the citizens that the process will be genuine?