OpenGov Conversations: Aaron Azelton on Citizen Engagement


This post is part of our series, OpenGov Conversations, an ongoing discourse featuring contributions from transparency and accountability researchers and practitioners around the world.

This post responds to the following question: What is the role of citizen engagement in the ability of transparency policies and initiatives to hold governments accountable?

As much as I would like to offer a simple definitive answer to the question, I have to say instead that it depends; particularly when democratic institutions and processes are being established and corresponding norms, values and practices are evolving. This view is based on 20 years working at the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to increase organized citizen engagement, as a means of deepening democracy so that governments deliver a better quality of life for citizens. This work has provided a number of lessons regarding the relationship between citizen engagement, transparency and government accountability.

The lessons are framed by the convictions that citizenship comprises a set of inherently political rights and responsibilities, and implies a certain type of relationship between people and government. In new and emerging democracies, this relationship invariably favors government and citizens have few, if any, substantive opportunities to participate in decisions impacting their welfare. Nonetheless, there is an instrumental role for citizens, through informed and organized engagement, in challenging and changing this dynamic. Citizens must therefore understand ideas about citizenship, politics and government. They need knowledge to make decisions about policy choices and the proper use of authority, along with the skills to voice their concerns and act collectively. At the same time, they need access to information about government actions, and need to be free to act without government harassment or interference.

The following are a few lessons on how this works in practice and they can be summed up by saying that engagement matters, but that different types of engagement matters differently and it is impossible to circumvent the politics surrounding any attempt to hold government accountable.

  1. The type and quality of participation will matter greatly when trying to make democracy work. Emphasis needs to be placed on those forms of participation that purposefully help create relationships and a more appropriate balance of power between citizens and government. Of course, the political context and undercurrents of power must be considered, including the interplay between values, interests, incentives, identities and institutions. Different situations will call for different types of political engagement and relationship building. Additionally, NDI has learned that most situations will call for multiple types of engagement. In a recent study, NDI found that government monitoring activities are most impactful when they are conducted in concert with other forms of political engagement, such as policy advocacy (NDI 2012). Likewise, in their review of citizen-centered transparency and accountability initiatives, Gaventa and McGee (2013) highlight similar reasons for the unevenness in outcomes across initiatives and underscore the contextual factors that determine the appropriate types of engagement.

  2. Opening “political space” and occupying that space often involves different actors and actions. Citizen engagement can certainly advance a transparency and accountability agenda. There are numerous examples of citizen organizing to open government and create performance standards. Examples include NDI’s support to parliamentary monitoring organizations (PMOs) concerned about the performance of elected representative, and to coalitions advocating for freedom of information acts (FOIA). These forms of engagement help create political space. In the case of PMOs they are working to open parliaments to greater citizen oversight and involvement. This is a necessary development in most contexts and will matter to a much greater extent if citizens are then capable of aggregating their interests and collectively influencing the lawmaking process. This has the potential to transform power relations. Similarly with a FOIA citizens must understand how to request information and use it to leverage government responsiveness.

    What we find is a need for two interrelated forms of engagement. The first creates more political space in terms of access to information or to public officials. The second is more concerned with using these spaces to meaningfully interact with public officials on substantive policy issues. It is through these interactions that democratic norms and practices truly begin to emerge. It is also where citizenship competencies are more widely developed.

    Citizens must engage in a variety of activities beyond communication and information sharing that many transparency initiatives foster, in order to build a political counterweight to entrenched power inequities perpetuating the status quo. Moreover, greater transparency does not lead inevitably to greater accountability. Others are also arriving at similar conclusions. World Bank studies of social accountability are finding that some “accountability” mechanisms merely establish a democratic veneer, without really altering power relations (McNeil and Mumvuma 2010).

  3. Election processes provide important opportunities for citizens to open and occupy political space. NDI recognizes that elections are a democratic cornerstone and they can set the stage for greater government accountability and responsiveness. Citizens have a role in ensuring electoral integrity through monitoring the process and ensuring the fairness and accuracy of the outcomes. Additionally, citizen engagement can influence the outcomes by raising awareness about the alternative choices on the ballot, or by encouraging candidates to address practical policy issues for comparison purposes. Along these lines, elections can begin to shape appropriate citizen-state relationships, create space for deliberation and ongoing dialogue, and promote inclusion and collective action. Good elections , however, do not subsequently guarantee state responses to citizen needs, the participation of citizens in policymaking, or the accountability of public officials and their responsible use of public resources.

  4. Technology can be used to readily create spaces and opportunities for citizens to express their voices individually or collectively, but making these voices politically stronger and the spaces more meaningful is a harder challenge that is political and not technological in nature. It is also one that can be easily overshadowed by a growing exuberance for technology, but not for politics. Increased access to information and communication channel also increases citizens’ expectations that their input will be considered and that public officials will respond. Failure to manage or meet these expectations can have a deleterious effect on citizen trust in government institutions, and ultimately democratic development.

From a democracy assistance perspective, it is necessary to support a range of collective citizen actions and to recognize that greater transparency or access to decisionamkers, does not necessarily translate into government accountability. Instead of bypassing government, parliaments, parties, and politics altogether, citizens must engage these institutions. Whether advocating for specific policies, providing expertise on poverty issues, monitoring government performance, or raising awareness about needs, collective action helps change the way politics is practiced.

Works Cited

Political-Process Monitoring: Considering the Outcomes and How They Can Be Measured. National Democratic Institute. 2012

Gaventa, J.; McGee R. (2013). The Impact of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives. Development Policy Review. 2013, 31 (S1): s3-s28.

McNeil, M.; Mumvuma, T. (2010). Demanding Good Governance: A Stocktaking of Social Accountability Initiatives by Civil Society in Anglophone Africa. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank. 2010.