OpenGov Conversations: Susannah Vila on Three Types of Citizen Engagement

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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?

The term civic engagement can be defined in a variety of ways. For the purposes of this conversation let’s say it consists of someone’s involvement in matters of public concern. Let’s also say that citizen engagement refers specifically to the involvement of individuals as opposed to civil society organizations.

What are the different ways that citizens engage? How does the shape of their engagement influence the shape of any government accountability that might come from it? I’ve noticed a few different types of engagement – and each type appears to have different repercussions for accountability. Here are three:

Instrumental Citizen Engagement

This happens when someone engages with an initiative because they want a response on something that directly affects their life. Take the case of Shubham Kahndelwal in India. He was forced to pay a bribe for a identity card, went home and started angrily typing things into Google. He found I Paid a Bribe and made a report. The official ended up getting reprimanded. Does that mean that Shubham will take another action to mitigate bribery in his city? Or that the official won’t ever ask for a bribe again? It’s hard to know, but it doesn’t seem likely that Shubham’s one-off act of citizen engagement will lead to anything more than a one-off example of accountability.

Small-Scale and Strategic Citizen Engagement

Strategies are more likely to nudge individuals like Shubham into committing another act of citizen engagement. For example, one project I’ve gotten to know in the past year, Macedonia’s Transparency Watch, has received less than 200 citizen reports, however each one is verified by a trained staff member who then builds an advocacy or legal case around it. The staffer gets back in touch with the citizen, tells them about the case they’re building and keeps him regularly updated using a public commenting system. This isn’t especially complicated – and it’s still hard to parse such advocacy from actual accountability: taking a report of corruption to court might spotlight the problem but won’t necessarily make it go away any more than reprimanding the public official in India did. However, Transparency Watch’s engagement mechanism is part of a strategy that keeps people involved and ready to take another action.

Collaborative Citizen Engagement

When people are involved in a policy or an initiative because it resonates with their values they’re more likely to stay involved over time. At least that’s the experience of a healthcare transparency project in Serbia, What’s Your Doctor Like? that I recently learned about. They recruited volunteer organizers throughout the country to get citizens to share reports on the quality of specific health care providers. The government shut their website down citing the privacy of the doctors who were listed. The volunteers, though, became even more involved after the site went dark. They’re now helping to run an SMS hotline for citizens who’ve had bad experiences with public healthcare.

According to Serbia on the Move, which runs the project, people remain engaged because of their shared understanding of the need for more accountability in their healthcare system. It’s an issue that these volunteers already cared about – participating in What’s Your Doctor Like? connected them to one another. This created ties that make it more likely that they’ll be respond to an accountability-related call to action in the future.

A similar example of collaborative citizen engagement is the Filipino education accountability project Check My School (CMS). CMS created a network of trained volunteers, or infomediaries, who provided data about resource shortages in schools and came up with their own mechanisms for pushing the Department of Education to address these shortages. Infomediaries joined up because of, according to a World Bank case study, “their high interest in the education sector, their willingness to gain leadership and organizational skills, their intention to start a public service career in the education sector, and their sense of social responsibility toward public schools in their communities.” CMS got people (who cared about education reform) to engage and stay engaged by giving them an opportunity to collaborate with one another.

Conclusion

Getting people to care in the first place is a separate issue altogether, but one that such collaborative models can illuminate. When Sunlight’s Lee Drutman explored this challenge he highlighted two driving factors: saliency of the issue and the ease of the engagement opportunity. Both are important but, as Check My School and Serbia on the Move learned, it also works to start with the people who already care, transform them into ambassadors for transparency and then proactively reach out to new audiences. To accomplish the latter, initiatives need to empower such ambassadors to go out and knock on doors for them. They need to knock both on virtual doors – like Facebook groups where conversations about issues of public concern are already happening – and actual doors. Transparency initiatives are a lot more likely to spur lasting accountability through such collaborative (and proactive) citizen engagement strategies.

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