The Financial Express

Practice of citizens' engagement in public service delivery

Md. Shamsul Arefin | Published: February 10, 2020 22:05:20 | Updated: February 10, 2020 22:21:01

Practice of citizens' engagement in public service delivery

Citizens play a critical role in advocating and helping to make public institutions more transparent, accountable and effective, and contributing innovative solutions to complex development challenges of the 21st century.

Citizens' engagement pursues and facilitates the involvement of those people who are potentially affected by or concerned in a decision. The principle of citizens' engagement embraces those who are affected by a decision and have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.

Citizens' engagement may be regarded as a way of empowerment of people. "Citizen first" and "more heads are better than one" are key to this concept.

Evidence shows that citizens' engagement improves access, responsiveness, inclusiveness, and accountability in the delivery of public services such as health, water, education, and agriculture, anti-corruption drive, river protection, government land and public asset management and protection, sustainable climate management and many more. 

Citizens' engagement does not work properly sometimes if citizens do not have sufficient information to participate and monitor, officials are hostile to this kind of engagement process, etc. 

In some countries citizens' engagement has become a central principle of public policy making. In the UK and Canada government institutions have started to build citizens' engagement in their policy-making processes. This involves large-scale consultations, focus group research and online discussion forums. There are many different citizens' engagement mechanisms like public hearing, citizens score card, social audit, oversight committees etc.

Citizens' engagement may also be viewed as accountability enhancing tool.  In the United Kingdom citizens are used to ensure fair and humane detention of prisoners. Volunteers comprise the Independent Monitoring Board that reports on the fair and humane detention of prisoners and detainees.

The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden have provisions to hear people on many occasion that affect their life. New Zealand has numerous laws on health, local government, environmental management that require government officials to consult affected people. 

Participatory budgeting directly involves citizens in making decisions about how public money should be spent. Usually, this means involving citizens in identifying spending prioritiesand evaluating how the money was spent. The first participatory budget was introduced in 1989 by the Brazilian Government.

"I Paid a Bribe.com" is a website in India which works with citizens to improve the quality of life. It focuses on prevention of corruption. They can provide reports about bribes they paid, bribes they resisted and instances where they received a public service without paying a bribe. The site has now been replicated in Pakistan, Kenya, Greece and Zimbabwe.

The citizens are invited to be involved in decision making by the Scandinavian governments. Examples include water user bodies, regulatory bodies for utilities, community demand-driven projects, participatory budgeting, planning and delivery of health services.

The Australian Public Service (APS) reforms viewed the public as 'consumers'. Citizens' right to participate directly or indirectly in decisions that affect them should be actively facilitated. Major shifts in the culture and operations of government agencies are done.

Australian Centrelink was established in 1997 as a one-stop-shop for the integrated provision by the Australian Government of various human services and social support payments. It rapidly earned international reputation for its cutting edge approach to service delivery.

Estonian government in 2009 convened brain-storming sessions with tens of thousands of people to discuss common problems and support each other in achieving common goals. The slogan of the initiative was: "Thinking Together for a Better Estonia." Engaging interest groups has been enshrined in the rules of Business of the government of Estonia.

Successful, citizen-focused public servant will be one who understands this, and can deploy the kind of relational and navigational skills and intelligence that keeps engagement on track. Sanitation facilities in Albania, energy reform in Colombia and rural irrigation in the Philippines are some case studies which illustrate various types of effective citizens' engagement.

Empirical study shows that citizens' engagement

* improves the quality of policy being developed, making it more practical and relevant, and helping to ensure that services are delivered in a more effective and efficient way

* gives early notice of emerging issues, putting government in a better position to deal with them in a proactive way.

Core Values for the Practice of citizens' engagement

*is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.

*seeks input from participants in designing how they participate. 

*provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way. 

In Bangladesh, Anti-corruption Commission constituted district Corruption Prevention Committees and Upazila Corruption prevention Committees at district and upazila levels comprising local honest and influential persons like retired college and school teachers, doctors, retired civil and army officers, police officers, religious leaders and interested persons of various professions those who have the interest to work against corruption voluntarily and who have proven track record of integrity in their own society. They use to arrange seminar, workshop and other social events for awakening people about the risk of corruption and its negative impact on the society. It has been seen from an impact study that these committees have been creating a strong influence over society against corrupt practices.

Evidences show that protection, repair and construction work of river banks, haor embankment, local roads and bridge, forest land, government property etc can be better managed by engaging citizens than by government office alone. 

Citizens' engagement have impacted in the dimensions of services such as inclusiveness, quality, access, delivery time, transaction costs, targeting, reduction in bribes paid, improved financial and operational performance of the services and openness in government and finally a strong trust upon the incumbent government.

The US Office of Science and Technology is driving Open Government Initiative in full-speed ahead. "American commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognising that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that's why American administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans.

Study of US open government initiative shows that it enhances management of public finances, and bring about greater transparency, accountability and social inclusion. Citizens become active agents rather than passive recipients.

Case studies of India show that citizen report cards can have considerable impact on local service delivery, community score-cards can contribute to greater user satisfaction, community monitoring can contribute to more responsive delivery of services, such as increased teacher attendance in schools and complaint mechanisms can contribute to reduction of corruption. Uganda experience shows that social audits can contribute to exposure of corruption and effectiveness in programme implementation process and public expenditure tracking surveys can contribute to reduce leakages. Botswana budget monitoring initiatives have contributed to improved budget transparency and awareness, as well as enhanced resources and efficiency in expenditure utilisation. In South Africa, community-based freedom of information strategies increased housing and water quality.

Citizens' engagement should no longer be a choice for public offices. Public offices need to do it proactively. A consensus is emerging that citizen-led programmes can complement state-led efforts and improve overall effectiveness of governance programmes and value for public money. So it is time to insert this best practices of the world i.e. citizens' engagement in the Rules of Business of the government so that all public offices will be exultant to follow this world class culture for enhancing governance, value of money and satisfaction of citizens as well.

Dr. Md. Shamsul Arefin is a former senior secretary, Government of Bangladesh.


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