Participative Governance: Serving the right dish to the citizen

21 January 2015

Imagine you are served in a fine-dining restaurant. During your meal the chef appears and seeks your feedback on the dishes served from the kitchen. You are thanked and are promptly offered an incentive for providing your feedback. Perhaps the dish could also be now renamed after you!

Now see yourself standing in a food truck queue. In due time you get what you order, and you promptly share your review on social media. The food truck owner checks all comments and makes relevant changes. You notice the improvement next time the truck comes to town.

And now imagine the drive-thru of a fast food outlet. You drive in, order your meal at one counter, get the food from another counter and you drive off. Not much conversation; much like the movement of boxes on a conveyer belt.

It will not take you long to associate your experience of public services with one of these scenarios; you, the citizen, paying taxes for services delivered by your government, the kitchen.

So what does this mean in the context of public services? The digital age has empowered citizens, across all ages, to be more aware and expect more from their governments. Connected citizens are expecting their governments to be wired as well, delivering services in the medium of choice of their citizens. Governments, however, are inherently process driven and usually risk averse. And they seldom move as fast as the emerging technologies of the times.

However, a handful of governments, most of whom rank highly in the United Nation’s e-Government index, are innovating and taking the lead by seeking citizen participation in important matters of governance. These governments are not only seeking citizen feedback on important policy matters, but are also establishing joint government-citizen committees to prepare action plans aimed at improving public service outcomes.

 Singapore initiated, with its REACH programme, participation of citizens in policy making and setting priorities on public expenditure. And this has gradually picked up pace with more than a handful of countries now striving towards open and participative governance.

For instance, Philippines has emerged as an example of open government. In Canada, we have helped with a ‘citizen compass’ initiative to gauge citizen sentiments and provide recommendations to the Canadian government on improving e-service delivery. The US has for crowdsourcing ideas in the form of online citizen competitions and the UK has an open public services initiative, where we have also run citizen juries to add the public’s voice into the policy-making process. And India has recently started a programme called MyGov to facilitate citizen-government dialogues on important governance matters.

In an ideal world, each government could afford to listen to all its citizens, act on all suggestions, and mass implement all of them. In the real world, however, governments need to understand citizen sentiments through many different channels, analyse them to be sure of what citizens really want, predict the social benefit and target population for new initiatives. Governments then need to introduce progressive changes while working within the constraints of available budget and resources.

It is clear governments cannot serve like fast food drive-thrus for all of their services. The kitchen must ask the paying patron and evolve its offering. That said, it is also clear that governments cannot follow a global one-size-fits-all approach. Factors such as existing government-citizen relationships, internet connectivity and the openness of the country’s media need to be considered before finalising strategies and taking the participative plunge. Each country, state and local body has therefore to define clear and realistic objectives for its participative programmes and tailor its pitch to engage the relevant set of citizens.

Three indicators are critical in ensuring the success of such participative governance programmes. First is timing. For instance, a government is better off starting when the country’s general sentiment is of hope and development rather than when a country is in crisis, conflict or economic turmoil. Second, is strong political will, to make bold changes to existing policies and programmes. Third, and the most important, is a machinery of the state which has an appetite to warmly accept feedback and undertake improvement mid-way through established programmes.

Neel Ratan  |  Global leader, Digital Government Network
Profile | Email |  + 91 124 4620540



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