Enhancing Citizen Engagement

Moving past tokenistic Citizen Engagement

  • Current Practice

Despite having formalized and institutionalized participatory practices of collecting citizen opinions on their services ,Local governments continue to design their budgets based on tokenistic participatory planning practices.

The Las are expected to engage with citizens and businesses to seek input on public and regulatory services, respectively, that impact their lives. The feedback of their grievances, collected prior to drafting the annual budget, must ideally be addressed through the new budget.

Institutional mechanisms exist to facilitate inclusive and participatory engagement of citizens in local development and governance. However existing participatory practices are proven to be tokenistic, with local governments following standardized protocols of speaking to a few members of the public, in hopes on understanding the real issues faced by the locality.

The usual practice is for Local authorities to conduct meetings with the public to understand what grievances they believed must be addressed as a priority in budget allocation. However, these planning meetings rarely include a representative cross-section of the various groups in the locality, especially the marginalized, vulnerable and those earning daily wages (who cannot afford to attend public meetings). A participatory process must ideally be shaped by the voices of all groups, and be inclusive in nature. If a planning process is not conducted through a process that strives to gather opinions of all groups, it could be deemed tokenistic.

  • Reasons for tokenistic practices

The tokenistic practice in most Local authorities is largely due to a combination of a lingering lack of capacity, both technical and human, within LAs to facilitate and manage effective and meaningful public consultations. The reality of political influence also plays a decisive role in local development agendas, due to the large sums of money that are allocated.

In instances where Local authorities make the attempt to visit homes and collect data, the method of data collection is manual recording (using pen and paper). Collecting of information from house to house visits as well as consultative forums often result in an overload of data with very little or non-existent capacity to process and consolidate the same for decision-making.

Since data and information from these consultative processes are seldom used for planning and prioritizing and hence, are seen to be an ineffective exercise, there is very little incentive for both frontline functionaries and senior leadership to invest in this process.

The tokenistic nature of the participatory planning process then causes a Mismatch of LA Resource Allocations and Citizen Priorities:

There is a trust deficit between local governments and communities due to a mismatch of resources allocated and priorities voiced by citizens. While the existing planning processors and public consultations act as an avenue for people to voice their needs and concerns, these are seldom addressed when resources are allocated.

LA budget allocations are often made in an ad hoc manner with no rigor or evidence applied behind the estimations. Since LAs are conscious of this credibility gap while presenting estimates, they seldom share elements of their budget, especially those pertaining to specifics of income and expenditure with their constituencies. This opaqueness in the budget process often leads to political capture of resources. A close examination of the politics of local government budgets in Sri Lanka reiterates documented observations elsewhere that distribution of power often influences distribution of resources.