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Engaging Citizens Can Be a ‘Win-Win’ Approach

La Participación Ciudadana como una Herramienta para “Ganar-Ganar”: Recomendaciones del MRI sobre Cocreacion

Jeff Lovitt|

It is never easy to set the limits of citizens’ engagement in participatory policymaking. The sky is usually too high, but a useful approach is: “consult early, consult often”. But how early is early, and how often is often – and can’t this actually result in procrastination and an endless cycle of consultations?

This question could be applied to the co-creation process underpinning the formulation of the commitments in an OGP Action Plan, but equally to the decision by a local authority on where to locate a new school or sports arena, or where to build a new road bypassing a city centre.

At the national level, the challenges of inclusivity are magnified many times more, particularly trying to have an inclusive OGP Action Plan in Ukraine or Germany, let alone a country with a population the size of the US, Indonesia, Nigeria or Brazil.

In the end, the issue of “resources” is key to the efficiency and inclusivity of the process. If the public authorities have both the skills and human resources to manage the decision-making cycle or the Action Plan co-creation process in a way that includes the public, and reaches out to key stakeholders affected by the envisaged decisions, then the application of participatory policymaking can be a win-win for all stakeholders. Similarly, the process is greatly enhanced when the groups consulted also have skills in formulating recommendations and amendments to laws or policies, or even contributing to initial policy scenarios before a draft decision is even formulated. For the participatory process to flourish, public officials, such as the agenda-setters in ministries, must be ready to set aside time and resources to make it happen.

As was seen in the OGP Action Plan co-creation process in Armenia in 2018, during a period of democratic revolution, political will and resources must be combined to manage expectations and to communicate why and how different inputs and recommendations have or have not been taken on board.

Very often, citizens are presented with a draft policy or law, when the authorities really should start out by outlining a problem, challenge, or new initiative, and a series of policy scenarios for consideration by a wide variety of stakeholders. This “green paper” approach – still too rarely used in most countries – enables proper stakeholder and context analysis, as well as impact assessment of different scenarios, sparing all concerned the prospect of unanticipated side-effects further down the road.

From World Café in Ukraine and public crowd-sourcing in Armenia to awareness-raising and feedback events in several cities in Slovakia, there are different ways of engaging citizens in the OGP Action Plan co-creation process. In the Philippines, civil society members sit on the steering committee that puts together the Action Plan, and are supported by a civil society secretariat – a model that strengthens face-to-face contact between NGOs and public officials, and broadens ownership of the process. A similar model has evolved in Argentina where NGOs and public official sit together at the Open Government National Table.

Even in such a situation, both the government side and the engaged NGOs must remember to reach out to the rest of the NGO community, and never to assume that the place at the table of a handful of NGOs is the end of the story. The perspectives of civil society, expert groups, and the business community can strengthen the process of designing legislation at the stages of conception, drafting, impact assessment, decision-making, and also later when monitoring implementation. Likewise, targeted inputs from stakeholders can support the design and strategic focus of OGP commitments, and this can be complemented by the subsequent consideration of the perspectives of a wide range of stakeholders to identify potential problems and facilitate the fine-tuning  of commitments.

Learning from these different approaches, the IRM recommends the following to OGP participants when developing their Action Plans:

  • Develop skills both in government and civil society to manage the participatory process and invest time in preparing and carrying out public consultations.

  • Start out by outlining a problem or challenge for a variety of stakeholders to consider.

  • Reach out to harness a variety of perspectives, but identify whom you will need to consult, according to the type of input you need at the different moments in the multi-tiered process of developing the Action Plan.

  • Manage expectations and communicate why and how different inputs are considered or not.

To make this possible, the key is people – both in government and in civil society. A strong culture of consultative communications is essential to sustain open government and to open up an understanding of why open government makes sense. When implemented effectively, open government  provides a win-win in terms of effective decision-making, value for money, and a sense of democratic participation and ownership of the choices and decisions taken.

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