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Five Tips For Weaving Citizen Participation Into The Fabric of Government

Cinco recomendaciones para tejer la participación ciudadana en el tejido del gobierno

Tim Hughes|

On 14th July 2022, OGP hosted a peer exchange workshop to share experiences and learn from efforts to embed citizen participation in government. The workshop was attended by government officials and civil society representatives from ten OGP members who have led efforts to embed citizen participation, as well as a number of international experts. 

In recent years, we’ve seen understandable interest and excitement surrounding innovations in citizen participation. The growth of citizens’ assemblies and deliberative forms of engagement, in particular, has caught the imagination of many people. But these innovations often count for little unless they become properly embedded within governments. This task of shifting institutional cultures, processes, and capacity to make citizen participation commonplace is difficult and un-glamourous, but it is essential to making participation and open government a reality.

Many OGP members have made efforts to embed citizen participation in government over the years, and there’s a lot that we can learn from and build upon. The countries represented at the workshop have tried a range of approaches, including creating toolkits and guidelines; establishing hubs and centres of good practice; developing common tools, methods and platforms; initiating training programmes; building engagement competencies into role descriptions; introducing citizen participation requirements into law; and requiring citizen participation reports to accompany new legislation to Parliament. We gathered a list of resources from participants at the workshop documenting some of these efforts.

The workshop explored the group’s collective knowledge and experiences of embedding citizen participation and ways OGP can further support these efforts. Here are five key insights from the discussion.

  1. Integrate participation into policy-making. – One of the biggest challenges to citizen participation having an impact is the lack of integration with the core work of government. Civil servants are often surprised when participatory processes and their recommendations land on their desks. We need to move beyond reliance on particular policy entrepreneurs, to building public service-wide commitment, understanding and resources for citizen participation.
  2. Expand resources and skills to build capacity. – There is a need to build the time, resourcing, and technical know-how required to conduct meaningful citizen participation exercises. In New Zealand, reformers have developed practical tools to support public servants to engage citizens and in Spain, reformers have introduced open government as a topic within the curriculum and exams for civil servants.
  3. Change cultures within the public service. – Public servants are often expected to be technical experts who are charged with developing policy solutions. This can result in a desire to control conversations to reflect their authority and expertise – but can we develop a new conception of public servants as facilitators? Could the role of a chief participation steward help shape a participatory culture? In New Zealand, the Public Service Act makes it a legal duty of the chief executives of government departments to “foster a culture of open government”.
  4. Secure political ownership. – Ministers often think of their role as one of action – they have been elected and therefore have a mandate – and the fear of losing power can be a significant barrier to citizen participation for some politicians. Securing political ownership and giving confidence to political leaders to use the results of engagement processes is essential.
  5. Build a critical mass of practice, support, and capacity. –In Scotland, the interplay of action from both government and civil society led to “a critical mess” of lots of disparate activity – but the question became how to transform this into a critical mass that can bring systemic change. Key to this has been “internal activists” – civil servants who were able to create alliances across sectors and foster collaboration between civil society and government.

This workshop surfaced some common challenges OGP members are facing when embedding citizen participation in policy-making processes, and we learned about positive experiences and outcomes to date. Although important work is taking place, it is an area that is in its relative infancy – with expectations of the participatory future of government currently far outstripping the reality of administrations.

The community has identified citizen participation as one of the highest priority topics for OGP to focus on as we develop our 2023-2028 strategy. Over the coming months, we will explore further what role OGP can play in supporting these efforts and where we can offer unique value to the work that’s already underway.

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