Citizen engagement key to open, inclusive policymaking

THE adoption of a citizen-centric worldview in policymaking and service design is a manifestation of the fundamental commitment to citizens’ participation in governance that characterises a democratic polity.

Guest column: Terrence Muvoti

At its broadest, the commitment is reflected in efforts by activists and political stakeholders to promote what has been variously labelled “deliberative”, “direct” or “participatory” democracy.

At a more prosaic level, the commitment is reflected in the local and practical initiatives to ensure citizens’ involvement in decisions that affect them.

To achieve the Zimbabwe that we want, openness towards the public about government structures and functions, fiscal policy intentions, public sector accounts and projections involves ready access to reliable, comprehensive, timely and understandable information on government activities so that citizens and financial markets can accurately assess the government’s financial position and the true cost and benefits of government activities, including their present and future economic and social implications.

Participatory governance is of intrinsic value by giving voice to citizens in making decisions that affect the quality of their lives. It is also of instrumental value, as the engagement of citizens may lead to public policies better grounded in reality, more responsive services, transparency and accountability in the allocation and expenditure of public resources.

Fundamental to any consideration of citizen engagement in policymaking and the design of public services is the recognition that the citizens in a democracy have both rights and duties, and that democratic governance provides opportunities for citizens to participate actively in shaping their world.

Any kind of policymaking involves choices among competing interests and preferences. It is essential that the preferences of ordinary Zimbabweans, especially those of the marginalised groups, are properly reflected in policy formulation.

Government should therefore facilitate a political structure that rest on a pluralistic, participatory society, which maintains a vigorous group life.

Within the broad scope of such a democracy, public policy constantly evolves to manage social, economic and environmental affairs, to respond to the needs, preferences and desires of citizens, and to steer or nudge them in directions that are regarded as conducive to the nation’s general wellbeing. It is a complex and fluid endeavour.

The question of citizen participation is not peculiar to Zimbabwe only.

A good example where constitutional provisions and citizen participation becomes key is the People’s Republic of China.

The Chinese post-cultural Revolution Constitution of 1982 articulates that power belongs to the people of China and thus they should be given an opportunity to have a voice in State affairs.

Our Constitution has provisions for equity and public participation in development and policymaking.

Section 44 provides for juristic person, institutions and any agency of government having a duty to promote and fulfill the rights and freedoms provided in the constitution.

However, the challenge is whether the Constitution still maintains the previous structures such as the village development committees, ward development committees, district development committees and the provincial development committees which were the first implementations of decentralisation policy enacted in 1984.

The idea of citizen engagement is on a continuum, although manipulation and therapy can usually manifests.

Manipulation and therapy denote “non-participation” hence, pseudo-participation where people may be invited to a community meeting after decisions have already been made; thus there is much work to be done in acquainting citizens with, and building their capabilities for participatory and deliberative practices of policy development and service delivery.

While democracy may not guarantee economic success, it can help stave off the worst failures. Institutional details of how people actually participate in different forms of democracy have a bearing on the relation between democracy and economic development.

Historical experiences have demonstrated that community participation is potentially useful to the provision of basic services and the management of local public goods.

Relying exclusively on government bureaucracy to deliver basic services has proven to be generally unsatisfactory in most parts of the developing world.
The alternative of relying entirely on the market has also proven to be generally unacceptable.

The market has been neither efficient, given the “public good” nature of many of those services, nor equitable, given the concern that frequently the needs of the rich are prioritised.

Participation by citizens in the governance of their society is the bedrock of democracy and it is sad that local authorities are still referred as “lower tiers of government”, hence, continuity of the old story which undermines self-governance of these lower units.

The work of building and sustaining democracy is never completed – “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”; we should expect that the institutions through which our democracy is expressed should be themselves constantly renewed, recalibrated and re-imagined.

Terrence Muvoti writes in his personal capacity.

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