Community participation

Decentralisation is increasing local governments’ responsibilities, and democratisation is increasing their accountability to stakeholders. This brings opportunities and challenges for supporting citizen participation and coalitions of the poor. City managers need to be more responsive to communities and civil society groups and involve those affected by changes in policy or planning (UNESCAP & UN-Habitat, 2015). Participation is one means of facilitating inclusive governance, active citizenship and resilient cities.

In recent years, a number of countries have experimented with different ways of supporting participation, including: referendums, citizens’ fora, citizens’ juries, collaborative governance and participatory budgeting. Participatory processes can deliver results (Michels, 2011):

  • Deliberative forums and surveys promote the exchange of arguments and establish preferences.
  • Referendums and participatory policymaking projects facilitate citizen influence.
  • Participation, enhances knowledge regarding government actions and may increase competency and familiarity with participating in public decision-making.

Evidence suggests the success of participatory processes depends on the degree to which communities are willing and able to mobilise as well as the state’s responsiveness (Mansuri & Rao, 2013). Citizen engagement may also depend on the opportunity costs of participation, which can be especially high for poor people.

Further, there may be unintended consequences of engineering participatory processes: participants tend to be wealthier, better educated, of higher social status, male and more politically connected. In this situation, an injection of resources for a participatory project can reinforce inequalities (ibid.). Cooke and Kothari (2001) refer to participatory processes as a set of practices that are at best naïve about questions of power and at worst serve systematically to reinforce rather than mitigate inequalities.

Engagement with CSOs and NGOs is one means of engendering poor communities’ participation. However, government (national and local) and the international community have consistently failed to recognise the role of organisations of the urban poor in reducing poverty (Mitlin & Satterthwaite, 2012). Despite this, federations of the poor have emerged in many countries and can help design, implement and manage responses to community needs. Examples include:

  • National Slum Dwellers Federation, founded in the 1970s, is an organisation of community groups and leaders in slums and informal settlements across India. It mobilises the urban poor to articulate concerns and find solutions to problems.
  • Shack/Slum Dwellers International is a network of CBOs in 33 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Urban poor federations in each country mobilise to build voice and collective capacity in poor communities.
  • The Asian Coalition for Community Action seeks to transform development options for the urban poor by supporting community-led change in 165 cities in 19 countries. Activities build on successful models of people-led community development, scaling them up.

For municipal governments, working with coalitions of the urban poor requires not only political will but also a change in how politicians and bureaucrats perceive the poor and their representatives (d’Cruz & Satterthwaite, 2005: 2). A common critique of typical hierarchical government is that the poor are viewed as passive recipients of policies and programmes rather than active participants (UNFPA, 2007).

Greater coordination and participation can be facilitated by ensuring formal partnerships are rooted in informal processes of networking, characterised by trust, cooperation and mutual advantage. Achieving community participation depends on individuals’ motivation and whether they believe participation will deliver practical results. It is a balancing act between the costs of involvement and uncertain longer-term gain, as well as between organisational interests and those of the wider community. Time, organisational support and resources underpin the development of effective community engagement. Networks must be supported with community involvement widened and resources strengthened (d’Cruz and Satterthwaite, 2005). Leveraging technology to identify the interests of the urban poor and facilitate greater involvement and inclusion of marginalised or silenced groups may have some potential e.g. participatory mapping or the use of ICTs to assess community perceptions (see box below).

Policymakers, civil society and the urban poor need to share information on who the poor are, how their numbers are expanding, where they live, what their needs are and what obstacles are faced in asserting their rights (Duflo et al., 2012). Despite some efforts towards the inclusion and increased participation of the poor in urban initiatives, involvement remains low.

Jakarta (Indonesia): ICTs and enhanced local government decision-making

Democratisation and decentralisation are central components of Indonesia’s policy platform. Alongside this, local governments are seeking opportunities to better collect and understand citizens’ opinions on public services and local development. Pulse Lab Jakarta applied advanced data analytics to local government decision-making by collating insights from existing complaint systems and feedback from citizens on social media.

Two citizen feedback systems exist for local governments. LAPOR! is the national complaint system, to which a citizen can report complaints via SMS or the internet. It is designed to improve accountability and the quality of public services. Many local governments also operate their own SMS-based feedback mechanisms. In addition to these, social media captures discussions of issues of concern.

Pulse Lab Jakarta and government partners in Nusa Tenggara Barat province identified an opportunity to supplement formal feedback with that in social media. Pulse Lab suggests the results demonstrate the value of:

  • near real-time information on public policy issues and their corresponding locations within constituencies;
  • enhanced data analysis for prioritisation and rapid response;
  • publication of feedback on public dashboards, which enhances transparency and helps constituents understand how feedback is processed.

Source: UN-Global Pulse (2015).