Why citizens are central to good governance

Participatory government, consultation and transparency are today’s public policy buzzwords. It is time they became more than that.
Public Management Service (PUMA)

Drawing by Ruairi O Brien (www.robarchitects.com)

Strengthening the relationship between a government and its citizens might seem to be such an obvious priority for democracies that it hardly needs spelling out. Yet governments everywhere have been criticised for being remote from the people, not listening enough and not seeking participation. Street protests from Seattle to Genoa may have grabbed most of the headlines, but less spectacular developments have included a steady erosion of voter turnout in elections, falling membership in political parties in virtually every OECD country and declining confidence in key public institutions.

In 2001, fewer than three in five people bothered to vote in the British general elections - fewer still turned out for a referendum on the French presidency. Calls for greater government transparency and accountability have grown as public and media scrutiny of government action increases. At the same time, new forms of representation and participation in the public sphere are emerging in all OECD countries.

Not that consultation and participation never happen, they do. But these efforts are too often focused on specific issues where public interest is already high, such as the environment or consumer protection, and have not been imitated enough throughout government as an integral part of the whole democratic and law-making process. Healthcare is another area where consultation and public participation appear to work well in several countries, for instance, with France’s scrutinising public “juries”, Canada’s National Forum on Health and Denmark’s patient advocacy groups. The pressure is now on to spread this type of consultation and participation to all areas of government, from budgeting to foreign policy. These new demands are emerging against the backdrop of a fast-moving, globalised world increasingly characterised by networks rather than hierarchy. Internet has opened up new frontiers in the independent production and exchange of information while providing a powerful tool for co-ordination among players on opposite sides of the globe. Businesses have been among the first to capitalise on this new reality, while international civil society has not been far behind. Governments have, in contrast, been slow to reap the benefits of a network approach to good governance and are only now discovering the advantages of engaging citizens and civil society organisations in shaping and implementing public policy.

Citizens as partners

Engaging citizens in policy-making allows governments to tap new sources of ideas, information and resources when making decisions. All fine in theory, but where to start in practice? While not having all the answers, a new OECD book, Citizens as Partners, has closely scrutinised the issues, a range of country experiences and throws some light on the way forward.

The starting point is clear. To engage people effectively in policymaking, governments must invest adequate time and resources in building robust legal, policy and institutional frameworks. They must develop and use appropriate tools, ranging from traditional opinion polls of the population at large to consensus conferences with small groups of laypersons. Experience has shown, however, that without leadership and commitment throughout the public administration, even the best policies will have little practical effect.

The key ingredients for success in engaging citizens in policymaking are close to hand, including information, consultation and public participation. Information provided has to be objective, complete, relevant, easy to find and easy to understand. And there has to be equal treatment when it comes to obtaining information and participating in policymaking. This means, among other things, governments doing all they can to cater for the special needs of linguistic minorities or the disabled. Several OECD countries, including Canada, Finland and Switzerland, have laws ensuring that information is provided in all of the country’s official languages.

The scope, quantity and quality of government information provided to the public has increased greatly over the past 20 years and legal rights to information are widespread among OECD countries. In 1980 only 20% of OECD countries had legislation on access to information, by 1990 the figure had doubled to over 40% and by the end of 2000 it had doubled again to reach 80%. But six OECD countries – Germany, Luxembourg, Mexico, Poland, Switzerland and Turkey – do not as yet have freedom of information laws.

Legal rights to consultation and active participation are less common. In some countries, such as Canada, Finland and Japan, the government is required to consult with citizens to assess the impact of new regulations. But it is not enough to inform in advance; if governments want people to invest their time in consultation, they must account for the use of that input in policymaking and explain their decisions afterwards.

But once these rights are in place, what then? Timing in public consultation is essential. Indeed, it should be as early as possible in the policy process. After all, people may well be more angry and frustrated at being asked for input when a decision has already been taken than if they had not been consulted at all. Early on in preparing its Freedom of Information Act, passed in 2000, the UK government conducted extensive public consultation and parliament received 2 248 comments on the draft bill. The UK is the latest among the OECD countries to introduce such an act.

Today, there are widespread efforts to put more government information online and open up arenas for online consultation, like the America Speaks citizens’ electronic forum in the US, the UK’s discussion and information portal, Citizen’s Space, or Finland’s Share Your Views With Us. All laudable initiatives, but they have their limits (not everyone is online for a start), so when it comes to feeding citizens’ suggestions into policymaking, Internet is not enough on its own.

Clear roles

The respective roles and responsibilities of the government (making a decision for which it is held accountable and on which its performance may be judged) and the citizen (providing input for the decision-making process) must be clear too. Citizens are not government, they elect it and want to be served by it. But if they are to participate more than just via the ballot box, then they need proper access to information, meaningful consultation and opportunities to take an active part in policymaking.

The government must be clear from the start about its objectives in seeking the public’s views, as well as being careful not to raise unrealistic expectations. As the questionnaire received from New Zealand noted, one of the most common reasons cited for a consultation failing is that it was “carried out for its own sake rather than to genuinely shape policy”. Asking people vague questions about, say environmental quality, rather than asking the public to comment on the specific policy options available, like choosing between new railways or roads, only leads to public disillusionment. But people tend to accept the outcome of a fair process, even if it is not the solution they would have chosen. There is of course a danger that seeking public input too often may lead to consultation fatigue. By recognising that the time and effort citizens invest in being consulted by government is a precious resource, steps can be taken to improve co-ordination and avoid duplication across government units.

Building democracy

The current difficult political and economic climate has led to talk about the return of government, not just as regulator and arbiter, but as a key partner in free-market economies, as well as provider of security, emergency services and defence. But its role in promoting political and social cohesion in our civilisation has not been emphasised enough. In the present turmoil, the point should not be forgotten that the strength of democracy lies in having active and informed citizens. Governments can no longer afford to provide incomplete information or just ask the public its opinions on matters that are fait accompli.

And while reaffirming government’s role is welcome, it would be no good returning to old models of large, impenetrable, secretive public institutions. Transparency, public consultation and participation are more important than ever to improve policy and reinforce democracy and stability. Promoting open and transparent government, while guaranteeing security, privacy and civil liberties, is a major challenge of our times.


Citizens as Partners: Information, Consultation and Public Participation in Policy-Making, OECD, 2001.

For more information on PUMA’s work on government-citizen relations contact: joanne.caddy@oecd.org

©OECD Observer No 229, November 2001 

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