It's time citizens shaped public policy

The lukewarm response of the citizens to an opportunity to offer their comments to the BDA's master plan 2031 for the city is attributed to lack of interest and apathy in civic matters. But the master plan is not an isolated case. Voter apathy is well known.

Increase in the tariff for electricity, water, transport, milk and other public utilities does not evoke much response from the public. Proposed laws go unnoticed, except by a section of the society whom it effects badly, like the private medical healthcare Bill. There are very few instances where citizens have participated in shaping public policy. The reasons are many and citizens alone are not to be blamed.

Public participation in our country is in its infancy and the State believes that the general public has little interest in policy deliberations and even lesser ability to provide useful inputs on policy. As a result, laws and policies are framed, and projects are implemented with least regard to public concern.

The existing convention envisages publishing the proposed law in the gazette, provide 30 days' time for the public to offer comments and suggestions. This system is working fairly well at the central level, but not so at the state level. The public is kept in dark about the draft law and its publication in the gazette. By the time a few concerned citizens get to know about the law, the last date for submitting their views would be over.

The Right to Information (RTI) Act's Section 4 [1][b] mandates all public authorities to pro-actively disclose all matters of proposed policies and programmes, besides providing the reasons for taking up these projects to those who would be affected.

Public authorities are supposed to place them in the website and use other forms of media to disseminate the contents. But it is alleged that both the BBMP and BDA are worst performers as far as their obligations under the RTI Act are concerned. It was reported that applications from the public seeking information about the steel flyover project were rejected by the BDA.

Providing information by itself will not ensure citizen participation as it will be only tokenism, as Sherry R Arnstein, the late American public policy researcher, called it. She recommended an 8-step "ladder of citizen participation" which includes manipulation, therapy, informing, consultation, placation, partnership, designated power and citizen control.

Effective public participation requires much more than information dissemination. State agencies need to have a public disclosure and participation policy. In some countries, there is the concept of 'civic engagement', which ensures transparency and accountability.

Such a policy should ensure that public agencies collect people's opinions, use public knowledge internally, and communicate back to the public as to how public knowledge has been used in decision-making processes. For this to happen, public authorities should realise that the role of citizens as receivers of state services is undergoing a massive change and authorities have to tune their functioning accordingly.  

According to researchers John Gaventa and Camilo Valderrama, there is a shift from beneficiary to citizen, project to policy, consultation to decision-making, appraisal to implementation and micro to macro. The conflict between the State and the citizen needs to be resolved.

The State-centred conception of social policy often views citizens as beneficiaries or recipients of State-delivered services and programmes, whereas the market-led version focuses on the clients of social welfare as consumers. Citizens are questioning how much of their money is spent and for what purpose. Concerned citizens have approached courts with public interest litigations to question wasteful expenditure and many of them have been successful.  

Democratic governance requires state support to citizens for effective participation. Citizens need capacity-building to comment on the proposed projects and policies. Public agencies need to come out with information leaflets, frequently asked questions, explanations of critical terms, etc. They need to organise public meetings and consultations to debrief the proposed policies.

Unless citizens are provided with proper information about the project or policy, how can they comment? This newspaper's campaign 'Citizens for Change' is an example of ensuring citizen participation. There are various forms of civic engagement, like citizens' juries, citizens' panels, focus group discussions, surveys, citizen advisory committees, public hearings, etc. Since each form has its own limitations, a judicious mix of these methods will be useful.

Citizen participation is not without pitfalls. There are certain difficulties that need to be addressed. For instance, public agencies and their staff may not be ready to share information as it may weaken their power and authority. Secondly, civic engagements are costly and time consuming. Third, a handful of citizens or civic groups may hijack the proceedings to their advantage. Despite these disadvantages, civic engagement in public policy needs to be structured and made mandatory.

(The writer is a member of the Central Consumer Protection Council)


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