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Direct Citizens’ Participation: Mimicry and Rubber Stamping or Effective Accountability?

A second common type of institutional reform attempting to enhance accountability relies in establishing direct channels of participation for citi?zens in service delivery. In theory, participation can take place at different stages of this process or through different mechanisms. Thus, citizen representatives may participate in regional or local budgetary councils; in regional or local roads, water or education boards; or in regulatory agencies, watchdog institutions, utilities or school boards. Local communities may even be in direct charge of running services. obviously, new principal-agent problems appear between users and their representatives in participatory bodies, signaling how crucial the selection process might be.

A clear conclusion from several of the GDN project case studies is that direct citizen’s participation is mostly a local affair. Indeed, assuring citizens’ adequate participation and representation in national (or even regional) participatory mechanisms for service delivery is a daunting task. Though still complex, as our case studies show, such mechanisms are more likely to work at the local level, where proximity and knowledge of local conditions facilitate information flows, adequate representation and accountability of providers and local policy makers to citizens’ representatives, as well as accountability of citizen’s representatives to their constituencies. As an example, surveys done in several of the African case studies showed that citizens raise their complaints on service delivery to local authorities, even if they are not responsible for their provision, and rarely to regional or national authorities, and perceive some responsiveness from the former and none from the latter.

If direct citizen’s participation is mostly a local affair, then it is crucial that it takes place in services where significant decisions are taken at the local level and on which local citizens have access to all relevant technical information. The Peruvian case in this volume shows, not surprisingly, that participatory budgeting has no effect on major decisions related to construction or expansion of water supply systems, which require large volumes of funds that are provided by the national government and are allocated centrally, as well as complex technical information to which local citizens have very limited access. Thus, it can affect only minor decisions related to continuity of operation of existing water supply systems, as these are indeed financed and decided locally and are technically much simpler. The Philippines case study also found that the lack of availability of adequate information was one of the factors explaining the low impact of formal participatory channels for the allocation of educational budgets at the local level.

Conversely, effective direct participation mechanisms may facilitate accountability and performance in decentralized systems. The Indian case study illustrated this point well, as the long tradition of local self?government enhances the synergies between highly decentralized service decisions and active participation of villagers in local decision councils.25

In summary, these two types of institutional reforms may have signih- cant synergies and are thus often effective complements in practice.

Just as it happens in the case of decentralization, illustrated above, direct participation of citizens through different channels seems to have had important effects on accountability and outcomes in some countries, such as India and several African countries, but not in others, such as Peru, Philippines and most Central and Eastern Europe.26 The differences in the effectiveness of these channels appear again to be related to political culture and legacy, as these determine to what extent policy makers and providers are indeed willing to allow and facilitate real participation and provide adequate information to citizens, and to what extent citizens do or do not take advantage of formal participation mechanisms and demand the provision of adequate information. We elaborate further on this issue in Sect. 4.

Further, the GDN project case studies show that who represents citizens and users in these mechanisms is a key question, as problems of representativeness and legitimacy are quite common. A major issue in this regard seems to be gender representation. As the results of political reservations in India suggest, women’s participation appears to be key for service delivery outcomes.27 Similarly, a strong association between women’s political participation, measured through electoral turnout,

Box 1

Limitations to effective citizen participation: lessons from the Peruvian case study

Participatory Budgeting is legally mandated in Peruvian municipalities since 2004, but the actual degree of participation varies significantly across municipalities. The authors' econometric estimates did not find a statistically significant relationship between most constructed indicators of Participatory Budgeting intensity30 and measures ofcov- erage and continuity of water services. According to theseestimates, water services outcomes seem to be determined by other variables such as the municipality's capacity to invest and execute the investment budgeted. The qualitative data collected is consistent with these results.

Altogether, the perception of local actors, government officers, civil society participants, and service providers is that participatory budgeting has marginal or no effects on coverage or quality of water, and that to the extent that it has, it basically benefit those already enjoying access. Participatory budgeting maythus be leading to inequitable outcomes due to two reasons: (!) the mostly rural poor confront greater costs of participation, as they must mobilize to participatory budgeting meetings in the municipal urban centers31; (2) actual influence is limited to minor operational improvements that benefit exclusively those already connected to public water supply systems.

While the level of participation was found to respond to the poor quality or absence of public water services, its influence on effective budget allocations was limited by two factors: (!) the technical complexity of the problems and the fact that communities do not have access to technical information or advice; (2) the fact that municipalities do not decide on investments for expansion of coverage, as the main source of funds for this purpose is a national program (Water for ALL) which is not included in the participatory process.

In addition, the authors found that the emphasis of bylaws implementing participatory budgeting norms is mostly on the process and not on the scope. The major often decides what and how much to put to public discussion and what and how much finally goes into the budget, and it is the municipality technical teams that play the key role in conducting the process!2

and water service coverage and continuity was found in the Peruvian and Indonesian studies.28

Overall, the GDN project showed that making participatory mechanisms effective in countries that lack participatory culture and experience seems to be a tall order, worth pursuing but demanding significant political determination and efforts over an extended period.29 Emerging differences in the degree and impact of active participation of parents (and teachers) in school management, oversight and choice between Chile, which has pushed forward a broad set of reforms in this regard, and Uruguay, which has kept a highly centralized and hierarchical system, indi?cate that an effective participatory culture can indeed be built over time. We elaborate on this point in Sect. 4.

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