In Brief | Open Government and Citizen Participation

Governments are increasingly looking to involve citizens in policymaking and service design. This In Brief explores some recent trends and future opportunities in participatory practices and the responsibilities and capacities of the public sector to initiate and facilitate such engagement.

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Today's citizens have access to more information and are generally better educated than their predecessors, assisted by sophisticated digital platforms and the greater availablility of govenrment data. As citizens make decisions on everything from dietary choices to business opportunities, they are less willing to accept that governments have privileged insights. Instead, in fields as varied as ornithology or patent examination, they may have access to at least as much reliable information as government and are unlikely to respect governments which ignore what is known.

In many countries, citizen participation has become a central principle of public policymaking. Tapping into the expertise of citizens can help define public problems and challenges, and develop more innovative and varied solutions to those problems and challenges. Citizens can contribute many types of knowledge including: statistical, scientific, political, economic, public opinion, practitioner views and insights and classical intelligence. Co-production is considered an essential element in the successful design and delivery of contemporary public services. For a recent issues paper on this topic, go to Co-production and innovation -  creating better solutions for future public service implementation by Linda Dewey, Deborah Blackman and Helen Dickinson from the Public Sector Research Group at UNSW Canberra.

A Parliamentary Library paper Citizens' engagement in policymaking and the design of public services summarises some of the advantages of greater citizen engagement as:

  • improving the quality of policy being developed, making it more practical and relevant, and helping to ensure that services are delivered in a more effective and efficient way;
  • checking the health of government's relationship with citizens directly to check its reputation and status
  • revealing how government, citizens and organisations could work more closely on issues of concern to the community;
  • giving early notice of emerging issues, putting government in a better position to deal with them in a proactive way;
  • providing opportunities for a diversity of voices to be heard on issues that matter to people;
  • enabling citizens to identify priorities for themselves and share in decision-making; and
  • fostering a sense of mutuality, belonging and a sense of empowerment, all of which strengthens resilience.

In her seminal work Wiki Government, Beth Simone Noveck was a pioneer of the thinking that collaborative democracy can strengthen public decision-making by connecting the power of the many to the work of the few, where expert and amateur citizens can augment the know how of government professionals. Not only can citizens gather, evaluate recognise patterns, make decisions and measure compliance but they can meaningfully collaborate or "co-design" policies and services with government. See Noveck's Smart State and GovLab websites for more on her ideas as well as this TED Talk.

Underpinning much of Noveck's philosophy is the idea of "the wisdom of the crowd", or the value of the collective intelligence of a group of individuals rather than that of a single expert. The notion that a group’s judgement can be surprisingly good was most compellingly described in James Surowiecki’s 2005 book The Wisdom of Crowds where he found that the average judgement converges on the right solution. In crowdsourced policymaking, the government invites citizens to contribute to a policymaking process and asks them to share their ideas for the policy. You can listen to a 2015 presentation from Tanja Aitamurto from Stanford University in which she examines how collective intelligence, whether gathered by crowdsourcing, crowdfunding or co-creation, impacts journalism, governance and product design, particularly media innovations.In another trend, governments are increasingly using citizen scientists where individuals without specific scientific training participate as volunteers in one or more activities relevant to a research project.

The Chief Scientist's Office has developed an infographic which gives a snapshot of some of the citizen science projects currently underway in Australia. Click on this link to open the infographic. eBird, a platform launched by orthinologists and computer scientists in the US is a standout example of citizen science, tracking the movement of bird populations across the planet using data submitted by the public.

Governments across the world are increasingly using crowdsourcing for knowledge discovery and civic engagement. Iceland crowdsourced their constitution reform process in 2011, and Finland has crowdsourced several law reform processes to address their off-road traffic laws, allowing citizens to go on an online forum to discuss problems and possible resolutions.  The crowdsourced information and resolutions are then passed on to legislators for them to refer to when making a decision. The City of Palo Alto is crowdsourcing people's feedback for its Comprehensive City Plan update in a process, which started in 2015. The House of Representatives in Brazil has used crowdsourcing in policy-reforms, and federal agencies in the United States have used crowdsourcing for several years.

Online platforms such as MeinBerlin, Decidim Barcelona, Participate Melbourne or Decide Madrid, allow the public to participate directly in government by collecting ideas and suggestions for the future of their city and voting on them. Sometimes, citizens can also contribute to the city’s strategic plan. At the other end of the scale, cities around the world increasingly use different city reporting apps through which people can report problems such as street light outages, potholes in the roads. Canberra's Fix My Street is one such example.

Citizen participation in government is related to participatory democracy, which emphasizes the right, opportunity, and capacity of anyone who is subject to a collective decision to participate (or have their representatives participate), in consequential deliberation about that decision. On a national level, a well known example  is Switzerland's direct democracy voting system.

A Democracy 2025 report Co-Design and Deliberative Engagement documents findings from a systematic review into what works in public participation. Drawing on 33 case studies and 36 theoretical studies, it identifies the variables that influence outcomes in co-design and deliberative engagement as: inclusive representation; autonomy and eqlaity of all participants; plurality of viewpoints and engagement methods; quality of process diesign and facilitation; transmission of citizen generated recommendations; and citizen participation as a democratic value..

Geoff Mulgan, CEO of NESTA cautions that "participation works best when people feel that they can make a difference, when they have the time to fully engage with the issues and when there is a healthy relationship of mutual respect with elected representatives. It works worst when it is rushed, ill-informed and vague about the links to formal decision-making, or when it allows the loudest voices to dominate".

Open government  is the simple but powerful idea that governments and institutions work better for citizens when they are transparent, engaging and accountable. This ensures that the relationship between government and citizens is based on mutual respect and trust. Governments around the world are increasingly coming to the view that working with citizens to deliver concrete improvements in policy outcomes and the quality of public services enhances that mutual respect and trust and offers a way for governments to improve their performance. The Open Government Partnership is a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. Australia joined the Open Government Partnership in 2013.

Many jurisdictions in Australia have articulated their commitments to citizen engagement in the form of specific, public declarations. When the then ACT's Chief Minister Katy Gallagher committed the jurisdiction to open government in 2011, she defined it as ‘a way of working [that]... rests on three principles; transparency in process and information; participation by citizens in the governing process; and public collaboration in finding solutions to problems’. Through its second National Action Plan, Australia has committed to working towards improving public participation and engagement to enhance policy and service delivery outcomes for Australians.

On 2 August 2018, IPAA ACT hosted Fit for The Future: Citizen at the Centre which debated the challenges presented by placing the citizen at the centre of policy making and delivery as well as the opportunities it can provide for governments in Australia. Some of the questions discussed included: What have we learnt so far from participatory practice?’; How can we build our understanding of our citizens?; and How can we be more creative and innovative in providing opportunities for citizens to be engaged in future policy processes?


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