Citizen Participation in policy-making: internalizing externalities and preventing conflict through planning and evaluating

Some people use to believe of citizen participation as something that is at odds with policy-making. That is, that citizen participation complicates the execution of policies and delays results.

The reality is quite far from this —considering, of course, that one is committed with quality policy-making and actually aim at having an impact with the policies that one is pushing forward.

Although there is an increasing number of instruments that can be called citizen participation, most of them have the following scheme:

  1. The Administration has something in mind.
  2. Citizens are asked for an opinion.
  3. The Administration tells citizens what it did with their opinion.

These three apparently innocent steps are key to driving improvements —not delays— in policy-making.

First, the Administration just cannot “have something in mind”. If one is not telling anyone, any crazy idea might be passed along and put into practice. But if the information is going to be public, and made widely available for public scrutiny, planning becomes a must. Thorough diagnosis, analysis, planning and design are a requisite for any kind of citizen participation initiative. In this train of thought, citizen participation is a vaccine for incorrect diagnosis, lack of analysis, bad planning and low quality design.

Second, when the Administration provides the feedback it committed to do during the citizen participation initiative, it finds out that goals, indicators and evaluation are key for providing feedback and letting citizens know what happened with their opinions and proposals. Again, citizen participatino is a vaccine for trying to spend resources before setting up the pertinent goals, neglect of setting up the appropriate indicators and closing projects without its due impact assessment and evaluation.

There are, notwithstanding, two more important issues that citizen participation can bring into policy-making and that are related with the second point above: the fact that one has to identify and invite all the actors affected by or that can contribute to a given policy.

The first one is that by bringing people in policy-making, people usually do not remain outside of it. This is not as much a play of words but a sheer reality. By making citizens accomplices of the several steps of policy-making, it is more difficult that they are going to feel detached with the results, even if they might not share them. By diminishing detachment, one is actually preventing conflict. And conflict management and conflict resolution is, by far, one of the most resource-consuming activities in policy-making. Thus, citizen participation not only does not delay policy-making but has a strong potential on saving time and resources, all the policy-making cycle considered.

The second one, closely related with conflict prevention but also with impact assessment is that by bringing citizens into the policy-making cycle it is much more easier to internalize the externalities of public policies. All activities that happen openly in society are prone to have externalities, pollution or education being the most common examples. Public policies are very likely to have them too, both negative and positive. Internalizing externalities helps in measuring more accurately their impact, just because all factors were identified and made explicit in the whole process. Internalizing externalities, thus, contributes both to better allocate resources —because now it is easier to measure their return— and to prevent conflict, because there are not unexpected impacts on society that one can oversee.