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Promoting citizen engagement: let's get together and discuss the options

By Richard Curtain - posted Thursday, 3 April 2003

In 1999, nearly two thirds of Australian said they believed federal politicians did not know what ordinary people think.

Are citizens viewed by governments as merely individual consumers of the services they provide? Recent reforms to government service delivery may have increased accountability for the monies expended. However, opportunities for more comprehensive citizen engagement are notably lacking.

Elections are, for a variety of reasons, not good vehicles for citizens to have a say in how they are governed. Public institutions need to have more open and regular processes in place for not only "consulting" citizens but also engaging them in developing and implementing policy.


Public-sector institutions have changed for the better over the past two decades. There is now a much greater emphasis on whole of government approaches in recognition of the complexity and sensitivity of problems we face as a society. However, the missing player is still the ordinary citizen in terms of opportunities for setting strategy priorities and involvement in how programs are rolled out.

The recent Government White Paper on Australia's relations with the rest of the world did not seek any direct citizen input. As a result it appears to have little impact on public debate, despite the fact that we appear to be about to go war in a distant country (again!).

Australians are quite capable of holding contradictory opinions - high levels of distrust of politicians but a strong reliance on government to look after them. Both of these mindsets cannot be changed without greater engagement of citizens in civic and political life.

One area, for example, where there is no citizen engagement is in the budget process of federal and state governments. The importance of the budget in the minds of most Australians looms large but there is no scope to tap input from ordinary citizens about their priorities.

Another area where citizen input is lacking is in the development of suitable performance measures and targets for the expenditure of public monies in the areas of education and health.

How does Australia's strategic vision compare in terms of its domestic and international policies? What processes can be employed by governments to invite and encourage greater citizen engagement in the public sector? These will be two key questions we will be tacking at the Facing the Future: Engaging stakeholders and citizens in developing public policy Conference in Canberra, 23-24 April, 2003.

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About the Author

Richard Curtain is a public policy consultant with a strong interest in skills formation policy. He is a member of an expert panel for Higher Education and Skills Group, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Government of Victoria. He has also recently prepared a response to Australia’s Skills and Workforce Future Focus Discussion Paperof the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency for the Recruitment and Consulting Services Association of Australia and New Zealand.

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