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Citizen engagement is a victim of the eternal time-completeness trade-off

By Martin Stewart-Weeks - posted Monday, 18 August 2003

It is hard to find anyone who questions the virtues of public participation. The idea of citizen participation is a little like eating spinach: no one is against it in principle because it is good for you. Participation of the governed in their government is, in theory, the cornerstone of democracy - a revered idea that is vigorously applauded by virtually everyone. (Arnstein 1969)

If "to lead is to heed", then the current search for more and better ways for citizens and consumers to be engaged in decisions of government is being driven primarily by a sense that our leaders are not doing enough heeding. By the same token, politicians and bureaucrats recognise that better heeding might uncover ideas, insights and opportunities that can be integrated into better policy - and hence, better leadership.

Much of the discussion about the virtues and practices of a more open, engaged form of government is a thinly disguised contest for power, authority and influence. And because mostly it's about power, it is also mostly about control.


Given the kind of world in which Ministers and their private and bureaucratic advisors work, control is the predominant prerequisite of political success.

The difficulty is that generally, to be useful, "engagement" takes time. It introduces complexity and ambiguity, the very opposite of control.

Professor Stephen Coleman, from the UK's Hansard Society and currently Cisco Visiting Professor of E-Democracy at the Oxford Internet Institute, makes the point that the debate about citizen engagement is not about subverting or replacing the instruments, institutions or processes of representative government. People don't want to govern so much as they are looking for a more considered and intelligent conversation with policy makers about the dilemmas which impact on the way they live, work and play. Nor does the invitation to a more deliberative discussion constitute permission to avoid the tough issues, the need for rigorous analysis or coming to terms with the fact that what we want to achieve is always hedged about with constraints as well as opportunities.

In some cases - telecommunications, health, education, disability services - it may be that that the vigour of a competitive market is one of the most effective ways to guarantee genuine "participation" by citizens and consumers. When citizens and consumers can choose, they are participating, by definition, and with some considerable clout.

If we are to witness a strong and robust practice of citizen engagement - assuming for the moment that is both feasible and, generally, a good thing - we need a well-informed, well-resourced and well skilled civil society. In fact, the formal, public sector dominated policy process and civil society, made up of independent voluntary associations of citizens need each other. Working out quite which comes first may not be all that helpful. The fact is, we need them both and each feeds off, and enriches, the other (or should). They both become part of something we might term the "public purpose sector", recognising the increasingly blurred boundaries between public, non-profit and commercial organisations working in new combinations to solve problems and deliver services for the public good.

The value of any process of engagement will be assessed against three primary measures - legitimacy, efficacy and efficiency. Part of the point of "engagement" is to render the end result legitimate in the eyes of those most directly affected. But people also need to experience a sense of being able to make a difference, to be heard, to witness some link between what they think and feel and what happens around them. And the engagement has to be efficient in terms of the time, effort and other resources necessary to achieve a good outcome.


I know for some the whole debate about citizen engagement is less a philosophical or even a moral issue as it is a practical and pragmatic dilemma. To the notion that citizens are the only ones who can reconcile a range of perspectives on a given issue, identify policy priorities, reconcile conflicting values and work out choices consistent with community values is opposed the view that citizens don't have the knowledge, time or inclination to do any of that, except in a most general way of how well their elected representatives have performed those tasks.

Part of the issue here is scale and scope. It just isn't true that associations of individuals are incapable of sorting out these kinds of issues and devising quite complex and sophisticated institutions of self-governance.

It might be just as powerful to argue that we've increasingly removed from people the requirement to either learn or practice the arts of self-governance. In the end, if the process has a point and purpose, people will get engaged. If it doesn't, they won't. It may be that the problem we're confronting in this debate is that it is often not clear why we want citizens to be engaged or consulted. What is it meant to achieve? In the end, it seems so often to more and more citizens that the only real purpose of these kinds of activities - however well the exercise is done - is to find out what people think and then to take that into account in the final decision (or to ignore it altogether, for whatever reasons). The problem is that, after a while, if people can't see any purpose in the exercise beyond that, they will lose enthusiasm and momentum.

A final reflection.

The problem is that those who want to retrieve a role and purpose for civil society are too easily stymied by those who will claim that these problems are too big, complex and interconnected to be susceptible to the civil society option.

Mind you, some of that resistance reflects an abiding faith in the redeeming virtues of state-based, large-scale solutions and structures than any genuine concern about whether the other option could work or not. I have a suspicion that there are factors now driving us "back to the future" in the search for in fact quite viable small-scale, citizen-grounded and networked solutions that might look in the future much more like these mutualist scenarios than the stodgy and unresponsive modernist monoliths of our more recent and unhappy experience.

Author's note: This essay reflects, and draws on, contributions to a recent online discussion around the issues of citizen engagement in the policy process moderated by the Australian Public Policy Research Network at the University of Canberra. I have drawn particularly on the contributions of Vern Hughes, although responsibility for the end product remains with me.

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About the Author

Martin Stewart-Weeks lives in Sydney. Previously, Martin held positions with the Liberal Party of Australia, the NSW Cabinet Office and was Chief of Staff to a Minister in the Fraser Government.

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Feature: How to engage with citizens
Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and Creation of Prosperity
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