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Forums for citizen engagement: when to repair and when to replace?

Hannah Hudson

Programme Implementation Manager

Strengthening accountability - is it best to work through existing structures for feedback and engagement or to set up new ones?

It’s a question we are often faced with at Integrity Action. Often accountability work is needed because the existing structures in many contexts are not working effectively – people are excluded, and feedback is not leading to change. But what is the best way to address this?

Firstly, let’s explain what we mean by accountability structures or processes – we’re referring to ways for the public to engage with government, including to share feedback and to encourage a response from government. For example, public forums or working groups.

In our work, we want to avoid setting up new structures unnecessarily. We aim for sustainable accountability that fits each context – we want to support an approach that will continue to be used long term. So when setting up a new initiative, we always start by looking at the existing structures. We want monitoring processes to be accessible and sustainable, so we look at the technology that is already used by communities and stakeholders. And we look at what engagement processes already exist – are there already established forums for citizens and government to discuss projects? Are there community forums that can be used for sharing results back with the community?

Often, the existing structures are not working effectively. But we look at whether there is potential to build upon these structures, using them as an avenue for new ways for government and citizens to work together. For example, a key part of our approach is establishing a group for community monitors to meet with duty bearers to solve problems found. This can involve setting up a new group, but we recommend first looking at whether there are already existing groups that could be utilised for these conversations. In the SHINE initiative in schools, students engaged with the existing School Management Committees to meet and discuss how to improve the schools.

Sometimes our work involves raising awareness of the existing engagement structures. A challenge to public participation is often that many citizens aren’t informed about the opportunities for them to engage with government, such as public forums, or aren’t updated about when or where the meetings will be held. The VOICE initiative in Kenya is addressing this – our partner KYGC is raising awareness in communities in Kwale of how to engage in public participation processes, and supporting citizens to engage through attending forums and writing memoranda.

So there are a lot of ways to work with what already exists. But is setting up something new always bad?

In our programmes we have learned that setting up new groups and processes does not always mean duplication. In fact, if done in a mindful way it can be a way to strengthen existing groups and processes.

In the VOICE initiative, community members monitor local construction projects. In Kenya, there is already a government-mandated structure for communities to oversee projects – Project Management Committees (PMCs). So community monitors could be seen as a duplication of these existing committees.

But there are limitations to the PMCs – the selection process is often led by government and so the committees are not seen to be representative of the community. Our partner KYGC has seen how PMC members also have limited experience and understanding of project documents, like budgets and contracts, that would help them to check that the construction projects are being implemented correctly. On VOICE, KYGC has worked directly with some PMCs to build their capacity and is advocating to government for improvements to the selection process and support to PMC members.

But our partners also found that setting up community monitors as a separate network was an effective way to support PMCs from the outside. Setting up the new role allowed them to shape it from the beginning, ensuring that the selection process was led by the community, and engaging citizens who had lost trust in the Project Management Committee structure. Community monitors are now supporting PMCs – they often work alongside them and train them, and in some cases monitors are being elected onto them. This is strengthening the PMCs through a gradual, community-led process.

We have also seen the advantage of setting up new groups in the Yetu initiative in Kenya, implemented in partnership with the Aga Khan Foundation. The initiative established and supported Local Development Organisations (LDOs), umbrella organisations comprised of civil society organisations. The LDOs were trained and supported to monitor government-funded projects.  The research we commissioned on ‘The Value of Citizen-Generated Data to Kenyan Authorities’ found that the LDOs provided an effective way for civil society to gather to share feedback in a way that they had not done before. Yetu community monitors have also been elected onto PMCs, and the research found that this made the PMCs more effective.

With consultative structures in place and feedback mechanisms available, it could be argued that a project such as the Yetu Initiative is unnecessarily establishing parallel public engagement system. However, it is not so much that Yetu has set up alternative mechanisms but that it has created systems for enhancing the existing county government structures and mechanisms.’ (iDC research consultants)

In our work we are still always looking at how we can strengthen the accountability processes that already exist. But sometimes this can be done by setting up new groups that can champion a new approach and new values, and who can work alongside existing groups to support them.

There is a still a lot to be learned on this topic – when is it effective to set up a new group, and when is it best to use existing groups from the start? This is something we are excited to continue to explore.

We would love to hear about any experiences where you have faced the same thing. When have you set up something new? When have you used existing structures? What are the challenges and advantages to these different approaches?