Friday July 01, 2022

Space for the public

December 21, 2020

Public participation is the practice of active engagement of citizens in formulating policies that are associated with their welfare. It influences decisions and ensures greater transparency and accountability. In participatory practices and processes, decision-making is the outcome of the voice of the people.

According to the World Bank, “participation is a process through which stakeholders influence and share control over development initiatives and the decisions and resources which affect them”. The main principle of participation is that people are given opportunities to be a part of the decision-making process. It is seen as a way of empowerment and is an important part of democratic governance.

Article 140-A of the constitution of Pakistan states that “Each province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments”. The article makes it a constitutional obligation to devolve powers. The retention of wide legislative and executive authority by the provinces is not in line with the spirit of the constitution. This underpins the extensive and essential engagement and participation of citizens in the affairs of governance at the local level.

There is a need for meaningful public engagement at the local level in the process of governance, social change and efficient and effective service delivery. Strengthening local bodies and empowering citizens is the main agenda of the present government. More recently, Prime Minister Imran Khan underlined that decentralization of power is the foundation stone of good governance and a key to improve service delivery. Public participation at the grassroots level brings greater efficiency, social equity, and timely delivery of essential services to citizens. Moreover, public participation on a wider scale makes corrupt practices difficult to survive at multiple tiers of governance.

Through participatory management practices, people actively engage in all activities instead of being passive recipients. It helps towards fair distribution of benefits and inculcates a sense of belonging, self-efficacy and well-being through a shared agenda and collective action planning. Furthermore, sustainability and acceptability of various development programmes initiated at the local level is ensured. With this regard, public participation may challenge the concept that big is better and centralized high hierarchies lead to elite capture.

The elite perspective focuses only on a small and powerful group of people having authority and power and influence over the public in key policy issues and decision-making. In such a case, public participation is barely involved in the policy process. In the ‘elite capture tragedy’, the majority is excluded and the interests of only a few powerful segments in society are promoted. It distances the people from the institutions and the state. The elitist model stresses on the centrality of power, with hardly any space for the public.

A centralized system has no linkages with local needs and aspirations of the people. The public, being a user of services, is normally considered a target group with problems that require only solutions – with very little space to be the part of the decision-making process. The engagement of people at the local level creates a public space where citizens have an important and adequate role in political, administrative and financial affairs.

However, the involvement of local tiers in decision-making is not without challenges. Increased decentralization results in the creation of many centres of power, leading to an uneven impact on public policy issues. Besides, serious inequalities such as lack of full autonomy in decision-making at the local government level persist even after the introduction of reforms. Structural and legislative barriers are considered other pertinent issues as well.

To overcome such challenges, there arises the need for discourses which create space for meaningful public participation. These are different ways of communication that are important for framing public opinion.

The space for public participation leads to inclusive governance, fairness and national integration and also promotes social, cultural and economic transformation. It is important in the policy process as it establishes effective partnership, increases institutional legitimacy and acknowledges the role of citizens in policy formulation. However, on the whole, the benefits largely depend on many factors – including sufficient capacity of local governments, mechanism for accountability of decisions made and comprehensive framework conditions.

In view of the preceding, there is a need for policy reforms conducive to all stakeholders to achieve efficient, sustainable and socially equitable governance. Equally important is creating awareness among the people regarding public welfare. The essence of decentralization lies in greater and wide-ranging public participation through prudently and wisely planned procedures well-matched to the specific context and conditions.

The writer is the secretary of the Department of Culture, Tourism & Archaeology, Balochistan.