Citizen Engagement Forms the Backbone for Good Development

A democracy truly founded on participation requires strong citizen engagement and feedback. In many contexts, civil society organizations are the most common conduits to include the voice of citizens. Citizen engagement, when it works, encourages greater transparency and accountability and may reduce corruption. NGOs, which often have a strong history of working in communities, are crucial in this endeavor.

At the World Bank on Monday, core development stakeholders will tackle the subject of citizen engagement, sharing information and best practices in enhancing feedback. Working from the premise that citizen engagement is essential for effective development, InterAction will be among NGOs, government officials, foundations, academics, and others from the technology and the private sectors who will seek to establish ways of doing a better job in this area.

Citizen engagement is at its core about creating the necessary enabling environment that will ultimately result in long term social change. While technology can be an amazing tool in reaching this goal, it is not a silver bullet and cannot replace the human interactions needed to drive change. InterAction last year compiled a list of recommendations for the U.S. government on how best to help citizens engage more fully in planning their own futures.

The process of citizen engagement is not linear or straightforward. It is not something that can be delivered like a vaccine. So how does this shape our expectations for citizen engagement? What have NGOs, particularly those that focus on working with local partners, learned about citizen engagement? Here are two things we know.

Firstly, citizens and communities have their own strengths – such as ways of working together and local networks that can be leveraged. Effective engagement takes the time to understand and build on these resources. Methods of engagement that fit with local reality are more durable and successful; they also require more time and effort to build. As part of InterAction’s current round of awardees in our Best Practices Initiative, we have focused on NGOs that work collaboratively and build on local assets. These programs are innovative because they rely on local expertise. In the NGO community, we work closely with communities to try and match up resources with local capacity and strength.

Secondly, integral to getting citizen feedback is a willingness to acknowledge failure and be prepared to make course corrections, even when they might be uncomfortable. Donors, governments, NGOs must be willing to be publically transparent about what has worked and what needs to be done to improve something. One-off consultation and a lack of follow-up can result in cynicism and, unfortunately, disengagement. Getting feedback and mustering the political will to act on it can be a messy and lengthy process.

Ultimately, citizen engagement is about people's right to have a say in their own lives and communities. It underscores what NGOs have learned about effective development: that efforts fail without community pride and ownership.