Democracy and public participation

A voice, a say, an active role – the new quality of public participation

Public participation is seen as a particularly important precondition for sustainable action at local level. Although voter turnout at local elections is falling in many regions, cities and municipalities are fast becoming laboratories for testing new forms of public participation. One of the reasons for this is that civil society is becoming better organised and more self-confident. Many citizens are helping deliver municipal services through voluntary work, for instance in the fields of education, culture and sport, and in caring for young people and the elderly.

At the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000, properly functioning democracy at all levels was identified as a vital prerequisite for reducing poverty and securing peace. This is about far more than simply ensuring democratically legitimate formal structures. Living democracy is based not only on regular elections, but also on transparent, rule-of-law procedures, effective, service-oriented authorities, independent media and a well-organised and active civil society. By involving all actors and drawing on knowledge and experiences from politics, government, civil society, business and associations, local authorities can gain acceptance for their work on sustainability and ensure that needed changes are implemented. Around the world, cities and local authorities are developing new instruments and concepts to step up popular participation in planning, decision-making and implementation processes. One outstanding example is the participatory budget produced in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. It gives residents a say in local government spending priorities and has already been emulated by thousands of local authorities around the globe.

The German city of Mannheim provides a good example of involving various participation procedures in urban development processes. Its Change Process made stepping up popular participation one of seven strategic objectives of the city. All relevant organisational units were merged in a new department called Advice, Participation, Elections, thus helping to integrate formal political processes and informal participatory procedures. Participatory procedures (including the participatory budget already mentioned) are now used extensively, ensuring that the knowledge, desires and creativity of the city’s multicultural citizens are incorporated into urban development processes.

Thanks to the GIZ-assisted project Improving public services through popular participation, the citizens of many Indonesian cities and municipalities now also have more opportunities to make their voices heard. In agreement with service providers, a complaints index was introduced, allowing citizens to lodge complaints when services were not delivered as planned. The complaints were analysed and either dealt with by the service provider on the ground, or passed on to the pertinent decision-maker with proposed solutions. This has significantly improved services in the fields of education, health and water.

Formal participation processes, such as those required by law in Germany in urban land use planning, have proved valuable and can be transferred to other urban services. Germany’s decentralised state laws mean that different regulations apply in different cities to citizens’ petitions and subsequent referendums, but interest these procedures is growing.

The main expression of a growing culture of popular participation is, however, the vast array of informal processes for bringing sustainable urban development which have taken root in cities and municipalities around the world. Advisory committees and round tables, processes to develop guiding principles, and future workshops are only a few examples that such participatory processes can take. Increasingly, these approaches are being called for by the residents of cities and used in local politics and government.

All participatory processes – both formal and informal – take time and money, and they require staff with the right qualifications. Successful participation involves communicating and sharing information promptly and comprehensively and ensuring processes are transparent. Many cities set up special offices for organising and coordinating processes, helping prepare and support the citizens’ forums, and acting as the direct point of contact on the ground. One example is the German city of Potsdam, with its Pilot project office for public participation. They also use internet platforms and social media.

For urban policy-makers it is a strategic challenge to give all sections of the population the same opportunities to participate, irrespective of educational level, age, gender and national origin.


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