Citizen Participation in Local Government Management

Ishwor Dhungel, Canada Forum for Nepal, Ottawa, Canada & University of Western Ontario, London, Canada

Proceedings of Unfolding Futures: Nepalese Economy, Society, and Politics
Friday-Sunday, October 5-7, 2007, Ottawa, Canada ID


Citizens’ participation in program development, management and service delivery is an integral part of local government administration. It is obvious that involved participation of the people will let new ideas emerge, including techniques, methods, and innovation in local government settings so that quality services can be delivered. Participatory management will support local governance through productive, impartial, sustainable and democratic development practices. Local governments in the developing world still have less autonomy compared to the developed world. It appears that more power lies with the federal and provincial government. With the lack of power decentralization and autonomy, local governments don’t often develop citizen participation in the developing world. This is one of the barriers that local governments face to serving their citizens better. The crucial factor in establishing a sustainable citizen participation program is providing room for local people in the management and decision making process of the local government initiatives. Developing, implementing and institutionalizing citizen participation programs at the local level are very important in empowering government staff and local citizens. It is noted that local government employees’ attitudes toward citizens are often negative and unsupportive. Either they have no power or fear dealing with the roles and rights of citizens.

These days, citizen participation is becoming very popular in the domain of local government management. Active participation of the citizens in the management and decision making process will offer an opportunity to improve organizational performance. Citizens’ participation in local government management will be the start of empowering initiatives that help to keep provided services sustainable. One of the challenges of the local government in a bureaucratic system is to enhance participatory management in the workplace. Participatory planning and management will provide a space for local communities, NGOs, interest groups, civil societies and the private sector in decision making processes. This step of course is a backbone of sustainable and democratic development practices at the local level.

During my involvement in the local government sector in the mid 1990’s, I experienced that some of the international donor agencies had changed their aid strategy and given the same priority to poverty alleviation and strengthening the management capacity of the different levels of government. By doing so, they supported massive administrative/management reforms in the developing world such as people participation, a post-bureaucratic system, external and internal empowerment and democratic values. The objective of this step was to increase citizen participation in local government management and decision-making processes. Participatory management seeks a new way to involve people that will have an impact on the democratic practice of developing a more suitable administrative model in local government. It would not be an exaggeration to say that citizen participation in management or in other activities is an innovative practice that strengthens defined processes and the goals of the local government administration and management.

In defining community participation, Burns et al (2004) have this to say:

Community participation is not the same as consultation. Many organizations say that they have a community participation strategy when they mean that they have a consultation strategy. One of the reasons for this audit is to expose issues like this. Community participation means that communities are playing an active part and have a significant degree of power and influence.

As we have experienced, local governments in the developing world are adopting decentralization policies and the responsibility for addressing poverty now lies with the local government. And of course it is the local government that is handed the responsibility for implementing policies that advocate the participation of poor communities. I will comment that most of the local governments lack managerial, technological, human and financial resources and many still have highly bureaucratic structures and prescriptive approaches in place. Goss (2001) writes, however, that other methods are necessary to involve citizens in decision making processes:

There is a vogue now to bring people from outside government into decision-making. Community planning conferences, regeneration partnerships, task forces, project groups, the boards of regional development agencies and community trusts all now involve people who are neither politicians nor public sector managers.

A majority of local governments are dominated by capital -intensive works and staffed by administrators and technical professionals who think the concept of community participation is irrelevant. At the same time, other district, municipal and village level governments have little autonomy/power or are under staffed and under skilled, and struggle to fulfill the commitments they made to citizens. At worst, unstable policies and programs, the lack of resources, political pressures and lack of citizen participation mean that the local governments are dysfunctional. In light of these challenges, “The importance of deliberative democracy, democratic renewal, and citizen participation in governance has emerged as an important normative and instrumental concern in public policy formulation” (Kathi and Cooper, 2005). Sometimes district, municipal and village level officials may wish to accept community participation but lack of skills and resources prevent them from implementing those policies properly. Policy makers and managers will realize the degree of difficulty in capacity building and the commitment required to develop effective community partnerships in local government management. However, they will appreciate this new concept and witness a sustained future for the local government through working in close collaboration with citizens and other stakeholders in that “the overriding purpose of consultation is to improve the quality of decisions regarding the content and delivery of policies and programs. (Kernaghan et al, 2000).

Significance of Citizen Participation

In order to build a capacity for community participation it is necessary for the local government to enhance its understanding of what participation is and what it involves. During my involvement in the domain of local government, I found that the nature of participation and the municipal-community partnership varies considerably across different municipalities. Citizen participation is not only affected by external operating and the institutional context of the municipality itself, but by a multitude of other macro level community and program or project factors. What is also interesting to note here is that citizen participation makes a positive contribution to management and development efforts through the input of diverse ideas. One of the common rationales of government for promoting citizen participation is that it will increase the effectiveness and efficiency of investment. Citizen participation in service delivery and infrastructure development is more sustainable, targeted and appropriate and has more ‘buy-in’ than those delivered through traditional top-down administrative mechanisms.

Based on the author’s experience, I would argue that objectives for citizen participation in the delivery of services should be to provide effective services that are relevant to low income citizens’ needs and priorities, meet the needs of poor women, visible minorities, tribes and the most disadvantaged groups of society. When implementing programs, participation can make it possible to increase people’s ownership of services by using cost sharing arrangements. One can expect that local knowledge, skills and technology can be used which assist in making programs locally feasible and sustainable. In doing so, local governments will be able to improve and deliver quality services. If it is a community infrastructure development project, the government could save money and decrease dependence of resources for operation and maintenance through citizens’ involvement. Accountability can also be increased in that,

[Interest] in public participation in administrative decision making has increased as a result of a number of factors, not the least of which is that a citizenry with diminished trust in government is demanding more accountability from public officials. There is also growing recognition on the part of administrators that decision making without public participation is ineffective (Simrell King et al, 1998).

However, in this context we can see citizen participation as a means to a more fundamental goal of strengthening civil society and democratic values. A strong and vibrant civil society is considered an essential component of local government management and sustainable social and economic development. Directly improving efficiency and increasing people’s participation in local programs will provide an opportunity for communities to lobby government to increase subsidies and grants. As an eye witness, I am comfortable arguing that citizen participation in local government management provides opportunities to learn about their basic roles, to develop negotiation and organizational skills, to mobilize community resources and to network with other marginalized groups. Particularly in the developing world, community participation in local government management may lead to poverty reduction through the development of income creation activities, as the participation of poor communities can provide income-generating opportunities and the potential of developing new skills for longer term employment and income benefits. At a local government level, such participation is imperative as, “on a daily basis, citizens depend on city agencies to deliver services that affect their lives” (Kathi and Cooper, 2005).

More specifically, local governments today are increasingly seeking to ensure that women are centrally placed in participatory initiatives. This attempt might be to eliminate social restriction which results in a far more complex process than the functional aim of delivering services. However, it would be interesting to note that in the field, the process of targeting women and other disadvantaged groups is becoming a powerful tool to change the way that power is traditionally exercised. In this context, an increasing number of women participants may be the result of the policy of nondiscrimination in local government management.

Types of Citizen Participation

As it is a common practice in the field, and also based on the author’s previous experience with the local government, I would argue the following items under this heading. First, the increasing demand of local needs leads local governments toward community volunteer or cost sharing under the name of community participation which is known as cost sharing participation. One can expect that the local government can use citizen participation as a mechanism to mobilize and empower the community so that the local government can make local development efforts or projects sustainable with ownership transfer. For example, from the author’s own experience in the developing world, many local development initiatives have failed because the aim of the entire local government was to reduce their own expenditure rather than making projects sustainable or transferring ownership. What we should not forget here is that the most disadvantaged and poor communities of the society were either not consulted or completely ignored in the process. Finally, projects undertaken by the municipality were unable to serve citizen better and achieve the targeted goal.

Second, much of the citizens’ participation programs in local government service delivery programs start out in the form of information-sharing. Information sharing should be seen as effective and enabling, as the process of communicating, informing and being informed can form the basis of increased interaction with local citizens. Third, consultation participation focuses on forums, formal and informal interactions where citizens can communicate their views on intended proposals. Fourth, collaboration and participation offers an opportunity to the local government and community to cooperate in an alliance towards improved and demand-responsive service delivery. Communities can participate in the process from an early stage and realize the needs of women and other vulnerable groups in society. Fifth, mobilization participation will allow local governments to respond to the efforts of communities or facilitate communities to control their own initiatives. Other methods of participation are formal and informal meetings, participation in the decision making process, mandatory and voluntary participation, and so on. Simrell King et al (1998) raised the issue of authentic participation in their article and argue that:

Both citizens and administrators in our study defined the key elements of authentic participation as focus, commitment, trust and open and honest discussion. As an activist stated people need to know that their input is important and will be considered in making decision. An administrator concurred, I think one of the keys for effective participation at the citizen and neighborhood level is for decision makers to be interested; to really listen to what the needs are of the people.

Why is Local Government the Right Place to Implement Citizen Participation Programs‌

One of the advantages of the local government is they are very close to the local citizens. Managers, administrators and decision makers live in the same community, enjoy the same facilities and services and have common goals. Federal and Provincial governments do not have the administrative mechanisms to reach down to the local community level. They can influence community or citizens only by introducing new policies and legislation and often don’t widely include the public as key stakeholders in the policy development process. Local citizens feel comfortable communicating their feelings, ideas, innovations and programs with the local level of government. In this context, it can be said that the municipal government has a mandate to work with local citizens.

People’s perception is that local governments have the authority to mitigate their problems and concerns as this is where most of their services actually are delivered. By using their mandate, local governments can develop their own by-laws and try to deliver quality services to meet local needs. It is obvious that local leaders and administrators know the local situation better than administrators at upper levels of government. Thus, it is realistic and important for citizens to work with the local level government. For example, with active citizen participation,

[The] city council, the elected representatives, would then become more of a coordinating council than a governing body. The council would be expected to refer many matters to the citizens’ committees, but would also make final decisions in cases requiring mediation between competing interests, monitor the decision-making process for fairness and consistency, and evaluate the success of policy implementation (Clayton, 1999).

Local citizens directly elect their leaders, so the council/committee/board will be very aware about the local community and what’s going on within it. In this scenario, the council must be accountable to the local citizens through informed voting. The council can increase citizen participation by developing a variety of participative programs at the local level. Once elected, the council must respect citizens’ views, opinions and their desired community programs if they are to remain elected. Community organizations, women organizations and other non-governmental organizations also work in close collaboration with the local government. These are the organizations which are very successful in representing local citizens and their needs. Thus, the local government’s efforts should institutionalize these civil society organizations and keep working with them for the benefit of the entire society. Collaboration with such organizations can build trust. Trust is a challenge as,

[Relationships] between local agencies and local communities throughout the twentieth century have been beset with difficulties, distrust, tensions and dilemmas. Learning about those dilemmas is helpful, since it begins to concede to the community wisdom about things that have gone before, and to recognize the continuity of past failures (Goss, 2001).

Challenges to Implementing Citizen Participation Programs

Today the world is highly globalized and interconnected and people have quick access to information and technology. This change in information and technology has resulted in a high mobility of people from one part of the globe to the other, seeking a higher quality of living. It is due to this fact that some local communities are losing their citizens. In such a situation, local governments are having difficulty increasing citizen participation in their programs. Similarly, there is a national and international brain drain as educated and skilled local people either migrate to large cities or move overseas. Thus, sometimes it is very hard to maintain adequate citizen participation in local government programs. In the author’s own experience, many rural areas in the developing world have majority of its citizens of working age emigrate either inside or outside the country.

To illustrate these issues in an example, the various international and national development organizations introduced participatory local development programs aimed at obtaining maximum citizen participation. But with the lack of citizen participation, the program did not achieve the desired success and the project failed. This is a common scenario in the developing world, illustrating how citizen participation is becoming more difficult. Currently, along with rapid urbanization and technology advances, people are busier and more individualistic than ever before. They have more desires, needs and demands so that they do not have as much time to contribute to community based participation. We have seen a shift towards a motivation centered upon earnings rather than traditional social and community involvement. As mobility has increased, people must deal with a variety of problems such as international correspondence, child education, billing, fees, business, housing, and demands for employment. This will reduce the opportunity to participate at the local level.

Sometimes, especially in urban areas due to hectic lifestyles, participatory development programs did not run as expected. Managing diverse citizens and bringing them to consensus is another challenge that lies ahead for the local government. As cities are becoming more diverse they are facing new issues to address. Challenges include improving and increasing citizen involvement at the local level. Sometimes diversity also appears as a challenge,

[If] we recognize that identity and community are now characterized by diversity, this creates problems for governance. Diversity does not simply mean that society is very different; it offers excitement and creativity, but it also locks in extreme deprivation (Goss, 2001).


Local governments in the developing world still have significantly less autonomy compared to the developed world. It appears that more power lies with the federal and provincial government. With the lack of power decentralization and autonomy, local governments don’t often develop citizen participation in the developing world. This is one of the barriers to local governments serving local citizens’ better. The most crucial factor in establishing a sustainable citizen participation program is gaining the support of senior management. Municipalities are highly bureaucratic and rapid change is not immediately possible and often can only be brought forth by wise and honest leaders. This is hampered due to lack of honesty, transparency, and rampant corruption among leaders and officials in the developing world. In this circumstance, one can expect that active citizen participation enhances good governance and that will help to reduce the mismanagement and corruption at the local government level. Active citizen participation can work in the situation where “popular participation is an important dimension in the administration, of public services. Within the context of development administration, participation involves the relationship of career administrators to both citizens and the public interest” (Umeh and Andranovich, 2005). However, limited citizens’ participation programs and policies have so far been initiated by the municipality to improve the situation. Visible minority groups, tribes, women and the poor still have no access to the municipality. Civil society organizations and non governmental organizations too do not appear effective in mitigating the needs of those vulnerable groups of society.

It is obvious that unless we develop a mechanism of local development and citizen participation, this situation will not improve. A number of government initiated projects in the past were unsustainable due to the lack of citizen participation. For example, the government completed a project and did not feel it necessary to consult with the citizens. Because of this, there was a problem with the institutionalization of the projects and with changing the ownership from government to communities. There is the clear indication that until we involve citizens in planning, implementing, monitoring and cost sharing of the projects, citizens won’t be empowered and take ownership so that projects can be institutionalized at the local level. Local governments’ working cultures are still inappropriate for participatory programs. For example, if staff is not properly trained and no participatory decision making process is in place, there will be no transparency in information. Municipal employees’ attitudes are often negative and unsupportive toward citizens and customers. Either they have no power or fear to dealing with the roles and rights of citizens.

Developing, implementing and institutionalizing citizen participation programs at the municipal level are highly important to empowering both municipal staff and local citizens. It will offer them room for innovation, motivation, and commitment so that they will be able to develop an excellent organizational culture that leaves everyone better off without making any one worse off. Sometimes political instability, lack of political commitment and politics of self interest may seriously damage citizen participation in local government management. In my field experience, we developed 100 self-help community based organizations (CBOs) in one of the municipalities in Nepal, linked them with the municipality and developed a bottom up planning process which resulted in a significant improvement in citizen participation in the decision making process. The local people initiated and implemented a number of participatory community development projects with the municipality and it appeared that citizens and staff were empowered, enhancing governance.

In the past decade, citizen participation programs have been highly successful in achieving their goals. They were able to mobilize local people, NGOs, women organizations, and the private sector as well. Citizens were committed to working with other stakeholders to achieve development goals rather than dividing into various groups. Citizens’ participation worked as a glue that held together the entire society and unified them for everyone’s mutual benefit. Finally, citizens themselves said that the beauty of the citizen participation program was that they were empowered, self-reliant, consulted in the decision making process, and were provided an opportunity to take part in program/policy development and the planning, implementation and monitoring process. It would not be an exaggeration to say that local development is only effective and sustainable when local peoples and local governments are increasingly capable of taking charge of their own destiny. And of course, citizen participation in local government management is a very powerful instrument to address local needs timely, cost effectively and more efficiently than ever before.


  • Burns, D., F. Heywood, M. Taylor, P. Wilde and M. Wilson. 2004. Making Community Participation Meaningful, (a handbook for development and assessment), Policy Press, U.K.
  • Clayton, T.J. 1999. Bringing the Public into Public Administration: The Struggle Continues, Public Administration Review, Vol. 59, No.1.
  • Goss, S. 2001. Making Local Governance Work, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave
  • Kathi, P.C. and T.L. Cooper. 2005. Democratizing the Administrative State: Connecting Neighborhood Councils and City Agencies. Public Administration Review, Vol. 65, No. 10.
  • Kernaghan, K., B. Marson and S. Borins. 2000. The New Public Organization, Toronto: Institute of Public Administration.
  • Simrell King, C., K.M. Feltey and B. O’Neill Susel. 1998. The Participation: Toward Authentic Public Participation in Public Administration. Public Administration Review, Vol. 58, No. 4.
  • Umeh J.O. and G. Andranovich. 2005. Culture, Development, and Public Administration in Africa. Kumarian Press Inc., U.S.A.

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