Citizen Participation By: Hubert Pipersburgh


 

 

Hubert Pipersburgh

The importance of citizen participation in a democracy cannot be underscored.  Without the participation of its citizenry, the United States, arguably the best model in contemporary times for democracy would not have evolved to the status of world leadership today.  Citizen participation is as old as democracy itself, it is a concept that suggest everyone should be allowed to participate in the decision making process.  This concept sometimes referred to as primary democracy works well in relatively small political jurisdictions where all citizens can have a voice in decision making.

The 18th century political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote the social contract in which one of his main theories was primary democracy.  Rousseau wanted to eliminate all barriers between the people and their government.  This would have left just the citizens and their government leaders.  The citizens would decide what they wanted, and the political leaders would act accordingly.  Additionally, the price of democracy is the ongoing pursuit of the common good by all the people.  Alexis De Tocqueville gravely warned that unless individual citizens were regularly involved in the action of governing themselves self-government would pass from the scene.  In short, citizen participation is the animating spirit and force in a society.

However, with the rise of the modern administrative state, citizens became increasingly isolated from the process that governed their lives.  As a result, this led to the reform movement in the United States.  Following the reform movement citizens began to play a more active role in the polity.  Citizen participation includes organized interest groups, citizen advisory committees on specific issues, letter-writing campaigns, picketing, nonviolent demonstrations, testifying before local and federal government, sit ins, and town-hall meeting. 

Consider the rungs of a ladder; political scientist Sherry Arnstein attempted to sort out the meaning of citizen participation according to an eight rungs ladder of citizen participation.  The bottom two rungs of the ladder, which represents non-participation, were called manipulation and therapy.  The middle three rungs indicate degrees of tokenism and were labeled informing, consultation, and placation.  The top three rungs and the ideal  model for citizen participation indicated degrees of citizen power including partnership, delegated power, and citizen control. 

  In the Caribbean, the late Maurice Bishop’s New Jewel Movement perhaps was the closest to genuine citizen participation as it relates to the Westminster model. The words of the late Maurice Bishop of Grenada, sound a hallowed and sincere tone, “democracy is not just voting for Twiddle Dee or Twiddle Dum every five years.”   Bishop believed that for democracy and progress to be successful institutions must be created, in the form of mass organizations all over the country, such as zonal and parish councils through which the proletariat workers and farmers, the women, the youths, and the students would have an opportunity not only to express their views, but to contribute to the making of policy.  The system of councils it must be noted, was an experimental system.  In the history of Grenada and the Caribbean there were no precedents.  It was certainly Bishop’s hoped that this system of councils at the local level, the parish level, and the village level would become institutionalized as organs of people’s power and eventually, grass-root democracy will form part of the normal expectations of all the people.  The underlying assumption being that citizen participation should be an ongoing engaging process and not just an election year gimmick.

The Arnstein typology is important because it shows that not all forms of participation entail real power sharing between citizens and elected officials.  It is also an excellent framework for understanding citizen participation.  A recent example in Belize of this limited conceptualization or non-participation in essence at the middle three rungs of Arnstein’s typology was the recent debate over the 9th Amendment. Citizens were educated and co-opted into accepting the rationale behind Mr. Barrow’s regime plan for action. Citizens were given the appearance or rituals of participation; however, they were denied any real influence over the course of events. Instead of genuine citizen participation it was public relations. Citizen became mere functionaries constantly fed a diet of carefully selected information.  

Typical of the way policy is formulated in Belize in an ad hoc, stop-gap manner no serious attempt was made to really educate and inform the public about the importance and longterm implication of such a policy to our national interest.  In a country, where elected representatives speak and vote for their constituents with sometimes disastrous results this approach to policy implementation is democracy without the genuine participation of the people.  Instead the debate was watered down to petty bickering and rabid partisan politics.  In short, an otherwise important public policy initiative that should have transcended party politics turned into a circus of charges and counter charges. They effectively squandered the chance to transcend the issue past the stale partisan debate and rhetoric.  Mr. Barrow’s regime produced and promoted information that was favorable to their ambitions and programs. Information or opinions that favored the amendment survived, whereas, those that were contrary were systematically rejected.     

Historically, that has been the behavior of our elected leadership with every important public policy issue that has national security implications. Heads of Agreement Maritime Areas Act, and the 7th amendment debate comes to mind.  Our leaders seem unable to really engage the people honestly. They much prefer to divide them along party lines thereby diluting the genuine participation of the polity.  Something is clearly wrong with the way our society engages its citizens.  For one thing, it has lead to too many shortsighted policies.  For another,  assumptions and deficiencies continue without serious challenges.  In most cases, policy is formulated at the bottom two rungs of Arnstein’s ladder.  As a result, many of those individuals dedicated to the highest level of public service have become cynical.  It is a grave situation when a people resign their citizenship that citizen sinks further into apathy and anonymity.

These openly corrupt elected officials are the true enemy of long-term economic growth and sustainable development in any society.  Corruption, being what it is, there is simply no UDP or PUP way to handle corruption. It must be done in a bi-partisan manner. Conversely, unbridled capitalism, with low wages, long hours, and exploited workers, excites social resentment, revives class warfare while infusing extremist with new life.  Therefore, to move along constructive lines, capitalism must subordinate short-term plans and profits to such long-term social necessities as investment in education, public safety, the extension of healthcare, infrastructure development, rehabilitation, and redemption of our urban centers. 

Of course, I am jousting with windmills here, capitalist simply are not likely to do this by themselves.  Long-term perspectives demand public leadership and affirmative government.  This type of citizen participation utilizing primary democracy for the ills of the society is very significant.  These major political parties have become overly insensitive and remote while paying no attention to the will of people.  They have to take notice that we cannot so readily be treated with contempt or taken for granted as their natural accomplices.  Perhaps of greater importance is that citizen participation in decision making is the body of democracy itself. These political parties must learn that no government will again be able with impunity run Belize as if by fiat accompli or as a benign dictatorship with the blessings of the people.  Short of out and out repression the politics of participation is hard to turn off.  With increased self-definition as citizens future Belizean government will inevitably discover that the democratic process cannot afford to be static.  More rigorous citizen participation will become the avenue for community self-expression as men and women demand a voice in affairs.  If the process is thwarted, sooner or later there will be growing dissension from the electorate.      

Thus, citizen participation, is more than just a categorical term for citizen power. It is the redistribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberately included in the future.  It is the strategy by which the have-nots join in determining how information is shared, goals and policies are set, tax resources are allocated, programs are operated, and benefits like contracts and patronage are parceled out.  In short, it is the means by which they can induce significant societal reform that enables them to share in the benefits of the affluent society (i.e. a more equitable distribution of the economic pie).