Users’ ability to express preferences and participate in the design or monitoring of public services is considered vital for ensuring provision is inclusive and responds to community needs. Community-based approaches, where communities are involved in decision-making processes around delivery, have been successful in some cases.
Nevertheless, citizens’ capacity to make their voices heard or participate can be constrained by poverty, inequality, low awareness of rights, government resistance, information asymmetry, and unequal power dynamics at local level. Power hierarchies can mean that socially excluded or marginalised groups may have less of a say than others. Participatory spaces are political spaces that can be open to local capture. Research shows participants’ perceptions of the relative costs and benefits of participating are important. Collective action is more sustainable where it is genuinely locally-embedded, and builds on an existing culture of participation.
DFID (2010). Improving Public Services. In The Politics of Poverty: Elites, Citizens and States: Findings from ten years of DFID-funded research on Governance and Fragile States 2001–2010 (ch. 7). London: Department for International Development.
The poor, more than any other group, rely on basic public services. For vulnerable families, access to education and healthcare are important routes out of poverty. Practitioners should involve citizens in service delivery reform to improve accountability but be aware that formal participatory mechanisms can exclude the poor. Where groups are involved at significant moments of public reform, they are more likely to be able to influence the design of institutional mechanisms.
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Banerjee, A. V. et al. (2008). Pitfalls of Participatory Programs: Evidence from a Randomized Evaluation in Education in India (Policy research working paper 4584). Washington D.C.: World Bank.
This paper evaluates three different participatory interventions aimed at improving education in Uttar Pradesh, India: providing information, training community members in a new testing tool, and training and organising volunteers to hold reading camps for illiterate children. None of the interventions had any impact on community involvement in public schools, teacher effort, or learning outcomes, despite high attendance at public meetings. Citizens face substantial constraints to participating in public school improvement even when they care about education. Participant attitudes are important. Small group action, where members can act directly, is effective and requires little coordination. Collective action needs to be learned over time.
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Ban, R., & Rao, V. (2009). Is deliberation equitable? Evidence from transcripts of village meetings in south India (Policy Research Working Paper 4928). Washington D.C: World Bank.
Deliberative decision-making processes are increasingly important, but there is little empirical evidence about how they actually work. This paper uses data from India extracted from 131 transcripts of village meetings to study whose preferences are reflected in the meetings. The findings show that the more land a person owns, the higher the likelihood her preference is mentioned in the meeting, the longer the amount of time spent discussing this preference, and the higher the likelihood that a decision to provide or repair this public or private good is taken. At the same time, the voices of disadvantaged castes, while not dominating the meeting, are also heard.
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For further resources, see section on the impact of voice and participation in the GSDRC’s voice and accountability topic guide.