International Observatory on Participatory Democracy

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Citizens' engagement in policymaking and the design of public services

Parliament of Australia Department of Parliamentary Services

The theory and practice of public administration is increasingly concerned with placing the citizen at the center of policymakers’ considerations, not just as target, but also as agent. The aim is to develop policies and design services that respond to individuals’ needs and are relevant to their circumstances. Concepts such ‘co-creation’ and ‘co-production’ have emerged to describe this systematic pursuit of sustained collaboration between government agencies, non-government organizations, communities and individual citizens. The Australian Government’s report Ahead of the Game—the 2010 ‘blueprint’ for the reform of the Australian Public Service (APS)—is cast in this light.

• The APS has been involved in ongoing reform since the 1976 Coombs Royal Commission from which emerged a whole-of-government approach to public administration. This New Public Management invoked entrepreneurialism, outputs and metrics, the cutting of red tape, and a view of the public as ‘consumers’. Over the past decade, this view has been reframed to regard the public as ‘citizens’, whose agency matters and whose right to participate directly or indirectly in decisions that affect them should be actively facilitated. Such an approach honors the fundamental principle of a democratic state—that power is to be exercised through, and resides in, its citizens.

• In many democracies, citizen participation in policymaking and service design has been debated or attempted, but too infrequently realized. There have been some notable achievements, in both advanced and developing countries, and there is abundant public policy literature advocating thoroughgoing collaboration. But genuine engagement in the ‘co-production’ of policy and services requires major shifts in the culture and operations of government agencies. It demands of public servants new skills as enablers, negotiators and collaborators. It demands of citizens an orientation to the public good, a willingness to actively engage, and the capabilities needed to participate and deliberate well. These are tall orders, especially if citizens are disengaged and certain groups within the population are marginalized.

• Most especially, effective engagement by a citizen-centric public service requires political support for the genuine devolution of power and decision-making to frontline public servants and professionals—and to the citizens and stakeholders with whom they engage. Ministers and agency heads have a major leadership responsibility here.