For too many years now, national governments all over the world have claimed to promote more effective public participation in the decision-making process; a path that universities in the ‘developed’ world are now following. Now, universities and their researchers are looking to approach the public, to understand it and find a way to create a kind of tripartite policy-making process involving a society (who wants), academics (who are in the know), and a government (who implements). Nevertheless, despite the introduction of more and more innovative mechanisms for citizen’s participation and involvement into politics, in certain countries there is a growing gap between the de jure and de facto.
The fact is, the reality is different. Effective public engagement and political participation, with real and tangible results for the population – one of its ostensible goals - is not as plausible as suggested in many parts of the world.
Through direct interaction with citizens in focus groups, e-mail communication, citizens’ attention offices, and more; politicians claim to promote a more participatory democratic environment where public demands can be heard and attended to.
By simply watching an international news channel, it is possible to notice that, outside Europe, more specifically the European Community and North American geographic areas, the socio-political and economic conditions in which millions of citizens are immersed, do not facilitate public engagement, even less a participatory democracy as understood in western European countries or the USA. Even in certain developed countries, or established democracies, universities and politicians face several barriers to effectively securing a public engagement or genuine participation in the discussions that actually matter to society.
For instance, although Mexico is now an, “internationally recognized democracy”, and its government and universities are publicly seeking to involve the community in public policy studies, discussions, proposals and decisions; Mexican society has different priorities.
Just to mention one example, in Apatzingan, Michoacan; people are trapped in the epicentre of a conflict between the state, drug lords, and now, ‘social vigilantes’. The state’s current Plan for Development might establish social participation as fundamental to the government in office; and local universities might go out of their way to put in place various activities, seminars and conferences to promote a major engagement between the authorities, entrepreneurs, civil society and academics. But the population in general does not have the necessary level of motivation, incentives or availability to engage in socio-political discussion. Living in a perpetual state of fear, and distrusting the authority’s capacity to attend to their demands or solve their immediate and tangible problems, people prefer to isolate themselves from what they perceive as the “ineffective” mechanisms of public participation; creating and perpetuating a negative vicious circle.
Cases like this make us think about the need to re-think the ways in which social participation and public engagement activities are designed, or copied from other countries to be implemented in a rather different scenario. Thus, before setting up a public engagement activity, it is vital to understand the socio-political conditions that surround the target population.
An external agent from whom trust has been withdrawn, whether he is from a university, local government agency or civil society organization, will not be able to engage with the population.
If the citizen’s basic social needs for healthcare, education and public security (increasingly important nowadays) are not met first, any public engagement activity can only expect the participation of what has been called ‘the usual suspects’, that is highly educated, middle class individuals who hardly represent the entire or at least the activity’s target population. Finally, before labeling any initiative a ‘successful’ public engagement, it is necessary not only to consider the attendance and participation of the population. It is vital to analyze its real and tangible results.
There can be an infinite number of meetings between society, academics and government representatives; but if the population notices - or even suspects - that their participation, engagement, and in certain cases, confrontation with the policy making actors was unproductive; public engagement and political participation will continue to be a negative label.
This contribution has been commissioned for an editorial partnership between Participation Now and openDemocracy.net.