Increased citizen participation in government: Fad or new reality? Part One

Increased citizen participation in both nonprofits and government seems to parallel the rise of the new economy. Can we harness the interest to both improve governance and satisfy citizens?

Around the world, we are seeing increased levels of citizen participation in their governments. Similar trends can be seen in nonprofit organizations. Gregory Saxton, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Buffalo/The State University of New York, has written about this trend in nonprofits in a paper he titled The Participatory Revolution in Nonprofit Management (also printed in the Nonprofit Quarterly, 2012). The parallels between nonprofits and governments are striking.

Saxton writes of a “…generalized surge in participatory practices and values throughout society.” He goes on to explain that these changes have been driven by three other trends. Higher levels of education have been achieved for decades and Saxton argues that this is the primary driver of participation. He also cites a long-term shift in values: “Simply put, younger generations are increasingly assuming the right to be included in the decision-making processes that most affect them.” Finally, he argues, the proliferation of computer communication technology has had a significant impact on participation. He cites an increase in internet access from 3.4 percent households to 74.9 percent in just 10 years, between 1994 and 2004.

All of these trends affect governments as well. Casual observation suggests that citizens also expect greater opportunities to impact their governments, most typically seen regarding issues that have direct impacts on them. Much citizen participation seems to be short-term and passionate, often without the context of the governmental unit’s other responsibilities, including both task responsibilities and their responsibilities to listen to the views of all citizens. Saxton sees a similar trend with nonprofits, what he terms “episodic volunteers”. This presents some challenges for governmental units at all levels.

“Episodic citizen engagement” leaves the governmental unit with only a short time to accomplish some important things. First, the citizen clearly expects either answers to their questions or some action to be taken to resolve the issue. They expect to see solutions quickly, or at least some concrete progress in a short time frame. Since only a small part of government revenue comes from fees for service, it is much more difficult for governments to add staff to sell more products to raise the revenue to pay the new staff that is needed to solve the problem, than it is for a business to make these changes. Action has to be taken by staff people who typically have full plates already.

This is the first of a four-part series on the Michigan State University Extension web site. Read more in part two.

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