8, July, 2013

Context Matters: The Potentials and Limits of Citizen Participation in Latin America

Here Enrique Peruzzotti, Professor in the Political Science Department of Di Tella University and Researcher at CONICET, Argentina, offers his reaction to the ELLA knowledge materials on Citizen Participation.

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ELLA Expert Reviews: As part of ongoing efforts to ensure quality in our research and communications, the ELLA team asks recognised experts to conduct reviews of the knowledge materials in a given theme and produce a short written response. The purpose is to highlight a range of distinct perspectives amongst experts in the field and link readers with additional research, cases and arguments that the original ELLA materials may not cover.

In the spirit of discussion and debate, we encourage you to share your own comments about the ELLA materials and the review in the comments section below.

Latin America has been experimenting with a great diversity of participatory formats with the hope of improving governance by making it more responsive and accountable to the needs of citizens. The performance of participatory mechanisms has been uneven and depends to a large extent on the nature of contextual factors such as the strength and composition of civil society and on the degree of political elites’ commitment to the agenda of participatory governance.  The ELLA research on citizen participation - encompassing a Guide and four Policy Briefs - show us that there have been significant innovations in the area of participatory governance in the region. Yet, it is still far from clear to what extent existing participatory experiences present a coherent structure that can consistently complement and expand the workings of traditional representative institutions.

Overall, the ELLA materials provide an encompassing and up-to-date review of the manifold initiatives on participatory experiments that are being implemented throughout the region, including as well the more innovative experiences of participatory governance.  Overall, the ELLA materials represent a significant and timely work of synthesis of the trends and debates on how citizen and civil society participation contributes to promoting more responsive and accountable governments in the region.

The Guide presents an overview of different initiatives that reflect diverse degrees of citizen involvement and input into the governance process. The Guide’s analysis of initiatives is organised around two main axes: on the one hand, participatory experiences that seek to generate a more politically responsive policy process, and on the other, those that aim to create more effective forms of citizen oversight over public officials and agencies.  In this way, the ordering follows a crucial conceptual distinction between mechanisms that seek to enhance either the political or legal dimension of democratic accountability.  The Guide describes some of the main experiences and innovations, analysing their contribution to the improvement of policy outcomes, as well as the contextual factors that made them possible. Overall, it reviews an impressive number of initiatives of very different natures and that sometimes involve very different forms of civic participation. 

In this review, I would like to add to the ELLA materials by offering some observations about two key enabling or contextual factors that are important when evaluating participatory mechanisms: the question of participation and civil society; and the second one, on the general context as provided by the type of regime.

The first observation focuses on the general notion of ‘citizen participation’ upon which the Guide and Policy Briefs are predicated. The cases under review reflect very different degrees of citizen input into the policymaking process, ranging from individual citizen assessments of services to civil society representatives engaging in processes of co-governance with public officials. The ELLA Briefs describe a wide variety of participatory experiences, yet the review is predicated on a very loose notion of citizen participation. Their definition of participation is quite broad and includes very diverse forms of engagement that can have very different democratic outcomes. I consider it relevant to distinguish between the different participatory formats under review.

A first distinction is between participation formats that rely on individual versus collective forms of action. Some mechanisms - such as score cards, phone lines, texting or internet platforms - seek to obtain individual feedback from citizens, be it a denunciation over an act of wrongdoing or a complaint about a social service, such as the use of citizen score cards to evaluate health services discussed in the ELLA Brief: Citizen Participation in Evaluating Health Services in Latin America.  I would even include many of the mechanisms of direct democracy here, such as plebiscites and popular consultations that aggregate individual votes, that is if they are the product of a campaign promoted by organised sectors of civil society, rather than of the Executive branch.  If that is not the case, these direct democracy mechanisms, as well as the different forms of individual consultation are not - properly speaking - forms of civil society participation or of participatory governance, even when some of them are mistakenly presented as examples of social accountability.  The concept of civil society emphasises the role of associated citizens in public life.  Many of the mechanisms referred to above aggregate individual claims, perceptions or complaints, but are far from promoting collective action or organising a collective voice that could effectively influence the policy process. In this sense, the ‘individualised’ participation mechanisms can easily coexist with traditional representative mechanisms and with non-politicised forms of civic associationalism.  The latter does not mean that such mechanisms might not be useful in helping to fine-tune the process of communication between a service provider and its clientele, as the shown by the examples analysed in the ELLA Brief: Citizen Participation in Evaluating Health Services.  Instead, the Brazilian experience with health councils provides an interesting counter-example of a participatory design that relies on the active involvement of organised sectors of civil society in collaboration with service providers and public officials.

Participatory governance, in my opinion, entails a stronger notion of civil society participation in the process of decision making. It requires not only the presence of a proper constitutional, legal, and financial infrastructure, but also - and fundamentally – it needs a feature that cannot be designed: the existence of a political will within sectors of civil society that could translate itself into the emergence of collective actors that ‘activate’ or give life to the participatory designs that governments or international organisations are promoting. So, as the Guide rightfully concludes, the success of the whole participatory structure that has been introduced in the region rests in the end on the existence of “an active and vibrant civil society capable of demanding their rights, conducting independent assessments, and willing and able to take part in the participatory spaces created by the government” (emphasis added).  We see this in many examples from the region; to return to the example of the Brazilian health councils, the pre-existence of a Sanitarista movement was key to the councils’ success.

To work properly, participatory governance requires a minimum of agreement between both state and social actors about the importance of participatory spaces for establishing a more productive form of relationship. Indeed, the presence of a vibrant civil society does not necessarily improve the prospects of participatory governance in a country or locality.  A politically active civil society might privilege non-institutionalised and contentious forms of action and ignore the participatory catalogue of mechanisms that might be formally enshrined in the constitution or legislation. The same happens with governments: they might not be interested in promoting participatory governance, preferring to rely on more Executive-centred modes of policymaking.

This leads to a second observation: while the Guide emphasises certain contextual factors like the presence of constitutional provisions or of legislation that promotes citizen participation, it does not say much about the overall nature of the political regime in which those experiences take place. I believe the role and influence of participatory governance differs greatly depending on whether it exists within a broader institutional model of either direct or indirect democracy.[1]  The logic of participatory mechanisms will be fundamentally different in each respective regime.  This is perhaps more clearly seen in the use of direct democracy mechanisms such as plebiscite and referendums, where the logic of such mechanisms in an Executive-centred democracy might not lead to the empowerment of citizens, but rather of the Presidency. Similarly, participatory arenas might be subordinated to the political needs of the governing coalition. In brief, participatory governance promotes greater accountability and responsiveness when introduced as an addition to a broader system of indirect government.  In more direct and unmediated forms of democracy, its benefits might be not as relevant as it is usually assumed in the general literature.

Having said that, the ELLA Brief: Increasing Citizen Participation in Local Governance: Latin America’s Local Citizen Councils rightly distinguishes between two separate scenarios: on the one hand, countries where institutions such as social councils are regulated by a federal or national law, such as Brazil, Bolivia and Peru; and on the other, countries where participatory institutions are introduced in a piecemeal approach, usually as the result of the political initiative of local political leaders, such as the case of participatory budgeting in Argentina.[2]  We can include in this latter category the experiences analysed in the ELLA Brief: Multi-actor Dialogues for Better Public Policies and the ELLA Brief: Community Participation in IFI-Funded Development Projects, since they refer to specific multi-stakeholder spaces created for policy deliberation or to assess the potentially adverse impacts of a specific IFI-funded project.  This is different from the case of the National Policy Conferences in Brazil, since these Conferences express the intention to develop a multi-level policy deliberation process that could articulate in an encompassing way different layers of participatory governance that go from the local to the federal level of government. While the presence of a national regulatory framework might not necessarily ensure homogeneity across sub-national units, it does express politicians’ commitment to the agenda of participatory governance and to the attempt to design a national network of participatory structures. And as mentioned before, the existence of enabling national legislation says nothing about whether a genuine social demand for such mechanisms exists in the respective localities. As the Local Citizen Councils Brief rightly argues when describing the Peruvian experience, a favourable legal framework does not ensure the goodwill of local governments or the commitment of CSOs to actively participate.

Lastly, the review of the cases across the ELLA materials shows important accomplishments and innovations that tell us about the potential of participatory governance. Yet, given that such trends express themselves in a plurality of heterogeneous experiments, it is still far from clear to what extent they will able to provide a coherent structure that can consistently complement and expand the workings of traditional representative institutions.

[1] Direct forms of democracy seek to directly involve the citizens in the policy process without the mediation of representative institutions, for example through a plebiscite or referendum, while indirect democracy emphasises the role that intermediary structures such as parties, legislatures or policy councils have in the formulation of public preferences.

[2] To learn more about this case, see: Peruzzotti, E. 2009. The Politics of Institutional Innovation: The Implementation of Participatory Budgeting in the City of Buenos Aires.  In: Seele, A., Peruzzotti, E. (Eds.) Participatory Innovations and Representative Democracy in Latin America. Woodrow Wilson Press, Johns Hopkins University Press Series, Washington, DC.

Enrique Peruzzotti is a Professor in the Political Science Department of Di Tella University and Researcher at CONICET (National Council for Scientific and Technical Research), in Argentina. He earned his PhD from the New School for Social Research in New York City. Currently he is a residential fellow at the Center for Hemispheric Policy of the University of Miami. He is the author of numerous articles and co-editor of several books, including Participatory Innovation and Representative Democracy in Latin America (Johns Hopkins University Press), Enforcing the Rule of Law: Social Accountability in the New Latin American Democracies (Pittsburgh University Press 2006), and “Broadening the Notion of Democratic Accountability: Participatory Innovation in Latin America”, Polity (2012).


Other ELLA knowledge materials relating to Citizen Participation:






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