Participatory Approach the in Thing


“The significance of the insignificant Local government service delivery – a reality or a perversity thesis”

By Ulrich Fryer

Participation and Ownership

The core business of Government is service delivery to its clientele. The essence of having a public service lies in the sometimes tacit expectation to render essential service such as education, health, justice, et cetera.

Much has been said about Government inefficiency at times. Another sector in the society condemn a top-down approach to public service decision-making. Society has developed an empathy regarding public service delivery, complaining about them not having a say in public service delivery or decision-making. This type of situation renders participation inevitable.

Participatory approaches to development have become a buzz-word in contemporary public service delivery. Davids (2005: 12) suggests that
“Participatory development is designed to move stakeholders away from the status of passive recipients of development to active participants in all parts of the process: articulating needs, identify obstacles developing plans and when possible aiding in implementation. Such participation increases the likelihood of stakeholder empowerment and ownership and concurrently improves sustainability”.

The author will fail in articulation if no separation is drawn between who is to participate and the quality of such participation or input. The traditional setting reminds of the deliberate exclusion of women and the marginalised rural poor from decision-making processes. This exclusion of women derived from the disparities in the social structures.

Another argument about participation is the quality of the input. It will serve no purpose if the contributions of the marginalised are ignored and regarded as insignificant. The quality of participation is informed by many factors, ie the issue (complexity thereof), level of education of participants, past encounters with participatory processes being information sessions, and deliberate ignorance of participant views. Regardless of the (in) significance of the input, participation should not be discontinued.

This brings to the fore a central question of: What is participation?

Public participation can be defined as: “An inclusive process aimed at deepening democracy through formal participatory mechanisms and alleviating poverty through localised socio-economic development initiatives and improved basic service delivery” (Davids, 2005: 18). It can be deduced from the above statement that participation may promote empowerment, hence having a say in a process may develop a sense of ownership in such processes.

The issue of capacity (or the lack thereof) should also be discussed in the context of a lack or limited capacity on the side of the various policy-making institutions, be they administrative or staffing weaknesses that might cripple successful participation. Naturally, there will be certain limitations to participation like for example:

– Participation can be time consuming

– Can increase the demand for more services

– Can bring out latent conflicts to the surface

– Participatory initiatives may not be broad enough and this may fuel existing perceptions that participatory initiatives are elitist in that only a small segment of the community is participating (Davids, 2005:28)
As opposed to the above, participation has a few advantages which include both instrumental and empowerment aspects, ie

– Participation can promote ownership of government and development initiatives;

– Participation can give women, the youth and other groups of people who are often marginalized the opportunity to influence the outputs and outcomes of local governance and development processes;

– Participation can lead to capacity building especially at a community organisation level;

– Participation can provide a basis for understanding affordability issues, which in turn can create the necessary conditions for municipal cost recovery.
Real public participation is a practice that provides a voice and a choice to the community. The real test is the involvement of stakeholders in the making and implementation, evaluation and sharing the benefits accrued from such a participatory process. Rahman (1993:150) in Davids et al (2005: 112) defines public participation as follows:

“What gives real meaning to (popular) participation is the collective effort by the people concerned in an organized framework to pool their efforts whatever other resources they decide to pool together, to attain objectives they set for themselves. In this regard participation is viewed as an active process in which the participants take initiatives and take action that is stimulated by their own thinking and deliberation and over which they can exert effective control”

These definitions have two distinct features.

Firstly, they view public participation as an initiative by the collective and linkage of the collective with the state or programmes that necessitated participation.

Secondly, from this definition stems an assertion that public participation is an empowerment strategy rather than a mere consultation process. There is a growing recognition that obtaining inputs from users (beneficiaries) is a fundamental and integral part of measuring effectiveness and without such a perspective, policy-making will have limited legitimacy.

In an abstract sense, every citizen, taxpayer actual, potential or future user has an inherent interest in the outcome of the formation of public policy.
There emerged a political (though not satisfactory) and professional commitment to redefine recipients of public services as customers or consumers.

The user (current and future) is entitled not just to good services but to respect, knowledge of and about decisions, and perhaps most importantly, the right to be heard and to be listened to.

(Extracts from Davids Ismael, (2005). Voices from Below. Reflecting on 10 years of public participation: The case of local government in the Western Cape: Cape Town. Foundation for Contemporary Research).

Ulrich Fryer is a Lecturer in the Department of Public Management – Polytechnic of Namibia.


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