The basis of any democratic government is its citizens. In the United States, the essence of democracy is embodied in the Constitution, which begins, “We the People. . . .” This wording establishes democracy as not only a right, but also a responsibility, and establishes the foundation for public engagement and citizen involvement in governance.
The right and responsibility of citizenship unfolds in many ways: citizen involvement in governance encompasses not only citizen participation (through mechanisms such as public hearings) but also citizen decision making, information sharing, and voting.
Citizen involvement is important for local governments worldwide because it increases legitimacy, efficiency, and accountability and because it distributes the burden of good governance among all citizens, not just local government officials. ICMA’s public engagement programs strive to match the method with the need, ensuring that involvement is a constructive experience for citizens and for local government officials.
The methods of public engagement range from dissemination of information through electronic networks, newsletters, and public meetings, to participatory processes (such as strategic planning, task forces, public meetings, and focus groups) that encourage all citizens to be active players in decisions made for their community.
As a result of ICMA’s efforts to engage citizens, local governments have established public budget hearings, community development plans and projects, citizen advisory committees (e.g., for budget review, project monitoring, or public safety), citizen information centers, and citizen surveys. Most of ICMA’s international programs include a citizen involvement component; the following are examples:
- The ICMA Professional Fellows Program has facilitated partnerships between professionals in Asian/Pacific countries and their counterparts in the United States focusing on the legislative process and governance, including accountability, transparency, and citizen engagement.
- In the Post Tsunami Recovery Program in India, citizens, including children, in Cuddalore and Nagapattinam designed and built playgrounds as part of the restoration of the cities; more than 300 schoolchildren were involved in planning, and community members donated 4,000 hours of labor to the projects.
- As part of the same program, door-to-door surveys gathered residents’ preferences and attitudes about municipal water services; the responses then guided improvements in service delivery.
- Through ICMA’s work in the Local Governance Support Program (LGSP) in Indonesia, citizen participation in local budgeting increased through public hearings and other transparent mechanisms, and public information and involvement plans were established to include stakeholders in the budgeting process.
- ICMA's Afghanistan Municipal Strengthening Program included a Youth Program designed to strengthen young people’s ties to their home communities by providing training programs, sports activities, and internship opportunities in municipal governments.
- In the Lebanon Local Economic Development (LLED) program, ICMA facilitated the creation of formal economic development advisory boards that involved stakeholders from the public and private sectors in the development of economic development strategies in five cities.
- In Albania, the ICMA CityLinks team enlisted members of the community to help ensure the success of an improved solid waste management system. Volunteers conducted a door-to-door campaign to raise awareness, assess attitudes, and measure the anticipated volume of waste and recyclables. They also kicked off a recycling and community cleaning program.
- Under the USAID-funded Local Government Initiative (LGI) in Kazakhstan, ICMA concentrated its efforts on community-based economic development, transparency and accountability in the budget process, and training. ICMA strengthened regional training centers to improve local governments’ ability to deliver services, transparency in public management, and citizen participation in local decision making.
- As part of the USAID-funded U.S.–Mexico Partnership for Municipal Development, ICMA increased the capacity of municipalities to respond to the needs of their constituents, strengthened national municipal associations, supported decentralization initiatives for improving local government services, and enhanced the participation of citizens in local democratic processes.