When Zigong asked Confucius about the essence of government, the master replied: “Sufficient food, a strong army, and the trust of the people…. without the trust of the people, no government could survive.” Public trust in government is the essence of good governance. It defines the relationship between citizens and government and determines the acceptability of basic service delivery and effectiveness of public policies.
Losing public trust means ineffective basic services, governance problems and poor policymaking. It may even put governments in peril.
Recent political events sweeping in Somali regional state, other parts of Ethiopia and the neighbouring Arab countries including the current turmoil in Sudan reflect a deep loss of faith in government. Citizens perceive their government institutions are captured by elites who are disconnected from the needs of their constituents or complicit in schemes that benefit the powerful at the expense of ordinary citizens.
I would like to reflect on the multifaceted and complex sources of distrust. At the same time see what we can learn from the courageous and inspirational reformers around the world who had succeeded in having compelling solutions to rebuild the citizen trust in their government.
I sum up the following key six points that I thought are essentials in redefining civic engagement beyond the ballot box by empowering citizens in policymaking and service delivery and putting them at the heart of government.
1. Arming Citizens with Meaningful Information:
Transparency is a critical first step in rebuilding trust. But information made transparent must be genuinely useful to and usable by citizens. In Brazil’s transparency portal is proactively publishing public spending data, allowing citizens to track how their government is spending taxpayer money, report cases of official misconduct and request specific information on spending.
2. Empowering Citizen Voice in Policymaking:
Putting citizens at the heart of policymaking gives them the opportunity to shape legislation and policies in areas that they care about most. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has reached out directly through 140+ federal consultations to give Canadians a voice beyond elections and understand their concerns. -Conflict-ridden South Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo allowed citizens to vote on budget allocations using mobile phones. When citizens saw roads and schools being repaired that they voted for, tax collection jumped 16-fold, a clear measure of the increased trust in government resulting from open, participatory approaches.
3. Reaching Out to Marginalized Citizens:
With populism on the rise and minorities facing growing oppression, the inclusion of the most vulnerable in public dialogue and policy priorities is essential to winning their trust.
In Costa Rica, language barriers, geographic seclusion and structural exclusion from decision-making have made indigenous Costa Ricans the most underrepresented and underserved groups. In response, reformers from government and civil society institutionalized dialogue between government and indigenous populations, which helped overcome distrust, settle land disputes that had spurred violent conflict, deepen engagement with nearly 20 government institutions, and usher investments in education, medicine and water services.
Côte d’Ivoire has committed to train five sub-national governments in participatory budgeting practices, to empower women’s groups in determining budget priorities based on the local community’s needs.
4. Empowering Citizens to Follow the Money:
Enabling citizens to monitor government spending and report the misuse of public funds helps build confidence in public institutions by demonstrating that tax money is being spent wisely. For example, in Georgia, citizens use the Budget Monitor platform, which was collaboratively developed by the State Audit Office and civil society, to visualize how public funds are spent online, report cases of corruption, and identify which government agencies they would like to see audited.
Following major corruption scandals from padded contracts, government and civil society reformers in Ukraine collaboratively launched ProZorro, an online platform to disclose all procurement contracts and make them publicly searchable.
Open contracting reforms have allowed citizens to track contracts, flag potential violations, and helped save $700 million in two years by levelling the playing field for competitive bidding of contracts. In Italy, the OpenCoesione project published the details of 1 million projects and €100 billion in EU funding through a searchable archive online.
Empowered by this information, a group of young Italians discovered that funds for their local youth center were blocked because of collusion with organized crime. Using the media to expose corruption, they are advocating for the construction of a new center.
5. Responding to Citizen Needs:
Transparency and participation are not silver bullets. Beyond feeling heard, citizens need to feel that the government is responsive to their voice. Lack of responsiveness may, in fact, exacerbate citizens’ skepticism and distrust in government.
Closing the feedback loop requires that citizens monitor government activities, provide feedback and expect government response. For example, in the Philippines, an estimated 30-50 percent of local infrastructure spending is lost from leakages. In response, the government launched an Open Roads initiative, disclosing public spending on roads that were geo-coded locally.
The state Commission of Audit mobilized citizen audits to track waste and fraud, requiring the government to respond, saving up to $300,000 per ghost road.
6. Enlisting Citizens in the Fight Against Grand Corruption & Elite Capture:
Elite capture and grand corruption fuel citizen distrust and apathy, reinforcing the corrosive perception that government doesn’t work for the people. In response to scandals in which big business and interest groups influenced government and electoral processes, Chile’s lobbying reforms seek to curb influence-peddling through a public lobbying register, which discloses meetings and donations between authorities and lobbyists.
In Georgia, the country’s supreme audit institution started publishing searchable political party financing data which is now being used by anti-corruption watchdogs to track whether donors and political parties are illicitly benefitting from government contracts.
These are inspirational examples of countries empowering citizens and rebuilding citizen trust using open government approaches. They demonstrate that governments can solve problems with their citizens and credibly respond to their core concerns, including the poorest and most marginalized. Yet, these inspirational innovations are too few and far between. The challenge before us is to scale these transformative reforms across the country and in particular in Somali region
Finally, we need reformers from central/regional government, civil society, the private sector and other groups to forge coalitions to empower ordinary citizens in the exercise and oversight of governance, break the cycle of distrust, and ensure governments truly serve their citizens, rather than serving themselves.
By Muktar Ismail, editor in chief