Citizen engagement is what open government is all about. It underpins many of the other topics in this guide – with active citizenship often being a vital link between transparency and accountability. The Open Government Partnership recognises this in its eligibility criteria, stating that: ‘Open Government requires openness to citizen participation and engagement in policymaking and governance, including basic protections for civil liberties’ (Open Government Partnership).
In an increasingly complex world, citizens’ input is a critical resource for policy-making. Good decision-making requires the knowledge, experiences, views and values of the public. Implementing difficult decisions depends on citizens’ consent and support. Unless citizens understand and are engaged in the decision themselves, trust is easily lost (OECD, 2009).
Civil liberties provide the critical foundations which enable people to participate without fear and to disagree peacefully with each other and with their government. Basic human rights including freedom of speech, expression and the press; freedom of religion; freedom of assembly and association; and the right to due judicial process are critical in supporting a political culture where citizens are willing and able to participate in public debate.
People around the world consistently indicate that they are not content simply to engage with government through periodic elections. But they are discouraged by the real and perceived control of public decisions and decision-makers by small political and economic elites.. It is important that citizen engagement is well designed and properly resourced, and that it is born from a genuine desire to involve the public and take their input into account. Good citizen engagement can support the effective functioning of democracy, the legitimacy of government, the successful implementation of policy and the achievement of social outcomes. Bad engagement practice can lead to poor decisions, and disengagement by citizens (Brodie et al, 2011).
Overcoming public disengagement, and effectively responding to citizens requires a culture change in how governments interact and cooperate with the public, mechanisms for hearing and taking into account the voices of citizens institutionalized into the behaviour and culture of public institutions.
NB: Our use of the word “citizen” in this chapter is to be understood in its broadest possible sense, including all inhabitants of a country or locality. There is understandable concern that the term can be used to exclude groups without voting rights and/or are not naturalised in a country, including children and young people, migrants and refugees. This is not our intention; indeed, it is groups such as these that should be the focus of particular efforts to engage them with decisions that affect their lives.