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“Participatory governance lies at the heart of societal well-being”

26 October 2012
Commonwealth Foundation Director Vijay Krishnarayan addresses the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management Biennial Conference in New Delhi, India

If I were asked to name a Commonwealth country that was ruled exclusively by government I would struggle to answer. The hallmark of the way in which Commonwealth countries are run is their governance.  By governance I mean the blend of rules, institutions and capacities that combine to shape the lives of citizens. In the Commonwealth that mix sees governments, the private sector and civil society combine to regulate and enable. We understand that government and governance mean two different things.

Civil society is universally recognised as an essential part of this formula. We may not have called the social movements that have shaped our history civil society, but they delivered: the abolition of slavery; the vote for women; and liberation for many Commonwealth states. The phenomenon continues to grow and has directly influenced issues such as: debt cancellation; environmental protection; and education for all.
Today civil society can be defined as what happens outside the realms of the family, the state and the market when people come together to pursue common interests for public good. With this definition on mind a primary civil society concern will be the ways in which it can participate in order to pursue the public good. In many Commonwealth countries this demand for participation has been matched by governments, which increasingly recognise the value of engaging with civil society in order to tap into its rich social, cultural and material resources. This compact can be described as participatory governance and it lies at the heart of societal well-being.

The Commonwealth Foundation as the Commonwealth’s agency for civil society is concerned with improving that compact – improving participatory governance. The Foundation is ideally suited to the task, situated as it is between governments and civil society. It was established by Commonwealth Heads of Government, making it an intergovernmental organisation. At the same time it has been given a mandate to support civil society.

The Foundation’s approach to improving participatory governance focusses on equipping civil society with the knowledge it needs to engage with governments and others. The Foundation will also help governments and institutions so that they can improve the way that they respond to the growing demand to participate from civil society. This determination to improve participatory governance stems from a desire to see better development outcomes achieved and to embed a culture of sustainable democracy.

It also stems from a belief in the importance of plural and diverse voices and perspectives. Participatory governance does not mean those that shout the loudest are heard, while those that are voiceless are ignored. It is easy enough to make policy on the basis of inputs from the well organised and articulate.   The real challenge of participatory governance lies in the need to ensure that diverse voices, particularly from the margins of society are heard and considered.

This means building the capacity of groups and organisations from the broadest cross section of society – including those that represent those that find themselves excluded from conventional governance systems and processes. At the same time capacity needs to be built among the policy makers so that they develop the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to effectively engage with a plurality of stakeholders.

However, building capacity on its own will not deliver participatory governance. It also takes policies that encourage the participation of inputs from stakeholders. For example at a sub-national level there are several instances of a commitment to participatory budgeting in the Commonwealth, where local people are involved in making decisions on the priorities and spending for a particular public budget. These policies need to be backed up by institutions or agencies that are responsible for bringing stakeholders together – they can sit within government or outside, but they need to be able to convene and facilitate dialogue.

Critics might dismiss participatory governance as a whim or obsession of North American and Western European liberal political theory. But what is interesting is the ways in which the concept has developed and taken hold in the world’s new and vibrant economies not just in the Commonwealth, but across the globe. The first full participatory budgeting process was developed in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989. In India governance was reformed to institutionalise the concept of the Panchayat – or local assembly to encourage participation at the local level. In South Africa the constitution assures rights to development and makes provision for participation, which citizens have used to organise around issues such as HIV and AIDS.

These examples show that both governments and citizens are moving towards new models of democracy – not a one size fits all Westminster model but models that speak to specific national contexts. They acknowledge the importance of citizens’ participation and understand that governance is too important and complex to be left to governments alone. 


CAPAM is a member supported not-for-profit association devoted to enhancing good governance and excellence in public administration across the Commonwealth.