How citizens and the government can work together for change

How citizens and the government can work together for change

Communities are the sole reason that governance exists. If it was not for the recognition that people needed to come together and equitably share resources and organise themselves to work in unison and achieve more together, then the institution of government would not have been formed.

The first three words of the Constitution of the United States of America… “We the people…” encapsulates this well. The government is formed by and exists to serve its citizens.

Throughout history, where the citizens were not pleased with the way they were being governed, they have often rebelled and sought to start afresh. The battles fought to decolonise Africa from the mid-1950s are a testament that citizens can take control and begin to actualise their idea of governance.

Today though, in many countries around the world, we see a disconnect between the voice of the community and the policies designed to govern them. And oftentimes, a status quo is maintained to “keep the peace” despite the disparity that often leaves the majority disgruntled.

How can we change this, unify, and have a say in how decisions about our lives and futures are made? How can we begin to organise ourselves to speak in one voice and bring value to governments as they seek to govern in some of the most unprecedented times that the world has seen?

We know that tough challenges across climate, health, education, and more will require governments to adapt their thinking and their policies. And we believe that leveraging the wisdom of communities and supporting new kinds of collaboration between people and policy-makers is one route to a healthier, safer, and more equitable future. These are the kinds of beliefs that inspired us to come together for our 3rd episode of Collective Conversations 2023: “All together better: Unifying community voices to influence policy”.

We opened this conversation excited to learn more from our guest speaker Caren Wakoli. I was keen to share my own experiences on the topic too, alongside an audience with a shared interest in community building, policy change, and working with governments. Among many accolades, Caren Wakoli is a leadership coach and social entrepreneur who is nurturing the next generation of ethical leaders for Africa’s transformation, and serves on various boards where she advocates for youth voice and effective representation. I am an Innovation Manager at Brink, with over 10 years of experience working with social enterprises in East Africa. Part of what I do at Brink is work on the Ed Tech Hub, empowering governments, development partners, and entrepreneurs with evidence and technical assistance to accelerate the integration of technology in education.

As always, the conversation was dynamic and brimming with ideas and insights, so we’ve captured just some of the many things that we learned together on the call.

Unifying mindsets begins with a mindset shift by both citizens and government

The relationship between citizens and governments is complicated and often changes across borders. In Jon Alexander's book "Citizens", Jon explains that for the most part, we have seen ourselves either as subjects or consumers when it comes to governance. In my experience, as someone from Africa and more specifically from Kenya, we often have mindsets that stem from our colonial history that continue to be cultivated even now. Citizens await solutions from leaders rather than taking more active roles in how they are governed. In this context, championing more collective or citizen-led approaches to policy-making requires shifting long-held (mis)beliefs, including about where good ideas come from.

In an era where there is increasing distrust between governments and the public, we often forget that we, the citizens, are the government.  All we have done is elect leaders to represent us because we can’t all go to parliament and pass laws. We therefore have a role to play to inform how they represent us.

Caren reflected on the reality that policy decisions shape and influence the lives of people, and that decisions made in governments create direct ripple effects across countries:

“Policy is at the centre of shaping life, and it influences the quality of life that people live…it has ripple effects on the common man, woman, and child living on the ground in both cities and in rural communities.”

Beyond a status quo that tends to subjugate citizens, transparency and trust are crucial. Governments tend not to be transparent about what they don’t know, and they are reluctant to appear vulnerable. Building trust and being transparent is so important, especially now, because the challenges the world is facing require all hands on deck and communities can be a valuable resource for their leaders.

A mindset shift is required from the citizens who need to take on a more active and participatory role in governance. This requires them to seek knowledge that will inform their participation. As Caren highlighted by quoting Nigerian novelist and poet Chinua Achebe - “the quality of citizen engagement matters”. The level to which citizens are aware determines the level and depth of engagement. There is a need to have platforms where citizens can access information and keep up with the pulse of government business.

Governments also require a mindset shift and need to loosen their reins to become more transparent and build trust with their citizens. According to a survey quoted by Caren, Kenyans tend to trust the media more than they do their own government - we have a hunch that this may be the case beyond Kenya too. Amongst other things, this lack of trust stems from a reluctance on the government's part to share accurate and detailed information with the people about why certain decisions have or haven’t been made.

This may in part be due to officials feeling threatened by the fact that better-informed citizens will be able to hold governments to account. Crucially, the disconnect here is that officials need to recognise that they are supposed to be accountable to the people and that being transparent with citizens is not a favour but a requirement of good governance.

In breakout rooms this conversation continued, with some deeper explorations into the question of where our mindsets come from: “Is there a conversation to be had about historical patterns of relating to each other, and how is this different across contexts?” one group discussed. In other rooms, discussions shifted to thinking more about how we can better facilitate conversations across divides.

Facilitate spaces where Governments and Citizens sit at the same table

For meaningful dialogue and engagement, Governments need to see the value that their citizens hold and be open and vulnerable to share their challenges. Communities are sources of wisdom and knowledge that could contribute to solving some of the challenges a government is working to resolve. For example, the Jua Kali or ‘informal sector’ in Kenya makes huge contributions to the economy and to employment, but they struggle to access public services that favour the formal sector. This may, in part, be due to the fact that their voices and preferences are not reaching policy makers who therefore don’t fully understand how to design services that suit their needs.

We are currently working with the Jua Kali community to elevate their perspectives and insights, facilitate conversations with policymakers and others, and prompt the start of a process that we hope will ensure greater inclusion of public services - we’ll have more to share on that important programme of work in due course.

It's not all on the governments though. Citizens also need to be able to critique and engage with their governments in ways that are value-adding and constructive, in recognition of the intricacies and challenges of carrying out government business.

Sometimes, we’re not great citizens. In my experience, people can criticise the entire system without fairly acknowledging or recognizing the dedicated and hard-working people within it. Citizens being aware of what is happening in terms of government operations and decision-making is one thing, yet their being equipped to meaningfully and constructively engage with that process is another.

"We must continue empowering and sharing knowledge to draw both sides into the same space, to sit at the same table"

Creating these spaces will require diligence in empowering both sides with knowledge and trust so that we can come together to agree on what matters to us, and find one voice. Multiple ideas and provocations came forth in our breakout rooms, including a discussion on the power of data visualisation to communicate complex ideas in ways that are more tangible - a nod to our previous Collective Conversation on collective intelligence, which you can read about here.

For us, the ‘sitting at the same table’ requires intentionally creating space for convening, sharing information and ideas in ways that are accessible and useful, and engaging across divides in good spirit. This is about movements beyond protests, and engagement beyond tokenistic presence.

We must instil better listening skills in the leaders we want to represent us

In breakout rooms, when discussing the barriers that we currently face when it comes to empowering citizen participation, many felt that being able to authentically understand people's perceptions and understanding their goals is key, before seeking ways to support those dreams.

Bryony, reflecting on her experience in local politics, shared that “policy design sounds inaccessible, unfamiliar and closed, but asking people about their lives and pain points is understandable”. She went on to explain that “people will rarely tell you what they want, but if you rephrase the question to ‘how are you’ and ‘what’s difficult for you right now’ suddenly they open up.” These conversations, unlocked by genuine curiosity in and care for people's lives, is the first step in understanding their needs and therefore in affecting policy changes that might better meet those needs.

Reflecting on this in the context of educational reform, others discussed the need to listen carefully to the priorities of the community you are working with. For example, the need to “create time to hear from teachers, especially in rural areas, listening to their challenges before assuming you know what they are and how to fix them”.

Caren spoke passionately about the need to engage authentically and constructively, and also about the power of enabling communities to identify and raise leaders amongst them. These leaders, Caren said, can unify and hold a shared vision on behalf of their community, enabling them to contribute meaningfully on behalf of others, and giving officials a clear point of contact to focus their listening on.

In a slightly meta moment, Ajoy reflected on the fact that he had been elected to give feedback to the main group on behalf of the breakout he was in. As the only male, Ajoy had become ‘the leader’ without any real discussion, prompting him to question defaults and biases that can be unhelpful in some circumstances. It’s a reminder that, if we want to elect people from within a community, to reflect that community, and be listened to on behalf of it, we should ensure that we’re intentional and mindful in selecting community representatives.

Caren noted that oftentimes we assume that government leaders know and have what it takes to run the affairs of government, but that beyond the technical skills, they need to be empowered to embrace other capabilities that distinguish them and enable them to lead well:

“Good leadership is secure, produces results, it listens to the people. Good public leadership puts the citizen at the centre of the policy making process through the ethos and values they espouse”

This conversation continued in a breakout room where Caren and Abi talked about listening and trust as underrated, but transformational, skills and values. Only through deep listening can you really start to understand what’s needed, and only then can you really start to establish trust. This of course takes us back to the crux of this conversation, the need to build trust between citizens and government.

We ended feeling like we’d reached hidden depths and many avenues in this conversation, with one of the key takeaways being this from Caren:

“Small acts can have a ripple effect and a big difference. A drop in the ocean might not seem a lot, but the ocean is made of drops and doesn’t exist without them!”

Here are a few other resources shared in this session:

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Thank you to everyone who came along to listen and participate in the conversation. This blog is a microcosm of our conversation, informed by our speakers and by the wisdom of the small but brilliant crowd who came along to listen, discuss, learn and share.

Interested in this topic, want to know more, or have some thoughts? Drop us a line at [email protected] and let's chat!