David Gomez-Alvarez on Citizen Engagement in Cities

David Gomez-Alvarez is currently a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is the Executive President of Transversal, a think tank based in Guadalajara, Mexico. He was appointed Associate Fellow for Citizen Engagement by the NewCities Foundation in May 2017. Here is his take on why citizens should be at the heart of urban decision-making.

NewCities (NC): Why did you choose to focus your research on issues at the city level and citizen engagement?

David Gomez-Alvarez (DGA): For many years, policy studies focused on how to fix market failures through regulations and government interventions. Later, when policy studies realized that there were as many market failures as government failures, they focused on how to fix government failures and how to improve public sector efficiency.

However, government failures were not only hard to fix, but new ones emerged. When both market and government solutions proved to be limited, governance became a solution to both market and government failures. Governance understood as a new arrangement among different stakeholders, where citizens are principals and governments agents.

Scale matters. In my view, citizen participation makes more sense at the local level, particularly at the city level where citizens are closer to their authorities. In identifying solutions for public problems, I focused my research in governance and participation at the city level. In my view, changing the governance arrangement among the different city stakeholders is one of the most effective solutions to metropolitan coordination for instance.

In the new governance arrangement, citizen engagement is critical not only to legitimize city government decisions, but also to oversee their implementation and performance. Governments are not only inefficient, but also insufficient so citizen participation (in the context of city governance) becomes a innovative solution.

NC: How important is it to provide citizens with an active role in forming the policies that govern cities today?

DGA: For many decades, citizens were only considered as passive beneficiaries of public services. The assumption was that if citizens were adequately provided, then the government was doing its job correctly. As far as citizens were satisfied, their opinion was not considered relevant for decision-making. It was believed that the government knew what was good for the people.

This assumption proved not to be true for at least two reasons. First, because not all citizens can be satisfied in a complex, diverse society; second, because for government it is not always possible to know what citizens want. Actually, there are many instruments to find out if citizens are satisfied, but certainly participation is the most direct tool to incorporate citizens’ views in the decision-making process. Citizens are thought to be the clients. If so, government is the citizens’ employee serving the clients, and not vice versa. In consequence, government is obliged not only to consult citizens if they are satisfied, but also to incorporate them into decision-making on issues that affect citizens.

Local governments are the closest public authority to citizens. Incorporating citizens’ inputs into the policy process increases the chances of getting it right. Moreover, decisions become not only government’s but also citizens’ responsibilities, shifting the city governance. Under this new governance arrangement, citizens become a more proactive, responsive and responsible city stakeholder.

NC: In cities around the world, citizens often feel disconnected from municipal decision-making and the changes they see around them. How can research contribute to reconciling this growing divide?

DGA: Governments are so overwhelmed with the day-to-day work that most of them do not have the resources to think about, reflect on, or get in touch with reality: meaning citizens outside government or politics. This alienation tends to isolate politicians and public officials from reality. This divide operates also the other way around: citizens feel they are not heard. Civil society organizations lose interest in public matters because they are not taken into consideration.

At the local level, this divide becomes much more evident due to the fact that the scale matters – citizens know their mayor or the city council members, rather than national officials. Therefore, citizens are more prone to participate in city affairs, though it is not always possible. Many local governments lack participation mechanisms to incorporate citizens’ views. Or even if they have instances for doing so, the local authorities do not take into consideration these views when it comes to decision-making.

Participation is politically correct, more in rhetoric than in practice. Research can allow us to identify plausible mechanisms and practices through which participation actually takes place. This is why research is relevant in understanding why citizens feel disconnected from their local governments.

NC: Where do you see new technologies fitting into this relationship between citizen and the city?

DGA: Technology is a mean, not an end. If we understand it this way, technological innovations can contribute very much to pursue the goal of increasing civic participation and engagement. In this sense, technology is closing the gap that divides civil society and government through a faster and broader communication between citizens and public officials. Technology allows citizens to engage in public affairs in an easier way through the Internet, applications, etc. Technology also allows the flow of more information: this increases transparency and to a certain extent, accountability.

However, in an era of vast information, big data and post-truth, it is important that technology is not considered an end in itself, that citizens do not become overwhelmed with information and that strategic data is available, verifiable and reliable. In sum, when correctly utilized, technology can enhance the relationship between citizens and the city.