Critically Assess Citizen Participation Essay

The end of the 20th Century saw nearly a decade of evolution and alteration in all of the policy and applied social sciences. Concern for individual participation in group, workplace and community organization, long dominated by social psychologists and human relations experts, was shaken from a limited, theoretical focus under new challenges from political scientists, social activists and advocates who were committed to building capacity among the citizenry, community empowerment and, more globally, building a more decentralized society.

Recently, the works of Kretzman and McKnight challenges traditional limits by emphasizing an assets based approach to community analysis. So too, the critical observations of Harvard’s Robert Putnam regarding the decline of civic culture, further stimulate contemporary thinking in the area of citizen participation and involvement, an action and research arena that is changing as we speak. This essay will, assisted by appropriate exemplification, critically discuss citizen participation in public affairs in Zambia.

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It will define the concepts under study analytically before using suitable illustrations to discuss, at length, the levels and mechanisms of citizen participation in its entirety. It will then end in a soluble, inclusive conclusion that will summarize and put forth adequate recommendations relating to the discussed. Participation in social science refers to diverse apparatuses used by the public to express opinions and exert influence regarding political, economic, management or other social decisions.

Arnstein (1969) refers to citizen participation as a categorical term for citizen power. It is the redistribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberately included in the future. More contemporary authors such as Summers (1987) define citizen participation as “the active involvement of citizens outside the electoral process in making decisions affecting their lives” (p. 16).

It is conspicuously observable from the preceding definitions that citizen participation is a forum for influence and inclusivity into social, political and economic affairs by the general public. Involvement in public decision-making is the major goal of citizen participation. In Zambia, factor analysis reveals that participation has three dimensions — voting, “contacting” and “communing” — that are in good part consistent with patterns of participation elsewhere in the world.

Importantly, however, voting lies at the periphery of what Zambians regard as the highest levels of citizen participation in public arenas compared to community-based action (communing) and face-to-face interactions with political representatives (contacting). Over the years it has become more and more popular to have citizens participate in public affairs. Historically however, Zambia did not allow much platform for citizen participation as discussed following. The above assertion is evidenced by the participation trends of 1991 – 1996.

The trends are based on comparison of results from the November 1996 postelection survey with results obtained from an earlier baseline survey conducted in June 1993 (). The general findings revealed that there was a considerable drop in the levels of citizen participation between these two times. These findings were based on electoral turn out and sentiments of the 1996 elections. Among the reasons that were cited for the decline in participation include some citizens reaction to the centerpiece of the critics’ case – that is, the exclusion of Kaunda from the presidential contest.