Designing Civic Participation
Individual citizens do not have all the information or the political heft to foment a popular dialogue to challenge the political machinery. Instead, an organized body of experts, with a deep understanding of the administrative systems and power structures, has the potential to bridge the gap between elected representatives and the electorate.
This is an excerpt from Chetan Kaashyap’s larger thesis portfolio, titled “Cities by Citizens: How Civic Participation is Transforming Urban Design in Bangalore City.” This work can also be found in the Class of 2019 publication, Everything That Rises: Thinking about Design in Precarious Times.
Experts agree that civic engagement is receding across the globe. To improve civic discourse and sustain democratic societies, active interventions are required. But these interventions cannot be expected to come from governments, who rather prefer less scrutiny from a highly engaged citizenry. Instead, interventions need to be pursued by civilians vying to protect democracy.
What organizations like Janaagraha (in Bangalore, India) are doing is of critical importance in shaping the world of tomorrow. Individual citizens do not have all the information or the political heft to foment a popular dialogue to challenge the political machinery. Instead, an organized body of experts, with a deep understanding of the administrative systems and power structures, has the potential to bridge the gap between elected representatives and the electorate.
But most societal challenges do not have off-the-shelf solutions. Often they need to be devised afresh. Arriving at an effective civic participation movement has the same elements as solving a design problem: multi-user research, discovering latent needs, understanding bottlenecks, prototyping propositions, scaling successful solutions, and so on.
Championing Civic Participation in Indian Cities
The story of 21st century India is the story of urban India. While the era of economic liberalization and integration with global currents of trade and commerce continues, scholars have come to distinguish a new period in the social economy: “neoliberalism.” In the last two decades, policy and planning experiments have sought to overcome, or simply work around, the incapacity of the state to implement planning and regulations to achieve urban redevelopment goals.
State-driven urban reforms have experienced only partial and sporadic success in India resulting in institutional fragility at the municipal level that has come to frustrate the ambitions of corporations, citizens, and others who aspire for urban transformation. As a result, these goals for urban reform have progressed through a multitude of localized mutations in state-society relations and local actors have emerged pursuing opportunities in the fissures of power to influence and reshape the urban space.
One such mutation of state-society relations was a new form of city administration dubbed Public-Private-Participation (PPP) – a partnership was devised for the planning and development of city-level projects. One such organization, Janaagraha, has persisted and grown over the past 19 years to work on a broad range of civic interest issues. Based in the southern city of Bangalore, the parent organization, Jana Group, has identified two broad sets of challenges impacting urban life in India.
The first set of challenges affecting all urban residents relates to how cities are planned and governed. These challenges include the quality of urban infrastructure and services (water supply, power distribution, transportation systems, social infrastructure etc.).
The second set of challenges primarily affect those on the lower half of the societal pyramid: the urban poor and lower middle class. This segment suffers from lack of access to high-quality financial services, housing, education, and healthcare. Additionally, on the business front, millions of micro-enterprises still face financial constriction.
Jana Group is working on addressing these challenges by distributing itself across four organizations: Janaagraha (a center for citizenship and democracy, working towards civic partnership and advocacy); Jana Urban Space (an urban planning advisory); Jana Small Finance Bank (financial inclusion of the underprivileged); and Janaadhar (a social housing project).
Janaagraha has taken on a host of initiatives that straddle grassroots civic activation as well as advocacy directed towards city administrators.
Among its many initiatives, Janaagraha engages eighth-grade school children to educate them about civic studies. In order to empower citizens of tomorrow, it also has an initiative to address neighborhood safety in partnership with city police, an educational program to inform citizens about the city’s municipal budget, a crowd-sourced app to report bribes, a long-term strategy for governance (Open Works), a platform to connect industry professionals with administrators for policy consultancy, an annual survey to benchmark cities on governance (ASICS), an initiative to maintain high-fidelity voter lists to support free and fair elections, and guidelines for designing better streets (Tender SURE), among other programs.
Among this broad suite of initiatives, some are understandably more effective and popular than others. For example, by 2017, the school children initiative had trained more than 36,000 eighth-graders across 25 cities with over 10 hours of training per student on practical civics in society. Another initiative, the app “I Paid A Bribe,” had received over 15 million visits, which amounted to over $30 billion in reported bribes from more than 1,000 cities and towns in India. Its model was so successful and scalable that it was adopted in 30 countries. This initiative went beyond just collecting data; it analyzed it to understand the taxonomy of corruption and then used that knowledge to work with the government to bring about systemic change.
India is the third largest economy in the world in terms of GDP (in PPP terms), behind the U.S. and China. It continues to grow at a pace of over 6% – a rate unseen in decades by most of the world’s large economies. And yet in several key quality of life attributes, India lags behind abysmally. In regards to corruption, it has a low 78th rank among the 180 countries ranked in the world; a democracy index ranks it 41st; and per the United Nations, it ranks 130th for human development.
India, like the rest of the world, will be decidedly urban in the near future; the onus is on cities to help people to achieve happiness and self-actualization. What Indian cities lack, more than money, knowledge or will, is the availability of competent staff to run government agencies effectively and provide a robust administerial framework.
Due to the lack of state capacity in not just implementing but also conjuring effective policy solutions, private players have stepped in. Those who, in the name of policy advocacy, wield the clout to whisper in the corridors of power will tilt the bias in their favor, thus upending the democratic process.
On the other hand, there is merit in the model where experts from civic society engage the government. When there is an intellectual dearth in governments it is best to welcome experts to consult.
Political scientists in India have pointed to a palpable rise in civic engagement, be it in increased voting in elections or political activism on social media. While this renaissance of civic participation augurs well for the country and democracy, there is a need for organizations like Janaagraha to helm the movement, for a more effective penetration across civic society and government.
Weeding out systemic inefficiencies and making secular changes is fraught with dangers and Janaagraha needs to play its hand deftly and not overreach. Reports and initiatives like ASICS, Tender SURE, Open Works, “I Paid a Bribe” and others are geared towards educating the society and creating transparency in governance, are slowly but surely steering the country towards the utopian vision they espouse.
¹ Phil Parvin, “Democracy Without Participation: A New Politics for a Disengaged Era,” Res Publica 24, no. 1 (February 1, 2018): 31–52, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11158-017-9382-1
² “Six Ways to Repair Declining Social Trust (SSIR),” https://ssir.org/articles/entry/six_ways_to_repair _declining_social_trust
³ GDP in PPP terms is gross domestic product converted to international dollars using purchasing power parity (PPP) rates. It is measured by finding the values (in USD) of a basket of consumer goods that are present in each country. If that basket costs $100 in the US and $200 in India, then the purchasing power parity exchange rate is 1:2.