Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The engagement continuum

published 21 February 2015
Once upon a time, there was the government on one side and citizens on the other. 
Citizens grouped themselves together and intently watched the government as it went about its job. They assumed that government officials would commit wrongdoing when they had the opportunity, believing that they could get away with it. 
The citizens proudly conducted themselves as “watchdogs”—ready to jump on the government upon the first sign of corruption, and ready to run to the media to make the wrongdoing public. 
This approach was effective in that it named and shamed those officials who were using their government positions for their personal gain. 
Over the years, however, some disadvantages to this approach emerged. Foremost, it created a culture of suspicion and mistrust between the two entities. There was no good faith: the citizens always expected the government to commit anomalies, and the government believed that citizens organizations are loud and illogical. They would make noises and accusations whether or not these were founded, and create sweeping generalizations without fully understanding the issues and the processes.
Needless to say, both assumed the worst about each other. 
Then came the notion of constructive engagement. This is a process by which citizens and government actually work together for a common goal. 
Given their previous biases against each other, it was not easy. Government, especially officials who were honest and hardworking and who had only the best intentions in mind, was wary that citizen groups would only unfairly tarnish the work they do.
Some politicians were also suspicious that citizens groups working closely with them could be affiliated with their political enemies, sent to spy on them and pin them down on the slightest mistake.
On the other hand, citizens would find it difficult to work with government given their differing culture and orientation. In the course of their work, they are bound to discover big and little things alike that would tell them why the bureaucracy suffers the reputation that it does.
They are also afraid that some of their fellow groups would accuse them of being co-opted by the institution they are supposed to be criticizing. When you have prided yourself in anti-corruption work, one of the worst things that can be said about you is that you have crossed over to the other side.
But what they call constructive engagement is not exactly crossing over.
It’s a continuum, experts say, and it is not difficult to imagine how. One extreme is being vehemently and rabidly against government, denouncing it for its imperfections and constantly reminding its officials that they must do their jobs without fail because it’s taxpayers who are footing the bill. 
On the other extreme is total co-optation, where citizens are there simply to be able to claim that an agency of local government unit has some form of participation, and never mind the quality. Here, the citizens lose their reason for being; they are nothing more than “yes” men or women. 
Between these two extremes is the point along the line where most of the relationships between government and citizens exist. Depending on their beliefs and principles, groups can choose to be on the exact middle of this continuum, lean to the left or to the right. 
There is no right or wrong approach and perhaps these different approaches, taken together, is the best. 
Needless to say, any level of engagement is always better than no engagement at all. That all the work must be done by the government and that all citizens have to do is wait for services to be delivered, watch the news and make their sentiments felt during elections is just not an option anymore.   
adellechua@gmail.com

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