the World Bank and active citizenship

The World Bank has published a book entitled Accountability Through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action. Its premise: governments perform better when citizens hold them accountable by seeking information, deliberating, and acting politically. Anyone who holds strongly negative stereotypes about the Bank–as a bastion of neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus–may be surprised to see, for instance, Marshall Ganz’ chapter on “Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power.” (Ganz is a leading figure in the American left.)

My chapter is entitled “‘Social Accountability’ as Public Work.” I address the increasingly common practice of governments asking citizens to evaluate, influence, or inform policy. I see merit in this strategy, but also limitations …

  • Motivational: Most people lack sufficient reason to devote substantial time and energy to improving the performance of government. If governments provide incentives to participate, then citizens’ engagement is dependent on government.
  • Epistemic: If you are merely asked to assess the government, without having deep experience in addressing public problems, you may not know enough to evaluate well. You may have information but not deeply held, considered, experience-based values.
  • Political: Public forums and meetings are what John Gaventa calls “invited spaces.” The officials who issue invitations can revoke them. Power remains with the government.

I suggest an alternative, drawing on Harry Boyte’s concept of “public work.” Many millions of people are already at work addressing public problems, either as part of their jobs or as unpaid efforts. Work is motivating, educational, and empowering. If we see public consultations, deliberations, and input as aspects of public work, we can reframe these processes somewhat. In particular, we can embed them more thoroughly in jobs, professional roles, and volunteer activities.