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The Busara Blog

5 reflections to strengthen civic engagement — Part I

The community meeting and CSOs

Ariana Keyman, Gideon Too, Ruth Canagarajah

Photo by Dorin Vancea on Unsplash

It is said that many hands make work light, and there’s no work heavier than the work of serving the needs of a citizenry. In addition to serving the immediate needs of the people, most governments are dealing with a myriad of other complex, interrelated social, economic, environmental and political issues — many of which go back generations. In many ‘democratic’ nations, civil society organisations often act as crucial vehicles for deepening governance, accountability and inclusive development and, as such, are some of the hands that ease the burden of governmental work. They are key drivers of civic engagement, providing much needed bottom up accountability to the process by which governments seek to address some of these issues and provide a decent, fulfilling life to its citizens.

At the onset of Busara’s work on this topic about 5 years ago, we attempted to arrive at a clearly defined conceptual framework of civic engagement that would guide our work moving forward. This framework had a few primary principles:

  1. “Engagement’ involves both attention paid to a certain topic, as well as the expenditure of activity in its pursuit. Engagement cannot be purely attention without activity, nor activity without attention to provide a guiding framework to direct it.
  2. Civic engagement can refer to two clear types of engagement: political engagement and social engagement. Each type of engagement is defined by the level and type of power held by the individuals or collectives to which the engagement is directed.
  3. Social engagement is an important precursor to political engagement. Directing attention and activity to centers of power requires resources, and many of these resources may be cultivated by social engagement.

Today, having gathered significant experience working closely with Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in East Africa, and guided by the above principles, we have compiled five reflections on how behavioral science can strengthen CSO engagement, particularly with citizens. This piece is the first of two, highlighting the role the community meeting plays, and what expectations to have around it. A more detailed version of these reflections is available in the full document here.

Reflection 1: The community meeting dictates CSO activities and their interpretations of civic engagement behavior.

Community meetings are by far the most prominent tool used by CSOs for advocacy and community mobilization. Our CSO clients considered running a community meeting as useful and programmatically valuable for its own sake as they provided an opportunity to communicate information to the community and galvanize and support real action in communities around the issues affecting them.

Community meetings are important to CSOs for two reasons:

  • They are a means to an end — CSOs see the meetings as a channel through which they can transfer information necessary for the attendees to participate in civic engagement initiatives.
  • They are the end itself — They are on the spectrum of being an act of civic engagement by attendees, or as an indicator for the potential to exhibit actions of civic engagement by attendees.

Reflection 2: Solely focusing on attendance to a community meeting as a behavioral measure of civic engagement is limiting at best, and erroneous at worst.

Community meetings often feature disengaged and inattentive audiences. Sometimes, audience members attend the meetings for reasons other than the explicit purpose of the community meeting — such as to socialize with other members. As such, the extent to which a community meeting can be considered a valid act of civic engagement is highly dependent on the relevance of the audience and the quality of the community meeting being conducted.

In 2018, we conducted a series of mobile lab experiments to test several CSO-led messaging interventions aimed at boosting civic attention and engagement, including attendance to community meetings. While certain interventions had either negative or insignificant effects on attendance to a community meeting, follow-up qualitative work showed that the same interventions actually had a positive effect when it came to motivating individuals to participate in other forms of political engagement such as making phone calls to local municipalities to file complaints relevant to a community issue.

The only way to understand the immediate needs of a citizenry is to work with them directly. At Busara, we prioritize helping CSOs thoroughly understand their citizenry through behavioral science, as they usually do not have the luxury to fail fast and build back quicker. However, in applying behavioral science, we open up a space in which we can add nimble testing and strategy to add in more evidence-based work. This does not need to be costly or technically difficult. Using behavioral science, both governments and CSOs can achieve their goals through more effective civic engagement, making work lighter still.

Look out for part 2 in which we look at how behavioral science can help achieve clarity when setting expectations for better results. This 2 part series is part of a larger series of reflective thought pieces on our work in applying behavioral science in East Africa, and the lessons we’ve learned during our 5+ years of operation. Read our recommendations for funders in East Africa here.

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