GSDRC Professional Development Reading Pack no.36
Andrea Cornwall
Publication Date
Publication Date: 
March 1, 2016

"No democratic government can afford not to listen to the voices of its citizens....However, governments - and institutions of various sizes and scales - find citizen engagement difficult and sometimes threatening. This is because participation is ultimately about power."

This reading pack from the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC) provides brief summaries of and links to 5 readings from the literature on citizen engagement. As Andrea Cornwall explains, while listening to citizen voices is a matter of common sense, governance, and principle, "[s]hifting from an expert-led, top-down mode of decision-making to one that enlists a diversity of publics in deliberation and is open to alternatives involves challenging and changing deep-seated cultures of politics and bureaucracy. This can be very difficult." However, "there are compelling examples of what can go wrong if citizens are not consulted, and a solid body of experience from around the world of what governments can gain from citizen engagement."

Cornwall characterises the literature as focusing on two areas: (i) strengthening citizen voice and engagement with the state, principally through institutionalised forms of participation and (ii) more adversarial approaches to citizen voice through advocacy and mobilisation associated with social movements. She states that the selection of readings in this pack seeks to capture this range of citizen voice and action. Each one also addresses dimensions of difference, the challenges of inclusion - especially of women and minorities - and of translating participation into influence.

Questions to guide reading are offered, including:

  • "What might governments gain from going beyond informing citizens to engaging them more directly in shaping decisions that affect them? What lessons about citizen action can be learnt from looking 'beyond the ballot box'?
  • What kinds of issues might 'invited participation' help governments to address – and what are the benefits and risks of engaging citizens in this way?
  • What are the challenges of inclusion, especially of women, black, ethnic and religious minorities, people with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bi, queer and trans people?
  • What does the evidence tell us about 'what works' to promote citizen engagement in holding the state to account?
  • What are the implications for donors of supporting processes of citizen voice and action that contest the status quo?
  • How can we understand, measure and assess changes brought about by a) citizen voice; and b) impacts of interventions to support greater citizen voice?"

GSDRC reading packs are commissioned by the United Kingdom (UK) Government's Department for International Development (DFID) for independent study and professional development use.

Number of Pages: 



GSDRC website, September 19 2016. Image credit: John Ferguson, Oxfam