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Citizen Participation

Abstract and Keywords

Citizen participation is a process through which people served by government and nonprofit organizations can provide input about how these services are offered. Citizen participation is particularly beneficial in low-income neighborhoods. Local control of neighborhood decision making helps low-income people and communities of color counter the effects of economic and social oppression. Social workers can work with communities to increase their power and influence in public decision-making. They can also facilitate the development of leadership and political skills among agency clientele by creating organizational structures that encourage their participation in agency decision-making.

Keywords: client participation, civic engagement, political empowerment

Defining Citizen and Client Participation

Citizen participation can be defined as efforts by residents of low-income communities to improve the quality of neighborhood life and advocate for changes in public policies (Ohmer & Beck, 2006). The term citizen participation was used extensively in the 1960s to describe government-mandated efforts to provide opportunities for clients to serve on the boards of nonprofit organizations. However, it is often used more generically to describe the participation of average citizens in public decision-making (Richards & Dalbey, 2006). According to Putnam (2001), civic participation strengthens the fabric of community life and enhances democratic institutions.

Appropriate venues for citizen participation on the part of social workers are service on public boards or providing testimony at public hearings (Gamble & Weil, 1995). In addition, a major component of community organization practice focuses on providing assistance to community residents or members of marginalized groups who wish to increase their power and influence in public decision-making. Research on civic engagement strongly indicates that members of low-income neighborhoods and communities of color vote less often and are less likely to participate in local organizations (Putnam, 2001; Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995). Consequently, some social workers believe that it is essential to engage in voter registration and other initiatives to increase the political power and influence of marginalized communities (Piven & Cloward, 2000).

The term client participation is used to describe the participation of people served by social service agencies in organization decision-making (Itzhaky & Bustin, 2005). The NASW Code of Ethics states that social workers should respect a client's right to self-determination. In macropractice, self-determination is often interpreted as meaning that people who receive services should have a collective role in deciding how services are planned, implemented, and evaluated (Gutierrez, Parsons, & Cox, 1998; Rose & Black, 1985). To facilitate such participation, government and nonprofit organizations establish advisory committees or reserve seats on boards of directors for organization clientele.

Historical Overview

The term citizen participation has its origins in the War on Poverty during the 1960s (Arnstein, 1969). Program planners viewed citizen participation as a mechanism for ensuring the effectiveness of service delivery and making these services more responsive to people in need. The participation of clients in community-based organizations was also intended to train community leaders as political activists and provide a greater sense of inclusion in mainstream society for low-income people (Gittell, 1980). Community Action projects, funded by private foundations and federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), were operated through nonprofit organizations. Some of these organizations fulfilled government requirements for “maximum feasible participation” by placing residents of poor communities on their boards of directors.

According to research conducted by Marris and Rein (1982), OEO program planners made it clear that in addition to community residents and clients, representatives of other local institutions such as religious leaders, business people, and elected officials were to be given roles in the decision-making process. However, engagement in social protest and scattered efforts to challenge local political elites by some of the Community Action agencies reduced public and governmental support for the programs. In 1967, Congress cut funds and limited the role of OEO-funded programs to job creation (Moynihan, 1969).

Linking Citizen Participation to Empowerment Practice

In the 1970s, some social workers and psychologists began to look at citizen and client participation as a mechanism for assisting members of marginalized groups (for example, people with low incomes, persons with disabilities, and individuals with mental illnesses) to overcome personal feelings of powerlessness and oppression (Zimmerman & Rappaport, 1988). This examination of how to increase the personal and political power of service recipients led to the development of the empowerment model of social work (Rose & Black, 1985; Solomon, 1976). The development of a sense of self-competency through skill development and self-advocacy was an essential component of the model. Self-advocacy and empowerment are important components of all types of community practice and social movement organizing in the 21st century (Gamble & Weil, 1995).

Empowerment-oriented practice requires that service users work collaboratively with social workers at the micro and macro levels—in determining interventions, planning services, and evaluating programs. Inclusion in decision-making is believed to improve service quality, ensure that the cultural values of clients are respected, and increase the likelihood that people will use the service (Parker & Betz, 1996). Another assumption associated with both citizen participation and empowerment practice is that people involved in organization decision-making, social action, and electoral politics become empowered as a consequence of acquiring leadership skills and gaining political influence (Gutierrez, Parsons, & Cox, 1998).

Research on the Effectiveness of Client and Citizen Participation

There are different opinions about and assessments of the levels and impact of citizen and client participation at the agency and community levels. Arnstein (1969) has argued that efforts to empower community residents and clients by providing seats on organization boards or establishing advisory groups have produced varying results, running the gamut from token representation, manipulation, and co-optation to community partnership and control. Research indicates that many government-mandated citizen participation efforts have been unsuccessful in transferring power from established political elites to members of low-income groups (Gittell, 1980; King, Feltey, & Susel, 1998; Marris & Rein, 1982; Rose, 1972; Silverman, 2003). Nevertheless, there are numerous examples of successful community-based, citizen participation efforts (Brody, Godschalk, & Burby, 2003; Checkoway & Zimmerman, 1992; Itzhaky & York, 2002; Ohmer & Beck, 2006; O'Neill, 1992; Zimmerman & Rappaport, 1988). Many of these studies have also documented that individual participation in social change is associated with increases in personal feelings of self-efficacy and empowerment.

Limitations of Citizen and Client Participation

Community or client control of decision-making may not always produce decisions that are consistent with social work principles (Hardina, 2004). For example, a community group may oppose the location of a group home or a shelter for the homeless in their neighborhood. The responsibility of a social worker in such situations is to advocate for the adoption of alternative plans, ensure that participants have access to information about all possible options and their consequences, and in extreme situations refuse to implement the plan or terminate employment. Other practice dilemmas related to client and citizen participation are lack of support by staff members for client involvement in decision-making, conflicts among various groups involved in the decision process, and difficulties inherent in finding funds or political support to enhance services or make community improvements (Reisch & Lowe, 2000).

Implications for Practice

Citizen and client participation works best when organizations contain formal structures for participation, have sufficient funds to increase services, and have staff members who are ideologically committed to empowering community residents and clients (Linhorst, Eckert, & Hamilton, 2005). Clients are most likely to feel empowered in organizations in which the administrator empowers staff members by providing opportunities for professional development, skill training, and participation in organization decision-making (Gutierrez, GlenMaye, & DeLois, 1995). In community practice, social workers often recruit community residents for participation on public and nonprofit boards. They also partner with community groups to prepare testimony for public hearings, conduct participatory action research, and use strategies and tactics to achieve social change (Gamble & Weil, 1995). Social workers can also be involved in acting as advocates for people left out of organizational and political decision-making processes. In addition, they can establish coalitions and collaborations that bring all stakeholders (clients, residents, organization staff, and government officials) to the bargaining table.


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