Monday, March 12, 2018

Evidence-based participatory democracy in building our own cities

The original uncut version of my TMI article text is below, the editor has left out quite some lines I wrote, even watered down the title (ok, i understand that this is the prerogative of an editor. I thank them for the publication though).

I personally believe in bottom up participatory democracy as well as the power of information and evidence, in addressing and solving local issues. Most of all, to empower citizens and communities. I see myself setting up similar kind of evidence-based participatory NGO in near future, but firstly I should learn up some GIS skills.

Title: Evidence-based participatory democracy in building our own cities

Who designs our cities? Sometimes we wonder, why are our voices and views not even consulted before structures and amenities in our surroundings are erected? As members of our local communities, how much say and t power do we have to change the settings in our own neighbourhood?

Even before offering our views on certain developmental issues in our city, how well do we actually know our community, and whether our opinions are just subjective or truly have basis in evidence? This is a real issue in Malaysia, where it is usually the case that we see a top-down organised society.

As a policy researcher myself, I often find difficulties in obtaining disaggregated data at local level. Many a time, I have spent no small amount of effort searching for the most basic demographic information about my city (not even down to neighbourhood level), but rarely did these searches yield much demographic breakdown by many social indicators. Most officially published data are only aggregated to national and state level, while disaggregated data remains unavailable to the public. Moreover, government’s data on urban communities in specific localities tends to collected in very limited categories by the relevant agencies.

Informed and collective decision-making by community members should be based on accurate local data and evidence. Without the latter, how could one possibly understand the current context and scale of a problem in the community? For example, before convening a community town hall meeting on open illegal littering or waste management issues, all parties should be equipped with information about the number of illegal dumpsites and their exact locations. Also, community members should be made aware of the number of communal waste containers installed within the neighbourhood, their locations, and how often they are cleared. Once this basic information is known, community members would then have a clearer sense of the context and issues that need to be discussed. They would also be better placed to offer insights, identify the causes and suggest reasonable solutions to the problem.

On 9 February, I attended a skills-training workshop session conducted by the Kota Kita Foundation from Indonesia, at the 9th World Urban Forum which was held in Kuala Lumpur. The facilitators of that workshop gave many examples of good practices in participatory approaches in urban planning and development, aiming at foster participation of well-informed and empowered citizens in better decision-making at community level. Attending this workshop made me realize the importance of (i) skills on collecting local data through a participatory process – especially if such data is absent in official records, (ii) skills on presenting data analyses and information visuals for lay people to have clearer grasp of local issues, iii) skills on conducting consultative sessions and guiding discussions for collaborative solution design.

Knowledge can liberate and empower communities to make better informed decisions. Some NGOs and experts from outside might be sincere in wanting to help the locals, but to offer sound advice or solutions that are adaptable to the local culture, one has to walk into the community and engage with the locals. Trust is the most valuable ‘currency’ for conducting community studies. I learned that, to encourage locals to open up and offer information, fostering local ties should never be overlooked. Usually the local leader or a well-recognised and respected person in the community would be best to approach first. Once these ties are established, it is easier to earn the confidence and trust of the locals to help with data collection. Some might be even genuinely curious and interested in the study which involves and concerns them.

The beauty of the participatory process is that it creates collective understanding of certain issue. However, one still needs to lead and inform the people what the issue is, via clear and easy-to-understand data analyses and visual presentation. Some experts might underestimate the ability of locals to understand urban planning, and too forcefully impose their own views and values on the community. This may be counterproductive, especially if it creates resistance and resentment from community members who feel as though they are being negatively judged. Thus, if we would like the locals to adopt certain ideas as their own, it might be more helpful to assume the role of a facilitator assisting them to discover, discuss, develop and finally embrace ideas. In the end, self-determination in finding the best solution for local issues is the most fulfilling experience.

Inviting and gathering the most relevant and impactful local stakeholders and authorities to a working session is a tricky process, but one which, if successful, produces results in positive change. Facilitators would need to guide the discussion to ensure it stays focussed throughout, and also prepare the right questions so that the voices of each and every participant are heard in the meeting. More experienced facilitators would realise that smaller breakout groups are more effective in encouraging people to speak up, whilst the presence of high-rank and powerful officer(s) in large groups may hinder participants’ willingness to freely express their views.

I believe that active communities are the cornerstone of local democracy, which is about self-determination and participation of people in collective decision-making. In line with this, residential associations or NGOs are good platforms for community members to organise and coordinate among themselves. Out of the 62,678 active organisations registered under the Registry of Societies Malaysia (as of June 2017), how many practise the evidence-based participatory citizens’ solution model exemplified by Kota Kita Foundation Indonesia? Besides the reintroduction of local government elections, I would urge local councils to engage in greater sharing of information, as well as committing financial and technical resources to empower grassroots organisations to find local solutions.

Malaysia is fortunate in that internet penetration rate, especially mobile networks in the urban areas, is high enough to support data crowdsourcing from mobile apps and websites. Some governments have already harnessed on this trend by setting up data-sharing and/or incident-reporting platforms via mobile apps and Geographic Information System (GIS) portals. Some examples of this include Better Penang app and PEGIS in Penang.

It is my hope that other governments will also consider developing open-access and user-friendly tools, so as to enable grassroots organisations to perform local community social studies for problem-solving and capacity building purposes.

Finally, I share Kota Kita’s vision that a model city is shaped and shared by informed and empowered citizens. With such proactive communities, collective decision making can truly make a difference in improving the quality of living, and thus foster a sense of belonging and solidarity among the people. As citizens, they are entitled to governance that is inclusive, transparent and socially just.

The edited version is published here at The Malaysian Insight, Voices, March 11, 2018.

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