*By Gerardo Berthin & Terri-Ann Gilbert-Roberts: Pleased to have Dr. Terri-Ann Gilbert Roberts as a co-author blogger in this issue. This article is a summary of the full article published by Olhares Amazônicos: Revista do Núcleo de Pesquisas Eleitorais e Políticas da Amazônia/Universidade Federal de Roraima – v. 6, n. 2 (2018) in December 2018. The full journal and the article can be found in this link.
Empowering and enabling youth to play an active role in policy decision-making processes is considered critical for democratic governance in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). One of four people in LAC is young (under 30 years of age), and yet they have low levels of representation in national bodies, and far less in local levels. Moreover, today’s youth in LAC are relatively better educated and more urbanized than previous generations. As such, they have the potential to be a creative force and a dynamic source of innovation. Yet, emerging evidence shows young people are often excluded and/or exclude themselves from policy processes. Similarly, they have low levels of trust in the formal democratic institutions. This limits potential political support for democratic governance systems, curtails their enthusiasm for participation in policy-making processes and adversely affects their levels of tolerance for transparent government and for constructive policy dialogue. Dr. Terri-Ann Gilbert-Roberts and I recently wrote an article where we explored youth participation policy issues through the use of evidence from twelve social audit workshops, conducted from 2011-2015, in which nearly 300 young leaders from 20 countries in LAC engaged in capacity building and policy dialogue. Social audit was used as a tool to empower youth, promote their participation in policy-making processes, and to analyze the degree of transparency and accountability of public policies. The workshop methodology offered several means for observation and interaction with youth (surveys, case studies, and policy discussions). We systematically analyzed the barriers and enabling factors for empowerment and policy participation highlighted by young leaders and explored useful lessons and recommendations. What did we find?
Participation is the concept usually employed to operationalize the desired level of youth inclusion, but youth participation outcomes generally tend to lag behind broader regional progress regarding youth development, despite some improvement in participation indicators over the last few years. Analyses of youth participation – as limited as they are – tend to focus mainly on four areas: electoral participation; membership in political parties; crime and violence, and employment. Available comparative research within the Western Hemisphere highlights the fact that there are low levels of trust in political systems and processes, as well as high perceived levels of corruption. Consequently, youth participation in elections and political parties remains relatively low among 16-29-year-olds. Similarly, their participation in other formal arenas such as community improvement groups, local government meetings, and citizen protests has also been relatively low. Although youth in LAC express relatively high aspirational levels for democratic systems of governance, they remain ambivalent about electoral political participation and political parties. They express dissatisfaction with progress in key public policy areas, such as the economy, quality of roads, schools, and access to public health services. They are also seeking alternative modes of participation. Our observation and analysis allowed for documentation of important enabling and inhibiting factors for youth policy participation (see summary in Table 1 below).
The available data suggest a need for greater inclusion of youth and a clear theoretical rationale for youth participation. Nevertheless, the modalities and approaches for youth policy participation have received limited attention. Youth are described as having the potential to be engines of change and innovation, but the evidence suggests that, for these transformations to occur, the local environment must also offer incentives, means, and opportunities for young people to influence public policy cycles. Concerns have been raised, however, about the extent to which young people have the requisite knowledge about how to participate. Access to information and opportunities for participation are key factors that determine whether youths do participate in policy, and it is critical that young people play mutually reinforcing roles as beneficiaries, partners, and leaders in development policy.
Social Auditing as a Means to Promote Democratic Governance and Policy Dialogue among Youth
It is in this context that social auditing has been identified as an approach to policy participation that could offer an avenue for young people to be empowered and engaged in monitoring progress on specific policy issues of importance to them, while promoting transparency and accountability in public policy more broadly. The key connection of social audit is the direct monitoring of public policy performance in order to hold decision-makers accountable. An election could be considered an accountability mechanism, as youth can continue to vote (although in decreasing numbers) for those who adequately represent and respond to their needs and/or penalize those who do not. Elections, however, are indirect accountability mechanisms, as they do not allow citizens in general or youth to evaluate government performance on a regular and immediate basis. While an important element of democratic governance, elections are neither a sufficient mechanism for holding service providers (both public and private) accountable, nor can they serve as a direct feedback mechanism on a regular basis.
A social audit is an accountability mechanism that enables citizens to organize and mobilize to evaluate and audit their government’s performance and policy decisions. It is both an approach and a process for improving accountability and transparency in the use and management of public resources. It rests on two main premises. First, that citizens want and have the right to know what their government does, how it does it, and how it impacts them, while the government has an obligation to justify its actions and be transparent to citizens. Second, that when government officials are watched and monitored, they will feel greater pressure to respond to their constituents’ demands and have fewer incentives to abuse their power. There are three main reasons why social auditing has the potential to be an important means for democratic governance:
- It enhances accountability and transparency, two cornerstones of democratic governance. These mutually reinforcing elements become very important, particularly in the context of growing disillusionment with government performance and perceptions about corrupt practices and the abuse of power and discretion. Social auditing can complement weak and/or ineffective horizontal accountability and can enhance vertical accountability by allowing ordinary citizens to access information, voice their needs, participate in decision-making processes, and demand accountability and transparency.
- It increases public policy effectiveness. Social auditing can help assess the quality and/or effectiveness of key essential services, resource management, and the translation of citizen demands into the public policy and budget cycle processes. By enhancing the availability of information, strengthening citizen voices, promoting dialogue between stakeholders, and creating incentives for improved public policy performance, social auditing can go a long way toward improving the effectiveness of service delivery and making public decision-making more transparent and participatory.
- Increases citizen participation and engagement. Social audit enhances citizens’ ability to move beyond mere protests and/or apathy and toward a process that helps them engage with bureaucrats and decision-makers in a more informed, organized, constructive, and systematic manner, thereby increasing the chances of effecting positive change. By providing critical information on policies and rights and by soliciting systematic feedback from constituencies, social auditing can provide a means for increasing and aggregating the voices of excluded and vulnerable groups.
Social auditing, however, is not a magic formula for solving all democratic governance problems, as evidence shows that not all social auditing efforts lead to successful and sustainable outcomes. This exercise, however, can unlock new opportunities for elected public officials and their constituencies to have a conversation on public issues of common policy interests. The key element in social audits is the policy dialogue that is established between citizens and decision-makers, either by tracking budget expenses, organizing hearings for participatory policy design, and/or conducting surveys on policy impact. Even though social auditing tools should be selected and developed according to national and local contexts, the global aim of social audit processes is to enhance transparency and accountability of government and public policies.
Challenges and What Can be Done?
The key question raised, however, by the potential inherent in social auditing, is whether citizens and youth, in particular, have the skills, capacity, and tools to effectively and constructively monitor and evaluate their governments and decision-makers. Similarly, another key challenge is how to effectively integrate youth into their respective communities and promote their involvement in policy-making processes. The most obvious conclusion of our analysis would be to argue that the solution lies in policymaking and young people’s roles in it. However, the reality in LAC is such that the answer is more complex and will vary depending on context. This analysis has revealed a complex pattern of policy participation among young leaders in LAC.
Does social auditing represent a viable solution to youth policy participation? Of course. Whether or not social audit is feasible in each country in LAC, and whether this means that young people would feel truly connected to the democratic process, remains in question, however. Participating in policies and monitoring them often can be a difficult undertaking, as countries in LAC tend to have low investment (public or private) in engaging youth, and sometimes have to rely on outside cooperation from international donor agencies and/or private donations (e.g., Corporate Social Responsibility). Also important is to be able to articulate social audit processes with national, departmental, provincial, and/or municipal policies, and find entry points particularly at the local level.
What is needed is a thorough review of the way in which formal politics and policymaking reaches out to, and prepares young people for, policy participation in LAC. Our research has shown, young people are open-minded about democratic governance, but also feel isolated from their governments. Actively promoting social auditing processes for young people might help them feel that they are valued, and this in turn may help translate democratic commitment into a deeper and broader democratic policy participation. Related to this, a key question is how to get more young people thinking about social auditing — and other engagement and participatory mechanisms –in such a way that they want to use it to monitor policymaking. Building their capacity to design and implement social auditing should be tied in with institutional measures to extend and enrich citizenship curricula in schools (at all levels) to improve young people’s political and policy literacy and help make the idea of policy participation second nature for them.
As we showed in our article, despite their broad support for the ideals of democratic governance, young people’s experience with democratic governance in their daily lives has left them feeling disheartened and somewhat indignant about politics. What can be done? Many initiatives can be taken on both the supply and demand sides of the youth policy participation equation. For example:
- Politicians and policymakers actively reaching out to youth and promoting policy dialogue;
- Adopting integrated youth participation strategies that specify youth roles in policy processes; and
- Using social auditing as an engagement and policy dialogue tool
- Building youth capacities for policy participation
- Promoting a broader culture of policy participation
Young people want to become stakeholders and a creative force with the capacity to influence decisions that affect not only their lives but also their communities, with the understanding that they will eventually no longer be youth and will want to live in burgeoning communities with opportunities. They aspire to “virtuous cycles” of human development that imply political and policy articulation and participation to produce beneficial public policies while assuming the role of “change agents.” This virtuous circle is self-reinforcing, with public policies providing resources for expanding human development, and this in turn helping policy participation grown in a synergistic fashion. As a result, sequencing is important because of the strong two-way relationship between expansive human development policies and enhanced democratic governance. Both have to be promoted in order to sustain progress. Expanding opportunities for youth and others is an important factor in policy participation, but in itself will not be sustainable without improvements in youth’s capacity to lead. This will ensure benefits that can be enjoyed by other generations as well.