Community Participation: Power to the people?

There are many ways of involving the community in the provision of public services, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution to improving services.

Community monitoring in Indonesia was more effective when organized through schools than when organized through village leaders. (Komar |

Community participation and oversight is sometimes seen as a way to address the poor quality of public service provision, and the lack of responses from governments, in many countries. One assumption is that communities know better what they need than outsiders. And citizens who stand to benefit from services have more incentives to monitor and improve the delivery of services. But giving more power to communities comes with risks: members of community programs tend to be part of the local elite, and may thus work to serve their own benefit more than that of underserved populations.

We looked at four community participation programs and how they interacted in the local contexts, and although the evidence from randomized evaluations provides mixed results, some implications for policy begin to emerge. Specific action plans and direct control over some components of service providers’ work tend to be more effective at improving the quality of public services, though there is still a role for top-down monitoring and auditing to improve service delivery and reduce corruption.

Training communities and empowering them tend to improve the provision of services.

Programs where the community had more direct control over service providers and specific instructions have tended to be more effective. In Kenya, training school committees improved how these committees handled teachers accountable to them. In India, a program that trained local volunteers to directly intervene in child learning was very successful, while general encouragement to participate was not. Similarly, a successful program in Uganda developed specific action plans for communities and health service providers. However, community participation is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and there is still a role for top-down auditing: the one program that compared community monitoring to centralized monitoring through audits found that audits were more effective in reducing corruption. Across studies, systems for community participation pre-existed but were underutilized.

Knowing about available community programs, and how to get involved, is the first step.

Government programs have long incorporated mechanisms for local oversight, but there is little evidence on the effectiveness of these programs. In fact, community members may not even know that these programs exist, as was the case in rural Uttar Pradesh India where 92 percent of villagers were not aware of the Village Education Committee (VEC), which supposedly monitored teachers and administrators. Researchers evaluated an intervention that revealed to the community just how little children were learning at school and informed residents of their rights to push for change, but this program did not prompt community activity, increase teacher effort, or improve education outcomes.

Communities who have action plans and oversight of implementation tend to be more effective at improving service delivery.

In contrast, researchers found that informing Ugandan citizens of the dismal state of local health service delivery and holding meetings between citizens and health workers to agree on action plans significantly reduced provider absenteeism, increased utilization, and improved health. One possible reason for the difference in results is that this program created specific action plans, while in India the community was encouraged to develop its own approach to addressing the problem. In fact, a subset of communities in India received training in how to hold remedial tutoring sessions for local children. In these communities, many volunteered to tutor and reading scores rose. In this case, concerned community members were trained in a specific way to take action, and the solution—remedial reading camps—did not rely on cooperation from the government teachers.

In Kenya community oversight allowed even more direct action: communities were given money to hire additional teachers on short-term contracts. In some ways, these local teachers appeared similar to the para-teachers that VECs are supposed to oversee. But in Kenya, power over the contract and money for the teachers clearly rested with the school committees and the NGO behind the program. These additional teachers performed much better than regular teachers, showing up more and achieving higher test scores. Training the school committees further improved results.

In one instance, central auditing was more effective than community participation, but it was also more expensive.

Only one study compared additional community participation with the alternative of strengthened centralized oversight and monitoring. To address the possibility of elite capture and corruption in local road projects in Indonesia, some communities were told that their project would be externally audited, while community monitoring was enhanced in others. The threat of central audit was more effective in reducing corruption—although it was also more expensive. Again, however, details mattered: when community monitoring was organized through schools it was more effective than when organized by village leaders.