The U.S. government contracts out an array of services to the private sector, spending nearly $500 billion a year at the local, state, and federal levels on a variety of programs. Just how and why citizens get involved in these programs is the focus of American University School of Public Affairs Associate Professor Anna Amirkhanyan’s new book.
“Citizen Participation in the Age of Contracting” was published in December by Routledge, and coauthored by Amirkhanyan and Kristina Lambright of Binghamton University. To assess citizen involvement with privatized programs, the researchers conducted nearly 100 interviews with public and private managers working in the field of health and human services.
Do most public agencies and their private contractors go beyond delivering services and give citizens the power to shape the policies and programs intended to benefit them?
While the authors uncovered numerous examples of citizen involvement in privatized programs, the answer to their central research question is disheartening.
“Widespread, but narrow in their forms and impact, the participation practices we uncovered did not live up to the ideals of democracy and self-governance,” argue the authors in their research volume, which is geared toward scholars and practitioners.
In talking with managers across four states – Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia – Amirkhanyan and Lambright found that managers were using outdated strategies that had been in place since the 1970s. Not many managers engaged citizens in ways that allowed them to actually take leadership roles and make key decisions.
“Most of these strategies placed citizens, at best, in an advisory role, and as a result, the intensity of citizen participation we found was low to moderate,” said Amirkhanyan. “While we hope that managers can find ways to give citizens greater voice, we acknowledge there are challenges, many of which stem from the vulnerable nature of groups being served.”
Health and human services clients sometimes lack the resources and knowledge necessary to take an active role in the development and implementation of programs intended to benefit them. The authors suggest ways to be creative and encourage citizens to take greater ownership. Their book cites both conventional and cutting-edge approaches that public and private organizations have used to provide incentives to encourage public involvement.
Through the book, the authors hope to change the mind-set of managers who deliver public programs so they are open to involving the public as a way to empower citizens and communities, strengthen our democracy, and gain insights about what services are most needed. Listening to clients and other citizens early in the policy formation stage can help programs gain legitimacy and succeed.
“For programs to be successful, it is vital that clients and other community members understand and be engaged and committed to them,” said Amirkhanyan. “Actively involving citizens in public programs, whether they are privatized or not, is a necessity.This is a long-standing democratic value and helps keep the government accountable to citizens.”