Citizen Participation and Freedom of Information Vital for Successful Local Government

Worldwatch Institute emphasizes the importance of involving the public in local governments’ steps toward sustainable development

Washington, D.C.—When the issues at stake are a clean water supply, waste management, or land use, decisions at the local level can be the greatest catalysts for progress. Local citizen action is needed to ensure that local institutions are transparent, participatory, and accountable, making governments more efficient and less vulnerable to corruption. The development of local democratic procedures in cities is critical to global sustainable development, according to Joseph Foti, contributing author to the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity.

In 1992, the United Nations Council on Environment and Development (UNCED) established the “Environmental Democracy Principle,” which asserted that environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens. “Not all decision making for sustainable development takes place at the national level,” said Foti, formerly a senior associate at the World Resources Institute and a State of the World 2012 contributing author (Foti is now Program Manager of the Open Government Partnership’s Independent Reporting Mechanism). “Citizens need to ensure that laws are enforced and that the environment and equity are considered when making development decisions.”

Local residents can offer useful insights into development planning, and public participation can also avoid conflict between citizens and the state: when people feel that a fair process has led to a decision, they are more willing to accept the decision even if they disagree with it.

Barriers to local participation in sustainable development often involve problems in transparency, accountability, and inclusiveness. These problems lead to a loss of citizens’ faith in government, a decrease in efficiency, and a vulnerability to corruption.

In his chapter, “Getting Local Government Right,” Foti provides three approaches that can improve public participation in local government decision making:

Access to information. Local governments mustmake information on all agency jurisdictions, budgeting, revenue, and procurement available to citizens. At the local level, examples include regular information on air and water quality, local decision making, and land use data.

Public participation.This refers to the opportunities for individuals, groups, and organizations to provide input into decision making that will have—or is likely to have—an impact on the environment. At the local level, public participation can be integrated into policymaking, land use planning, permitting, and project-level decisions.

Access to justice.Effective judicial and administrative procedures and remedies need to be made available to individuals, groups, and organizations. At a local level, this means that authorities create impartial, inexpensive, and efficient institutions that hear complaints of denial of information, environmental harm, and noncompliance with the law.

By giving people access to relevant information, the opportunity to participate, and access to judicial proceedings, local governments can take advantage of the major intellectual asset that local citizens represent.

Innovations like these are necessary to continue progress toward just and sustainable local governance, and to improve the quality of life. With increasing competition for global natural resources in the coming decades, citizens and local authorities must collaborate to protect their collective rights and interests.

Worldwatch’sState of the World 2012, released in April 2012, focuses on the themes of inclusive sustainable development discussed at Rio+20, the 20-year follow-up to the historic Earth Summit of 1992, also held in Rio de Janeiro. The report presents a selection of innovative ideas and practices to achieve global environmental sustainability while meeting human needs and providing jobs and ensuring dignity for all. 

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Notes to Journalists:

For more information and for a review copy of State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, please contact Supriya Kumar at skumar@worldwatch.org.

About the Worldwatch Institute:

Worldwatch is an independent research organization based in Washington, D.C. that works on energy, resource, and environmental issues. The Institute’s State of the World report is published annually in more than 18 languages. For more information, visit www.worldwatch.org