Citizen participation is taken to be the contribution of individuals and social organisations without direct institutional responsibility to improving coexistence. Participation includes a wide range of activities that range from volunteering to public outcry. In its strictest sense, citizen participation is identified with the different mechanisms that citizens use to make themselves be heard and try to influence the decisions of public institutions. The standard mechanisms are public deliberation, consultations and mass demonstrations.
The institutionalisation of participation by means of deliberation mechanisms have five potential positive effects: (i) citizens are more involved in the political processes, making them more legitimate and strengthening the popular commitment to democracy; (ii) a more active citizenry and responsible to the common good is constructed; (iii) it helps to design more efficient public policies and adapted to the context; (iv) the social control of the democratic institutions is strengthened; and (v) it facilitates the processes to reform public institutions.
Citizen participation involves a distribution of power. For that to be fair, the institutions and the social groups must be particularly aware in order for the groups that are not usually heard to be included in the participation processes. That positive action seeks to prevent the participation mechanisms, in a society with great power disparities, from being co-opted by the social groups that have more capability and resources to make their interests prevail.
Promoting citizen participation has the following implications for the behaviour of individuals, the organisation of civil society and public institutions.
Participation in public affairs is costly from the personal perspective. It requires interest, effort and time to gather the necessary information, construct proposals and take part in the deliberation spaces. Furthermore, citizens frequently need to associate with others to express their ideas and to effectively make their concerns public, taken to be what is in common. Participating is the way to learn how to participate.
Social organisations play a fundamental role in the structuring of participation. They are the first level where citizens learn to participate and their role is crucial to generate proposals and bring together the interests of the different social sectors. That means that organisations must strengthen the participation mechanisms internally. Social organisations must particularly strive to incorporate the perspective of the excluded groups and of those that find it harder to make themselves heard in order for participation to be efficiently used for a fair distribution of power.
Citizen participation in the governing of the city requires there to be institutional mechanisms to facilitate deliberation and consultation. For those spaces to be used for effective participation, participants must have the opportunity to contribute to designing the rules governing them and to establishing the themes to be discussed. Democratic representatives, as guarantors for the fair running of the institutions, have to strive to (i) offer all the necessary information for the citizen participation to be substantial and effective; (ii) guarantee and facilitate the participation of the different groups, particularly those with lower capacities; (iii) establish mechanisms for accountability for the implementation of the adopted agreements.