The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

The Limits of Participation in a Transitional Democracy

Friday, January 17, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Marsela Dauti, MA, MSW, PhD Candidate, Washington University in Saint Louis, Saint Louis, MO
Purpose. One of the theoretical expectations regarding citizen participation in decision making is that it improves public services and goods. By participating in decision making, citizens define their priorities and hold local officials accountable. Local officials respond to the pressures of citizens by delivering better quality public services and goods (Bardhan & Mookherjee, 2006). A common characteristic of participatory programs that have resulted in such outcomes is that they have been implemented in the context of a thriving civil society (Fiszbein, 1997; Ravindra, 2004). This precondition is not likely to be met in transitional democracies. Two issues unfold. First, participation might emerge from local authorities. Second, even in the presence of open and transparent local leaders, the success of participatory programs depends on national leaders. The legacy of centralized governance persists. Does citizen participation in decision making in such a context enhance public services and goods? This question is addressed in the context of a post-communist country – Albania.

Methods. This study is based on a case study comparison design. Community members in Kuçova were compared with community members in Saranda on the perceived quality of public services and goods. Starting in 1996, the municipal leaders of Kuçova have promoted several local development initiatives that focus on strengthening citizen participation in decision making and improving service provision. Such efforts have not been made by the municipal leaders of Saranda. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with randomly selected community members (n = 100) in both communities. In addition, field observation and archival research were conducted in Kuçova. Seemingly unrelated regression (SUR) was conducted to predict the perceived quality of public services and goods, controlling for the effects of income, age, gender, and political beliefs. Thematic content analysis was conducted to examine the mechanisms through which citizen participation in decision making affects the quality of public services and goods.

Results. Community was a strong predictor of the perceived quality of the greenery service and the street cleaning service. For instance, living in Kuçova was associated with a perceived quality of the greenery service that was 1.36 points higher, compared to living in Saranda. However, no statistically significant differences were found for the street maintenance service and public goods. Qualitative analysis provided two insights: First, in the presence of limited fiscal capacities, local officials assigned higher importance to those services that they considered more important for the development of the community. A green and clean city was perceived as more vital than a city with improved road infrastructure. Second, local officials enjoyed more discretionary power over the provision of public services than public goods.

Implications. The evidence partly supports the theoretical expectation that participation results in improved public services and goods. In the presence of responsive local leaders, participation can result in positive outcomes. However, such outcomes are conditioned by the fiscal capacity and autonomy delegated by the central government. Findings suggest that the central government should devolve adequate powers and resources to local authorities, and encourage them to establish mechanisms of downward accountability.