Participation mechanisms first appeared in Colombia in the 1950s, with Community Action Boards (Juntas de Accion Comunal, JAC). Three decades later, the concept of participative planning and representative democracy was developed. But the concept of citizen participation is most clearly defined in Article 2 of the 1991 Constitution, as a basic principle of the state’s organization, essential mission, and reason for being.
Some of the articles in the constitution specifically relate to participation matters,1 and at the same time, several rules and regulations2 have been issued aimed at allowing citizen participation in processes such as planning, budgeting, urban development, taxation, and public administration control. Their objective is the implementation of the constitutional mandate and to provide citizens with the necessary instruments to demand protection of their individual and collective rights, to guarantee access to information, and to demand fulfillment of the state’s duties.
In spite of this, the response of the citizens to the state’s offer of participation is not proportional to the existing policies and mechanisms, so that participation is not actively used in public matters, and does not develop on its own. Over 90 percent of the population has never been involved in any kind of participative action; only 14 percent have taken part in a citizenship monitoring board; and less than 33 percent have participated in a Community Action Board (Velasquez and Gonzalez, 2003), the latter considered to be the most appealing form of citizenship participation, as it allows direct involvement in the local decision-making process.
It is worth analyzing the reasons behind these statistics. Creating participation mechanisms and forums is not enough for people to feel motivated to participate. For citizens to feel part of public issues, they must trust the authorities and institutions and their degree of efficiency (DNP, 2006: 41). Knowledge of the participation instruments available, as well as perception regarding their impact on government decisions, is also important.
Despite efforts that have been made at national and local levels regarding the issuance of rules and regulations and the creation of participation institutions, knowledge of the different participation policies is low, except in the health and education sectors, where citizens are more involved in decision making. In other sectors, low participation is typically due to a lack of citizen involvement in the definition of public policies. Participation mechanisms are mainly considered as means of initiative and control, and subsequently of monitoring, agreement, and management, but rarely as decision-making instruments (Ceballos and Martin, 2001).
It is worrying that the results from the last opinion poll for the Bogota como vamos3 project in 2007 show that 43 percent of those polled were not interested in participating, or were unaware of the impact of their participation on government decisions. Conversely, 34 percent of respondents thought that despite the adequacy of participation mechanisms offered, they were manipulated by the leadership or improperly implemented.
Although there are more than 40 different participation mechanisms at the national level, 70 percent of whose creation is mandatory, in only 50 percent of all cases are penalties imposed on authorities who fail to develop them (Ocasa Corporation and Bogota Chamber of Commerce, 2007).
Thus, national and local authorities face a great challenge in terms of informing the public about participation mechanisms. Moreover, the impact and effects of citizen participation on government decisions must be determined.