Six ways for citizens to assert power beyond the ballot box

July 25, 2017

Paul Maassen,

Elections are key milestones for democratic engagement, and referendums such as the UK’s Brexit poll are innovative ways for citizens to be more directly involved in the decision-making process.

But voting provides only a limited taste of the variety of ways citizen can participate in government. The real antidote to citizens’ feeling of disenfranchisement lies in open government. There is a rapidly growing number of initiatives around the world being co-created by government and civil society that carve out a space for citizens to help shape, prioritise or monitor government policies and services.

Here are six different types of citizen action, each of which, with some effort, could be replicated in almost any country:

Use whistleblower apps to curb financial corruption

In Nigeria, a country long plagued by a reputation for corruption, an estimated $180m (£138m) lost through graft has been recuperated via a whistleblower portal, developed together by government and civil society.

The DoZorro platform in Ukraine allows citizens to provide feedback and flag any potential violations on government contracts. As of February 2017, 429 suspicious tenders have been reported using DoZorro.

Rate your public services

In the UK, residents can help assure high-quality public healthcare services by rating local hospitals, in the services near me section of the NHS Choices website.

Indonesians can report problems with basic public services using LAPOR! via website, text, mobile application, or Twitter. Mongolia’s Check My Services initiative invites citizens to fill out community scorecards to judge the quality of their schools, water delivery, and trash collection. With 84 public services already assessed, a Check My Services mobile application is being developed to make citizen-driven improvements even easier.

Make your own laws

The notion of citizen lawmakers is fast becoming a reality in Croatia and Brazil. On the e-Savjetovanja e-consultation platform, any Croatian citizen can comment on the latest pieces of draft legislation and directly shape new laws.

Likewise, Brazilians can make an account on to learn about the latest public consultation opportunities, as well as join one of the site’s many online forums, or even create their own, to discuss the issues that interest them alongside other engaged citizens. As new proposals gain traction, the team will bring in a government official to further enhance the discussion and move toward action.

The US, UK and European Union all have citizen initiative portals requiring a government response – sometimes including legislative action – to certain citizen requests.

Get young people involved

In Norway’s capital, Oslo, children are lending their voices to make streets safer for pedestrians. Developed with and for children, the Traffic Agent app allows children and their parents to report safety issues as they walk or bike to and from school. The city responds to reports as quickly as possible, whether that means sending a public official to take care of cars that are parked illegally, or building a new pavement on a narrow, busy street.

Monitor how your government spends your cash

The Monithon website allows Italians to monitor EU-funded projects. Monithon’s tools are used all over Italy by local communities and school students, trained to be on-the-ground auditors, visiting project sites, asking questions of local authorities and providing concrete suggestions, several of which are implemented.

Why open data doesn’t mean open government

In Georgia, citizens are actively encouraged to participate in annual audits of various government agencies, and vote to allocate public funds towards the programmes/services that matter most to them including education, infrastructure and healthcare, by using the “citizen” tab of the new Budget Monitor platform developed by the Georgian State Audit Office.

And in Paris a participatory budgeting process allows inhabitants to decide how to spend €500m (£443m) until 2020 (approximately €100m of public investment a year).

Shut down air polluters

In Macedonia, the government releases air quality data every hour through the Moj Vozduh (My Air) app. Citizens have used the data to monitor pollution levels and take action, especially in winter when pollution is at its worst. Already two factories have been shut down for not abiding by climate regulations and some municipalities take short-term measures to reduce emissions during the peak periods of pollution.

Changing government is never easy, but it’s also not as hard as it once used to be. By opening up government for citizen participation substantial improvements are being made in the lives of ordinary people. And, just like at the ballot box, every voice counts.

This piece was first published in The Guardian’s Public Leaders Network section.