New forms of democracy: Citywide stakeholder involvement in Delhi

On the Linkedin group Future Search Network I saw a message about a new book with the title Building a Citizens’ Partnership in Democratic Governance. The Delhi Bhagidari Process through Large-Group Dynamics, by George Koreth and Kiron Wadhera. Since stakeholder involvement in change processes has my special interest, I ordered the book. On the back cover I read that since the year 2000, the Government of Delhi has successfully sustained a different model of ‘democracy at work’ in close collaboration with stakeholders such as citzens’ associations, NGOs, government departments, and civic service agencies. Could this be and example for the Western World, for instance the Netherlands, where I live? There is a lot of discussion going on here about establishing a participatory society.

‘Bhagidari’ means partnership in Hindi, referring to the citizens’ partnership with the Government. The book documents the first participatory process in the world performed with a whole city over a longer time. Moreover, in quite a complex city. Delhi is a city-state with by now 17 million citizens. The same number of people living in the whole country of the Nethlands. When the process started in the year 2000, Delhi faced many challenges regarding supply of electricity, drinking water, sewery, public transportation, health care, education, environment quality, housing, you name it. And citizens were not very eager to start collaborating with the government, due to the poor performance of public services over the past years.

The book describes the key points and principles of the Bhagidari process, and their application over the last 10 years. To involve a critical mass of stakeholders they used an approach they call the Large Group Interactive Process (LGIP). Theory and practice are discussed extensively, as well as the particular role of leaders and facilitators. In 10 years time more than a 100 interactive meetings with large groups were held. They are all listed in the appendix, illustrated with the main questions and outcomes.

What were the results? Researchers of the Asian Centre for Organisation Reseach and Development (ACORD) evaluated the success factors of the process as well as the effects. Their research shows that the major reason behind the success of the partnership is the projects taken up by the resident welfare associations and market and trade assoccaiations at the ground level, in association with the government. The commitment of the Chief Minister also played an important role. For all challenges addressed, major progress has been reported. The ‘essential by-products’ (the ones you want but cannot address directly) are better communication and more understanding between the citizens and the government with perceptibly higher level of trust, confidence, and feel-good factor by and large.

I perceive the book as enthusiastic but also open and honest. Not everything in the garden was rosy. Several chapters describe the lessons learned. For instance, it took about two years before the process could start. The lessons are translated into practical guidelines for building and sustaining citizens’ partnership with the government and in creating a working democracy in a large city like Delhi. I think we can learn something from that process. Two things come to my mind however. Firstly, in Delhi stakes were and are high. In my country the situation is relatively luxurious, and I think stakeholder participation works best when the issue really matters for participants. Secondly, it is important that governmental leaders are committed to take the contributions of stakeholders seriously, and to sustain that commitment for at least 10 years. In the Netherlands we are inclined to label a process as failed when after a few years not enough results can be observed. For managers and consultants I see a  role to explain the process of how a direct democracy can be built.

In the video presentation, George Koreth explains why they have chosen for Large Group Dynamics. The process is based on a set of principles that allow large groups of stakeholders with diverse interests, often even opposing,  to find common ground for further development.

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