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Issue 08 | August 2023
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Citizen engagement: a prerequisite for fostering accountability in local governments

By Rebecca Nalwoga-Mukwaya, Research Officer, ACODE


Engagement of citizens in governance of their affairs is one of the ways of enhancing accountability. The aspect of accountability is premised on the second objective of decentralization in Uganda. ‘To bring political and administrative control over services to a point where they are actually delivered, thereby improving accountability and effectiveness, promoting people’s feeling of ownership of programmes and projects executed in their districts1. In essence, the local government system ought to enable a more inclusive, participatory and responsive system of government. This article examines the key aspects of citizen engagement in accountability; and what can be done to foster accountability in the public sector.


Direct citizen engagement with institutions responsible for vertical, downward and horizontal accountability is considered novel in ‘good governance’ discussions2. Thus, emphasising inclusive participation as the very foundation of democratic practice enhances the active notion of citizenship. This recognises the agency of citizens as ‘makers and shapers’ rather than as ‘users and choosers’ of interventions or services designed by others. Participation in decision-making is central to enabling people to claim their rights. Effective participation requires that the voices and interests of the poor are taken into account when decisions are made and that poor people are empowered to hold policy makers accountable’4. The sustainability both national and subnational development investments depends on strong institutions, citizen engagement, accountable governments, and equitable economic growth5.

There are various legislations and international and national levels that facilitate citizen led accountability. Internationally, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR), and the African Charter on Democracy among others provide anchoring citizen engagement and citizen led accountability. In Uganda, the Constitution of Uganda ,1995 provides for the right to participate in public affairs and guarantees several rights that facilitate participation including freedom of association, assembly, and expression. Other facilitating legislations include: The Access to Information Act (2005); the Non-Governmental Organizations Act (2016); the Public Finance Management Act (2015); the Local Governments Act (1997) and the Persons with Disabilities Act, (2020) among others.

Facilitating citizen engagement for public sector accountability

Uganda's local governance is hinged on the values of citizen participation among the local people6. To facilitate citizen engagement and citizen led accountability in Uganda, there several opportunities and structures in at the Local Government Level that are autonomous or where citizens are invited7. Therefore, the engagement of citizens in invited or autonomous spaces is determined by; available structures, citizens knowledge and their interest. The invited spaces available in local governments include barazas, Health Unit Management Committees(HUMC), School Management Committees(SMC), Water User Committees(WUS), budgeting process at parish level, District Budget Forums, council meetings, and public hearings. Autonomous spaces are those created by CSOs through community scorecards, citizen voice and accountability lead persons in communities. The ordinary citizens or civil society directly or indirectly participate in these spaces to demand accountability8. The demand for accountability is based on set goals and targets by the government authorities. The local government authorities responsible for delivering on these goals and targets accept potential sanctions for lack of compliance with commitments9. The design of the local government institutional and policy frameworks in Uganda makes citizen engagement and citizen-led accountability possible as postulated by Posani and Aiyar10. This is however dependent on an informed and mobilized citizenry that can draw upon platforms for engagement to make accountability demands on the system.”

What is the challenge?

  1. Unresponsive Local Government structures: Section 77 of the Local Government Act elaborates on the participatory budgeting framework. There are several structures available in local government where citizens can be involved in accountability. In terms of service delivery units, the health units have Health Unit Management Committees (HUMC) or hospital boards, in school’s communities participate through School Management Committees (SMC) and in terms of water through the Water User Committees. Other opportunities for citizen participation and engagement include Participatory policy and budget analysis, accountability on the performance of the budget and barazas. The members on these various service delivery unit management committees, citizens can participate and hold their leaders accountable both on the political and technical wing. Despite these elaborate structures, studies have identified contradictory outcomes in local governments implementing the participatory budgeting framework. For example, several local government budgets have severally been criticized for not being responsive to local needs and that the objectives of promoting local communities have been high occasionally jacked. In this way, the anticipated increased in the reliance on participatory budgeting has neither resulted in more responsive local governments, nor promoted the doctrine of localism. The ugly outcomes are that several local governments’ budgets are no longer local and bigger portions of local government budgets do not reflect local priorities11.
  2. Inadequate funding of participation mechanisms affects citizen engagement: Also because of inadequate funding, local governments cannot follow through the entire process of participatory budgeting and planning and more often than not the communities are eliminated in the process. This inadequacy of funds also extends to the committees at the different service points which are often not oriented on their roles. In places where the committees are functional, their roles are often to rubber stamp decisions of the technical wing rendering them ineffective.
  3. Lack of access to information: Information is the bedrock of accountability. For citizens to effectively participate in government and hold government to account, they first need to know what to expect from their government, understand service delivery standards, so that they can judge the performance for themselves and apply pressures in a targeted manner. Therefore, information from the supply side, its transparency and capacity to produce and provide data are crucial. Some aspects of ensuring transparency and accountability of the budget and provision of services is only possible if this information is available. This information ranges from the service delivery standards to the budgetary allocations. However, lack of access to information, high levels of illiteracy, and inadequate civic education and the attendant poor levels of public awareness have collectively resulted in “civic incompetence.” majority of citizens do not know their rights and duties12.
  4. Citizen Apathy: Another view was that citizen participation was limited because of low political efficacy and “a sense of resignation”. “It is very low because people do not think it has any dividends; leads to anything”13. “There is a sense in which participation became a ritual.”
  5. Interest of the community in community engagement: The notion of citizen engagement is premised on the active involvement of citizens in the processes of holding their leaders accountable. A key dimension of willingness concerns agency: the belief, held by individuals or groups, that they can exert control or influence over situations, events, and actors that affect them. This sense of agency motivates collective action, and it is likely to be an emergent phenomenon14. Furthermore, this interest is driven by results on the part of the supply side(government). Therefore, of great importance is government willingness displayed in its responsiveness to community demands and this is displayed in enforceability and answerability.


Development must emphasize ownership and empowerment of citizens to take charge of their situations. Collective action is the key to sustainable development. Citizen participation is key to quality service delivery as well as enhancing local democracy seeing that it facilitates citizen empowerment and responsibility. It is one of the principles of good governance and sustainable development. This can be made possible if the development process works with the already existing informal, non-electoral mechanisms that give citizens power over their officials and voice in the political decision-making process15. Although social accountability is not a panacea, the responsiveness of government in facilitating enforceability and answerability are key in ensuring accountability.


  • MoFPED needs to facilitate local governments for participatory budgeting and planning in communities.
  • MoGSLD should strengthen the councils for special interest group councils i.e. Youth Councils, PWD councils and elderly.
  • MoLG needs to orient the different committees of service delivery units (HUMC, WUC and SMCs) and popularise them in the communities.
  • There is a need to empower Citizens. Giving some authority and power in the decision making process to citizens closest to the issues. Government can also leverage on already existing structures such as Barazas funded by The Office of the Prime Minister that work closely with the Resident District Commissioners, District and lower Council leadership to ensure satisfaction with service delivery. The Uganda Human Rights Commission has a mandate for civic education and human rights awareness to work with relevant MDAs such as MoLG, MoFPED, and LGs to ensure citizen engagement in accountability.
  • There is need for CSOs to sensitise communities on their roles of enforcing accountability as well as the service delivery standards.
  • Local Governments need to avail information to communities about the budgets and different priorities in government.
  1. GoU (1997) The Local Government Act.
  2. Goetz, A. M., & Jenkins, R. (2010). Hybrid Forms Of Accountability: Citizen engagement in institutions of public-sector oversight in India. Routledge.
  3. Cornwall & Gaventa(2000) From users and choosers to makers and shapers: Repositioning participation in social policy.
  4. DFID. (2000). Realising human rights for poor people. DFID.
  5. Waddington, H., Sonnenfeld, A., Finneti, J., Gaarder, M., John, D., & Stevenson, J. (2019). Citizen engagement in public services in low‐and middle‐income countries: A mixed‐methods systematic review ofparticipation, inclusion, transparency and accountability(PITA) initiatives. Campbell Systematic Reviews.
  6. Musenze, I.A., and Sifuna, M.T. (2020). Development and validation of a total quality management model for Uganda’s local governments. Cogent business & management, 7(1). Doi: 10.1080/23311975.2020.1767996.
  7. Iñaki Albisu Ardigó. (2009) Local government accountability mechanisms. 1 August 2019. Anti-Corruption Resource Centre and Transparency International.
  8. Malena, Carmen with Reiner Forster and Janmejay Singh (2004). “Social Accountability: An Introduction to The Concept and Emerging Practice.” Social Development Paper 76. Washington, DC: World Bank.
  9. OECD (2015), Development Co-operation Report 2015: Making Partnerships Effective Coalitions for Action, OECD Publishing, Paris,
  10. Posani, B., & Yamini , A. (2009). State of Accountability: Evolution, Practice and Emerging Questions in Public Accountability in India.” AI Working Paper No. 2, May.
  11. Sean Nkahle, B. M. (2007). Participatory Governance- The Need for Inclusive strategies at Local Levels. UP.
  12. USAID (2022). Public Participation Mechanisms in Uganda and the Enabling Environment for Civil Society: A Baseline Study.
  13. Golooba-Mutebi.
  14. Derick W. Brinkerhoff & Anna Wetterberg. Gauging the Effects of Social Accountability on Services, Governance, and Citizen Empowerment. Public Administration Review, Vol. 76, Issue. 2, pp. 274–286.
  15. Andrew Kawooya Ssebunya. (2014). Field Actions Science Reports [Online], Special Issue 11 | 2014, Online since 21 September 2014, connection on 30 April 2019. URL:

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