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Public Hearing: A peoples’ court holds government accountable

During a public hearing, people interact directly with government officials regarding development plans or initiatives works and the implementation of policies and programs. These hearings are based on the principles of democratic participatory governance and natural justice.


Public hearings are usually not isolated events. Rather they are the emerging, visible part of a larger process, both before and after the event itself. For example, social audits usually culminate in public hearings where the community/stakeholders gather in large numbers in the presence of government representatives and service providers to demand accountability and answers. This direct interaction process allows citizens to ask government officials questions about the discrepancies between entitlements and actual services to find out a legal way to problem solve. As such, public hearings are backed by hard evidence collected during social audits.


© Illustration by Civil Society Academy


This film portrays the initial phase of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan’s (MKSS) activism to expose corruption in the implementation of a public works program in central Rajasthan, India. Through the process of jan sunwais, or public hearings where workers and activists publicly scrutinized official records and testified on discrepancies in the implementation of public works, the demand for the right to information legislation was articulated.


A public hearing can indeed be many different things: from a marketing technique to an administrative procedure, to a mode of political mobilization. Three main types of public hearings vary, based on four criteria, as shown in the table below.


These criteria are [1]:

  • Who are the organizers (state authorities, civil society organizations, or both)?

  • What is the main objective (implementation of a project, implementation of a policy or a scheme, reform of a law/policy, redress of specific grievances)?

  • What is the nature of the meeting; (expression of demand, consultation, confrontation)?

  • Are state representatives present at the hearing?


A basic typology of public hearings:

Organizers

Objectives

Nature of the meeting

Presence of state authorities

Public Hearing

Jan sunwai

CSOs ********* State authorities + CSOs

Implement an existing policy/law

Confrontation (which is fact-based)

Yes, especially if the state is co-organizer

People’s tribunal

CSOs

Reform an existing policy/law

Expression of demands

Not mandatory

Environmental public hearing

State authorities

Implement a project

Consultation

Yes

Public hearings mimic or imitate the courts to a certain extent. The very notions of “hearing” or “tribunal” evoke a judiciary process. The stories aggrieved persons narrate during the hearing are called “cases,” and sometimes “testimony.” These people are often called “victims,” and the group of eminent persons who listen to them throughout the hearing is called a “jury” or a “panel.”



Purpose

The purpose of a public hearing is to provide an opportunity to citizens to provide testimony at large public gatherings on local issues and ask government officials questions.


Source: Environics Trust and Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE). “Making our voices matter- a guide to environmental public hearings.” 2011.


Steps in conducting Public Hearing [2]


1. Summarize social audit/research findings

  • The process typically starts about three months before the day of the public hearing.

  • Based on the given problem, prepare factsheets including discrepancies, amount siphoned off, etc. on large charts for all to see and to mobilize communities.

  • Write each issue on separate charts along with all the details.

  • Select a series of cases that are emblematic of the different aspects of the problem.

  • Find people who represent a cross-section of the community to testify. Testimony could include a mixture of expert opinion and personal narratives (stories from people the issue directly affected). Prepare them for the hearing.

  • Invite administrative officers from the relevant departments.

  • Organize the meeting logistics.


2. Mobilise communities

  • Organize a large campaign based on the findings from a social audit to mobilize people to attend the public hearing. Do this at least a week before the public hearing.

  • Use folk theater, song, and dance to communicate messages.

  • Publicize the event well. Send out a press release to the local media inviting them to the event. Arrange for public service announcements about the hearing on local radio and television. Distribute flyers.


3. Book a location and set the event’s time and date

  • If this is an official public hearing, your local government may determine the time and place. The hearing should be held in an area that is affected by the issue. This local approach will attract more people who are invested in the issue.

  • Hold public hearings in an easily accessible venue and at a convenient time for all stakeholders. Women must be able to easily access the meeting venue.


4. Ensure key people attend the hearing

  • Key people from government line departments, legislators, local government representatives, service providers, government officials, and the community must be present.

  • Ensure presence of media to cover the hearing.


5. Conduct the hearing

  • Build a panel to conduct the hearing—from officials, local legislator, representatives of local government body, community leaders, representatives of CSOs, media, schoolteachers, etc. The jury could also include retired judges or lawyers as they are essential for the hearings’ credibility and impact. Choose a facilitator who is impartial. The facilitator introduces the speakers, guides the discussions, and makes sure all participants are heard. Interactions are mainly facilitated between the testifiers, government officials, and the jury.

  • The community will present testimony.

  • Representatives will be questioned and explanations sought.


6. After the public hearing

  • Offer support to testifiers if necessary.

  • Speak with the news media. This is your opportunity to put your “spin” on the hearing and present the results in a way that portrays your side of the issue or problem in the best possible light.

  • Write a report including recommendations from the event that will be sent to the concerned administrative authorities and the media so that action is taken.

  • Follow-up with government representatives on the recommendations and the commitments made during the public hearing.


Source: Environics Trust and Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE). “Making our voices matter- a guide to environmental public hearings”. 2011.


What are the Advantages of Public Hearings?

  • Anyone may attend, either as an individual or a representative of a specific interest group.

  • They may be a preferred approach when consulting on issues of interest to many stakeholders.

  • They enable people to reflect on the views of others who are similarly affected.

  • They show that the responsible authority is open to all interested parties for consultation and information exchange.



What are the Challenges of Public Hearings?

  • If not publicized broadly, the participation maybe limited or skewed towards certain groups/individuals.

  • A highly formalized setting may not foster constructive dialogue.

  • Public hearings can be intimidating and interest groups or vocal individuals may highjack them. It may also be harder for minorities and women to express their views.


 

Case Study

A Public Hearing in Kenya [3]


A day-long public hearing was held on August 26, 2007 in an open space within a slum community in Changamwe. Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI), a civil society organization based in Mombasa, Kenya, organized the event. The hearing was attended by approximately 1,500–2,000 people including residents of Changamwe, MUHURI staff, local Constituency Development Fund (CDF) [4] officials, the media, and a panel consisting of OSIEA staff and the Commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission. It is important to note that, regardless of all the planning that goes into preparing a public hearing, such events follow their own momentum, which draws on the traditions and habits of the communities where they are held.


This proved to be true of the Changamwe public hearing. Braving the rain and the fact that not everyone could have a chair, people stood for more than four hours, taking part in a heated public debate.


The hearing opened with a procession led by the MUHURI theater team and band. The formal program began when local CDF officials arrived. The 3 CDF officials brought with them a pile of nearly 50 files, containing hundreds of documents on CDF projects undertaken over the last three years. This sent a sigh of disbelief among all those who came for the public hearing as it marked the first time that CDF officials in that constituency (and probably in Kenya) had felt the need to present information on the CDF projects to residents.


One by one, MUHURI staff read out loud the findings they had recorded during their investigation of CDF-funded projects and invited residents attending the event to ask questions of the CDF officials present. Faced with a barrage of questions, the CDF secretary and other CDF officials initially tried to respond but soon they realized that the audience was not going to be pacified by long-winded stories or their attempts to skirt the issues. Within 45 minutes, they hurriedly rang the local MP and a short while later, he arrived at the venue to try to pacify “his people” who belonged to “his constituency.” As soon as the MP entered the hearing area, MUHURI’s theater team and band started playing their drums and trumpets. The tune they played was an exceedingly popular tune whose lyrics include the question “unataka nini?” (What do you want?). Residents responded to the tune by loudly shouting “twataka pesa zetu” (we want our money).


The atmosphere around the public hearing—with the music and theatre performances—generated tremendous excitement. Several hundred children living in the slum community contributed to this excitement by dancing to the drums and trumpets – and the local MP then joined the dance even though the chants were being directed at him.


Initially, the MP tried to control the public hearing by talking about the achievements of his CDF projects. Unconvinced, the crowd began to question the MP about the alleged mismanagement of funds until he eventually agreed that the problems identified by his constituents would be investigated. He also said that if people felt that the work carried out by the contractor was sub–standard, he would ensure that complaints/charges were registered against the concerned contractor(s). Seizing this opportunity, especially since it was an election year, three opposition candidates, turned up for the public meeting and raised issues regarding the CDF with the MP.


It was at this point that MUHURI staff brought out a white cloth approximately 50 meters in length on which a petition listed demands for improving the CDF management. The demands also called for greater accountability and transparency measures to be incorporated in the CDF Act as well as a comprehensive right to information law. Each point in the petition was read out before the crowd and they were asked if they agreed with these demands. Eventually, all people at the event were asked to affix their fingerprints or signatures on the cloth, including the MP and the other aspiring candidates who are planning to run against him. Though the MP initially refused to sign the petition, when MUHURI requested before the crowd that all public leaders and officials sign the petition, and he saw that his opponents were doing so, the MP was forced to bow before public pressure and sign the petition that included a demand for the same right to information law that he had previously opposed.


At the end of the hearing, the organizers met to discuss the lessons learned and to formulate a national level advocacy strategy to improve the management of the CDF and recommend changes in the CDF law. They also discussed how similar public hearings could be held in other places where they work to ensure greater levels of awareness about CDF and that people get an opportunity to participate in decision-making processes and project monitoring.


The Changamwe event probably marks the first time that Kenyan civil society has come together in a mass public forum and used extensive government records to inform the discussion of the management of public resources in the country. The hearing also tapped into the prevailing public concern that the CDF scheme is not being implemented properly. Finally, it demonstrated how citizens could be effectively mobilized at the grassroots level to demand greater transparency and accountability in government operations and to enhance the concept of participatory democracy, which begins by exercising the right to question the process of decision-making in governance.


 

Notes:


[1] Rewal Stephanie Tawa Lama, “Public Hearing as Social Performance: Addressing the Courts, Restoring Citizenship,” South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal (2018). https://journals.openedition.org/samaj/4413.


[2] University of Kansas Center for Community Health and Development. “Community Tool Box”. https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/advocacy/direct-action/public-hearing/main.


[3] Vivek Ramkumar and Sowmya Kidambi. “Twataka Pesa Zetu (We Want Our Money) - A public Budget Hearing in Kenya, Social Audits in Kenya: Budget Transparency and Accountability”. International Budget Partnership. 2007.


[4] The Constituency Development Fund (CDF) was introduced in Kenya during Kibaki presidency with the passage of the CDF Act in 2003. Each constituency receives at least Sh137 million every year to be used by legislators for community development projects. The CDF Act has gone through a series of amendments over the years in order to keep up with the dynamics of Kenyan society.

 

References:


Environics Trust and Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE). “Making Our Voices Matter- A Guide to Environmental Public Hearings.” 2011.


Ramkumar, Vivek, and Sowmya Kidambi. “Twataka Pesa Zetu (We Want Our Money) - A Public Budget Hearing in Kenya, Social Audits in Kenya: Budget Transparency and Accountability.” International Budget Partnership. 2007.


Rewal, Stephanie Tawa Lama, “Public Hearing as Social Performance: Addressing the Courts, Restoring Citizenship”, South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal (2018). https://journals.openedition.org/samaj/4413.


University of Kansas Center for Community Health and Development. “Community Tool Box.” Accessed 25 August 2022. https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/advocacy/direct-action/public-hearing/main.



 

About the Author:

Sohini has more than two decades of experience in the development sector, during which time she has contributed and supported the work of numerous social change organizations, working on issues of local self-governance, the right to information and land rights. She has worked on capacity building of civil society organizations from grassroots community groups to large networks in many countries around the world. She is working as a facilitator and coach for the Civil Society Academy since 2015.


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