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Engaging Citizen Participation—A Result of Trusting Governmental Institutions and Politicians in the Portuguese Democracy

1
Faculty of Sciences and Technology, New University of Lisbon (FCT-UNL), Quinta da Torre, Campus Universitário, 2829-516 Caparica, Portugal
2
Geographical Institute of Lisbon, Rua da Artilharia, 1099-052 Lisboa, Portugal
*
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Academic Editor: Martin J. Bull
Soc. Sci. 2016, 5(3), 40; https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci5030040
Received: 8 May 2016 / Revised: 26 July 2016 / Accepted: 27 July 2016 / Published: 5 August 2016

Abstract

Public participation is a mainstay of democracy. However, the ways in which it can be understood inevitably influence the achievement of the goals that preside over any public policy. Literature argues that the drawbacks of citizen participation are directly related to the level of trust in governmental institutions and in politicians. The present study was carried out on a sample of 250 individuals and aimed to (1) describe citizens’ opinions and trust in politicians and government institutions; and (2) demonstrate that healthy levels of citizen engagement in politics may be upheld as long as citizens trust their political institutions and leaders, through a case study of Portugal’s democratic system. The current study found no statistically significant association between political participation and the study participant’s perception that government representatives heard (p = 0.769) or considered (p = 0.810) their opinions. Similarities were found between the participants’ assessments of the quality of life brought about by the decisions of those in power and the levels of citizen participation around land planning and land management (p = 0.011). Also, citizen assessments of life quality were influenced by their understanding of political decisions (p = 0.014). Effective communication between citizens and politicians will allow both to better understand the aims of political policy. When citizens believe that politicians are honest, show moral leadership and demonstrate integrity, and that these values are upheld by public institutions, a common aspiration can be realized: improving the quality of life.
Keywords: citizen’s; public participation; trust; politicians; environmental; spatial planning citizen’s; public participation; trust; politicians; environmental; spatial planning

1. Introduction

Public participation is one of the major mainstays of democracy, and it inevitably influences the goals of public policy. However, in modern democracies, citizen involvement in public policy has decreased significantly. It is therefore important to develop practices that awaken dormant citizens and remind them of the important role that they can play. Public willingness to intervene in policy could improve the quality and meaningfulness of public life. More equitable results could legitimize policy and improve governance [1,2,3,4]. The participation of individuals in selecting solutions to their own problems promotes the common good [5,6,7,8].
Participation is a learning space for citizenship. The exercise arises from the opportunity, access to information, and education. These factors combine in building awareness of sustainable development [6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20]. Public participation promotes responsible, shared decision-making on issues that affect individual and collective life [20,21,22].
However, not all authors agree that high levels of citizen participation in public policy are necessary for a healthy democracy [22,23,24,25,26]. Citizens can be classified in three categories: active, standby/monitors, or passive. Active citizens promote healthy communities, increase the quality of life and generate communal empowerment [27,28,29,30,31,32,33,34,35,36,37,38]. In contrast, passive citizens are disempowered, alienated from public life and disappointed with politicians, public policies and public institutions [39,40,41,42]. Standby citizens are not active, but are well informed about public policy and ready to participate if needed, with the facility of gradually moving from powerlessness to an empowered state [43,44,45,46,47,48]. Although distinctly different, both active and standby citizens assume a vital role in democracy, in contrast to passive citizens [27].
If individuals are unsatisfied with the results of their participation in public policy, then they will be unlikely to participate in other public issues. The converse is also true. If individuals feel positive about their contribution to public policy, the level of public participation increases. Active or passive citizenry is related to individual experience with politicians and public institutions [49]. Citizen behavior around public policy is directly related to the level of trust in politicians and public institutions. Trust is a vital resource that can reduce the conflict and confusion among citizens facing public policy issues [50,51,52]. Citizen distrust of the political system eventually removes the moral legitimacy of democratically elected individuals to govern, despite the officials’ theoretical obligation to defend the interests of the citizens. If citizens do not see themselves in this model, they will not participate in decision-making. Often, this leads to the neglected management of common property policies, such as those related to territory or the environment.
Promoting citizen participation in public decisions will help develop fair and sustainable territories, but the interaction between citizen participation and trust in politicians and public institutions is complex and should be considered carefully.
The present study was carried out on a sample of 250 individuals. It aimed to (1) describe citizens’ opinions and trust in politicians and government institutions; and (2) demonstrate that healthy levels of citizen engagement in politics may be upheld as long as citizens trust their political institutions and leaders, through a case study of Portugal’s democratic system.

2. Materials and Methods

A sample of 250 subjects (N = 250) of both genders was used for the study. The inclusion criteria used were the following: all subjects were older than 18 years of age, were eligible electors in Portugal territory, and lived in Lisbon and the surrounding areas. Data collection took place between January and November 2015, and was gathered by a questionnaire given to a sample of citizens located in Lisbon and the surrounding areas, in order to characterize their opinions and relationships regarding the government and politicians. Interviews were conducted on a face-to-face basis with sample individuals to complete the survey, which consisted of closed and open questions with items associated with six main axes, interrelated with the issue of public participation in the areas of planning and land management with six specific categories, namely: personal characterization, social characterization, county where individual lives, information, decision process and public participation. Previously, the final survey was tested using a pilot survey with a sample of 25 subjects, with the aim of identifying the presence of questions which could present some difficulties to be answered [53]. A database was developed after the results were validated, and the statistical analysis was made using the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS v. 21.0). Normality of the data was testing by using the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test (KS), and for inferential statistics we used the non-parametric independence Chi-square test. The type of public participation presented by the individuals was considered as the dependent variable, i.e., that it was a study on the influence of the variable citizens’ opinion about the politicians’. Results with p-values < 0.05 were considered statistically significant.

3. Results

The results of the sample characterization for age, gender, marital status, education level, and opinions about government and politicians; the time to be called to plan the land together with politicians, the reasons for participating in planning, opinions about politicians, the type of participation in public policies, and the measures to promote and to increase citizens’ participation are listed on Table 1. All of the participants (100%) were unanimous in considering that all stakeholders (governments, private organizations, and ordinary citizens) should be involved in public policy dialogue. The vast majority of the sample (96.6%) considered that the population had to be called to plan together with the politicians where they live, with 98.8% explaining that “...it is those who live in the places that know better what is needed, where it is needed, and when it is needed”. About 88.8% of the individuals have the idea that “governments do not listen to people and their opinions”, and from those, 64% do not participate in public policies. A similar value for not participating in public policies (71.4%) was registered in the individuals who think that “the politicians listen to the population”. No statistically significant differences between the two variables, i.e., what do citizens think about the politicians, related to the fact that they consider the population’s opinion and the public’s participation were registered (p = 0.769) (Table 2). Non-participation in public policies was recorded in 66.7% of the subjects who think that governments make decisions and take actions based on the opinion of citizens, and a similar value (64.4%) was registered as those who think that governments do not consider the opinion of population. The idea that decisions and actions taken by politicians are based on the opinion of the population does not influence the public participation level, as no statistically significant differences were registered (p = 0.810) (Table 2). Only 25.4% of the sample participates in public policies on a voluntary basis, and the main reasons for the lack of participation were the “lack of time” (91.9%) and the “lack of stimulation” (8.1%). Among the motivations for greater participation, respondents pointed out as their first choice the desire to “see that their opinion counted...” (60.1%), and the main measure selected to promote the citizens’ participation was to “request directly their participation” (50%). Understanding or not understanding the politician’s decisions and actions is directly associated with the assessment of the impact (positive or negative) that each of them will have to improve the quality of life of individuals. From the individuals who did not understand the decisions and actions taken by the government, 71% asserted that they do not participate in the public policies. A statistically significant relationship between the fact that individuals understand or do not understand the politicians’ decisions and actions and the level of public participation was achieved (p = 0.011) (Table 2). According to the results, 68.8% of individuals that considered that political actions and/or decisions consider the needs of the population and improve the county’s quality of life where they live as “non-existent” do not participate in public policies, while 67.2% of those who considered the politicians’ actions and/or decisions as “weak” also do not participate. For the individuals who consider the politician’s actions and/or decisions as “good”, 66.7% said that they participate whenever they can. A statistically significant result was achieved between the variables of the type of evaluation that citizens attribute to the politicians’ actions and/or decisions and the level of public participation in environmental policy and planning was presented (p = 0.014) (Table 3) (Figure 1).

4. Discussion

The sample was representative of the Portuguese population in terms of gender and age [54]. A majority of the participants (96.3%) agreed that land planning should be carried out jointly by citizens and leaders, reflecting the frequent opinion that local residents knew their needs and priorities best. These results were in line with other authors who argued that a social relationship with the local setting is a crucial factor in encouraging citizens to participate in environment and land planning [38,55,56,57].
Public institutions have important roles in democracy since they represent one of the means by which citizens realize their aspirations and interests [24,56,57,58,59]. They contribute to the distribution of power in political decision-making. Consequently, satisfaction with institutional performance [40,41,42,59,60,61] reflects the belief among citizens that their leaders comply with the citizens’ values, i.e., consider the citizens’ choices and interests. Trust in institutions develops public participation in politics and increases support for democracy [52].
In the social sciences, trust is an important issue [61,62,63]. It is a complex concept that can be defined as “a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another” [52,64]. Trust in public institutions may influence the level and quality of citizen participation in public policy [24,65,66,67,68,69,70]. When governments do not hear citizen opinions or reflect on them in decisions, the synergy between the public and private spheres is compromised. As a result, the fostering and quality of democratic engagement may be called into question [52,71,72,73,74,75,76,77].
Public institutions ensure, at least theoretically, that citizens participate in decision-making. They regulate politicians and control their power, ensuring that the power does not circumvent citizen freedom or the goals of public life. Public institutions are the mechanisms of political mediation, informed by the choices that society makes to solve its challenges [24,58,62,78]. Trust in public institutions is directly related to citizens’ evaluation of the functions of the institutions, which should reflect the role that each has been assigned by society [44,51]. Citizen confidence in local institutions is tied to equality before the law, through which public interests are taken into account in politics. Trust in government and politicians also depends directly on citizens’ experiences with public services [24,48,49,50].
Five fundamental practices can ensure that trust operates in the democratic system [79]. These are:
(1)
communication between citizens to define public goals
(2)
tolerance and acceptance of pluralism
(3)
consensus on democratic procedures
(4)
civic awareness among the actors competing for different purposes
(5)
citizen participation in governing organizations.
The relationship between government and citizens is complex; its effect on participation in public policy is far from clear. However, it is apparent that democracy and participation in public policy constitute a bidirectional liaison. As citizens become more affected by public policy, their democratic attitudes are reinforced and their participation in democratic processes increases. Such citizens, who can be classified as active, feel that their actions contribute to democracy and promote its vivacity, which further increases their level of participation [77,80,81,82,83,84,85,86].
However, not every author agrees that a high level of public participation is required for a functioning and healthy democracy [23,24,25,26]. Schlozman et al. [80] suggested that an ideal sense of civic responsibility should contain some level of passivity about public policy, which should not necessarily be considered a threat to democracy [87].
However, passive citizens experience the stressful or ineffective results of their lack of involvement in public policy. If they feel excluded from the political system, they often give up on participating, resulting in a loss of confidence in public institutions and political life [33,34,40,41,42,88,89,90,91,92,93]. A third type of citizen, which represents an intermediate position between active and passive citizens, is standby or monitor citizens [26,42,65,66,94,95,96]. These citizens appear passive, but in reality are well prepared for political action. They monitor the politicians and are interested in changes in policy; thus, they have a potential critical role in democracy [27,41,87,94].
A system for measuring the performance of politicians and institutions is necessary to allow citizens to know whether their participation in public policy is valued [61]. In a study by Hooghe and Verhaegen [96], 60% of citizens did not trust politicians and government institutions. This was in line with our results, where 71.4% of the sample indicated that politicians could not hear the citizens’ opinions because they (the politicians) were too often absent from the local community, and 88% perceived that politicians did not consider public opinion. These percentages indicate low trust in the political system and institutions.
Nevertheless, contrary to the author’s expectations, i.e., that trust in politicians would be associated with higher levels of participation and vice versa, the current study found no statistically significant association between political participation and the study participants’ perceptions that government representatives heard (p = 0.769) or considered (p = 0.810) their opinions. These results were in line with other studies that suggested participation did not directly depend on trust in politicians [97,98,99].
The current results might reflect barriers to citizens receiving comprehensive information, which prevent them, whether they trust politicians or not, from perceiving how their opinions contribute to final decisions in public processes, in turn mistakenly increasing the conflict around public policy [100]. In other words, a lack of communication allows mistrust to develop between politicians, institutions, and the public, and citizen participation in public policy is compromised [75,95]. Politicians should work to increase trust among citizens, through more effective dialogue that allows a working consensus [39,55]. It is necessary to understand that the level of trust among citizens affects their attitudes, behaviors, and quality of life [101].
In this study, statistically significant similarities were found between the participants’ assessment of the quality of life brought about by the decisions of those in power and the levels of citizen participation around land planning and land management (p = 0.011). These results were in line with the other researchers that suggested public trust increases the success of public participation by promoting better policy and planning decisions that achieve a better quality of life [61]. However, the current results showed that citizen assessments of life quality were influenced by their understanding of political decisions (p = 0.014).
Effective communication between citizens and politicians will allow both to better understand the aims of political policy. When citizens believe that politicians are honest, show moral leadership and demonstrate integrity, and that these values are upheld by public institutions, a common aspiration can be realized: improving the quality of life.

5. Conclusions

Participation is an investment made by politicians and citizens, with the goal of obtaining a substantial return. Through public participation as a planning tool, political decisions are better adapted to reality, more attentive to existing priorities and better able to facilitate a credible plan. Citizens can influence the final decision in many ways. It is up to planners to evaluate the information provided by citizens and build partnerships, document the participation and its results, and, finally, explain how participation influenced the final decisions. As a result, the political sphere will then show citizens that their opinions and efforts are valued, resulting in political and public gain [93,102]. Also, promoting and strengthening the social ties between politicians and citizens will substantially enhance future joint actions.

Acknowledgments

The authors thank the Anjos of Assis Veterinary Medicine Centre (CMVAA), Barreiro-Portugal, and MARE NOVA.

Author Contributions

Vanda Carreira, Lia Vasconcelos and João Reis Machado conceived and designed the experiments. Vanda Carreira performed the experiments; analyzed the data; contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools; and wrote the paper.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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Figure 1. Sample opinion about politicians, and its relationship with the level of public participation.
Figure 1. Sample opinion about politicians, and its relationship with the level of public participation.
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Table 1. Sample characterization for the different parameters considered in the study.
Table 1. Sample characterization for the different parameters considered in the study.
ParameterNCategoryFrF (%)
Age250 x ¯ 42.30<20 years41.6
20–30 years3815.2
SD13.2430–40 years7831.2
40–50 years5823.2
min.1450–60 years4417.6
max.7160–70 years208.0
>=70 years83.2
Gender250Male12048.0
Marital state250Female13052.0
Single8835.2
Married9236.8
Divorced6827.2
Widower20.8
Education level250Without education145.7
1st cycle124.9
2nd cycle5020.3
3th cycle3012.2
12th Year187.3
Bachelor187.3
Integrated Master8835.8
Master of Science104.1
Doctoral62.4
Pop and politicians should plan the land together 250Yes24296.6
No83.4
Reasons to participate in planning250Knows better who lives in the places24798.8
Like to participate in political processes31.2
Time point to be involved in policies250From the beginning of draft20682.4
During the draft of plan4016.0
After the draft of plan41.6
Opinion about government250Do not listen pop. opinion22288.8
Do not consider pop. opinion18272.6
Politicians just don’t want to know19778.8
They are not close to pop.239.1
Type of participation on policies250If required 74.6
Voluntary 25.4
Promoting the motivation for participation250If pop. think that their opinion counts 60.1
If pop. think that politicians try to change things 7.8
If the people were paid for 7.8
Measures to increase citizens’ participation250Request directly their participation 50.0
If politicians were nice 16.5
If politicians, consider the pop. opinions 12.2
Table 2. Variable influence what citizens think about the fact that rulers hear or do not hear their opinion; what citizens think about the idea that decisions and actions taken by politicians are based on the opinion of the population; whether citizens understand or not the politicians decisions and actions; and the kind of valuation that every citizen attaches to the actions and/or decisions taken by the local and political power at the level of citizen participation. Statistically significant results for p < 0.05.
Table 2. Variable influence what citizens think about the fact that rulers hear or do not hear their opinion; what citizens think about the idea that decisions and actions taken by politicians are based on the opinion of the population; whether citizens understand or not the politicians decisions and actions; and the kind of valuation that every citizen attaches to the actions and/or decisions taken by the local and political power at the level of citizen participation. Statistically significant results for p < 0.05.
Common ParameterParametersChi-Square Test p-Value
Public participation levelWhat citizens think about whether the covenant of rulers hears or does not hear their opinion0.769
What citizens think about the idea that decisions and actions taken by politicians are based on the opinion of the population0.810
Do the citizens understand or not the politicians’ decisions and actions0.011 *
Type of evaluation that every citizen attaches to the actions and/or decisions taken and the local political power0.14 *
Note: * Statistically significant.
Table 3. The evaluation of the municipality’s actions in terms of participation and appreciation of the county. Statistically significant results for p < 0.05.
Table 3. The evaluation of the municipality’s actions in terms of participation and appreciation of the county. Statistically significant results for p < 0.05.
Evaluation of Politicians Actions on Improvement of Life QualityPublic Participation Levelp-Value
Yes (%)No (%)
Nonexistent31.3%68.8%0.174
Weak32.8%67.2%
Good66.7%33.3%
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