Civil society/user engagement and participation

Participation of ordinary people affected by the utility’s activities and decisions.


Citizen and consumer participation is a process in which ordinary people are involved in the activities and decisions of a utility. This involvement can vary in intensity between the mere disposal or dissemination of information, the obtainment of feedback and representation in decision-making. Citizen and consumer participation can be institutionalised and formalised through a variety of measures.


Citizen and consumer participation is a suitable mechanism to capture consumer concerns and opinions on a utility’s service delivery and decision making. Disposing and disseminating information helps to sensitise citizens and improve their understanding of roles, rights and obligations of consumers and utilities. In addition, the obtainment of bottom-up feedback can assist in service delivery improvement and decision making.1,2 The purpose of more direct consumer engagement is to institutionalise participation in order to set rules and enforce standards that guide the sector towards consumer protection and access to efficient, adequate, affordable and sustainable services. Measures of citizen and consumer participation are beneficial for a utility’s reputation and increase the customers’ willingness to pay.

Citizen and consumer participation is one of the main pillars of good governance and is an expression of accountability, transparency and non-discrimination. It is a tool to expose inadequate practices and to enforce the rights of consumers and underserved communities.3,4 A formal inclusion of consumer interests into regulatory processes can make more difficult both regulatory capture by the utility and populist measures.5



Forms of citizen & consumer participation:

  • Citizen report cards: these capture feedback from customers in general, as well as the poor and other marginalised groups in particular, about the quality of public service delivery. A seven-point rating scale can be used to quantify levels of citizen satisfaction with regard to service delivery, dimensions of corruption, staff behaviour and so on. The introduction of citizen report cards can contribute to a significant increase in citizen satisfaction with the services and a visible decline in corruption. Utility staff and civic groups can be brought together in workshops and seminars to address issues uncovered by the feedback.3
  • Local stakeholder meetings with local leaders and community meetings to validate information on “red flags” or complaints.3
  • Increased work with water action groups (WAGs) or water watch groups, consisting of mandated and carefully recruited volunteers. Functions of these locally based groups include:
  • Giving the urban underserved and consumers of formalised water services a voice and authority by articulating consumers’ interests vis-Ă -vis sector organizations
  • Delivering consumer sensitisation support
  • Acting as negotiation partners for water companies to follow up on consumer complaints
  • Facilitating and disseminating consumer information / consultation / sensitisation
  • Providing and channelling feedback on consumer needs and service quality
  • Facilitating understanding of roles and obligations of consumers and sector organizations.
  • Participatory budgeting: creating a sustainable mechanism for public participation in budget allocation. This is achieved by establishing a permanent tool to include local citizens in decision-making processes, which allows them to influence financing priorities of the utility. This can take various forms: polls, public discussions, internet surveys, etc. This tool directly tackles one of the most common areas for corrupt behaviour by providing citizens with the means to combat corruption without any personal risk. Participatory budgeting also helps to educate citizens and raise awareness about water issues.6
  • Public expenditure tracking:8 Public expenditure tracking surveys (PETS) can be conducted to increase the transparency and accountability of budget management. PETS are quantitative exercises that trace the flow of resources from origin to destination and determine the location and scale of irregularities. A PETS typically consists of a combination of data sheets and different questionnaires for interviewing facility managers and users of a given public service. Data sheets are used to collect quantitative data from facility records, and from local, regional, and national government organizations. PETS can be carried out by the ministry of finance, line ministries, independent research institutes, academics or NGOs.6 (See also tool “Accountability for expenditures”)
  • Social audit:7 A social audit is an accountability mechanism where citizens organize and mobilize to evaluate or audit a utility’s performance and policy decisions. It rests on the premise that when utility officials are watched and monitored, they feel greater pressure to respond to their constituents’ demands and have fewer incentives to abuse their power. Therefore, from the perspective of social audit the critical questions and premise are whether citizens have the skills, capacity and tools to effectively monitor and evaluate their [utility]. Social audit can be defined as an approach and process to build accountability and transparency in the use and management of public resources. It relies on engagement from citizens and/or civil society organizations (CSOs) to directly and/or indirectly demand accountability and transparency in the public policy and budget cycles. Social audit is participatory, and can be an anti-corruption and efficiency enhancing mechanism.

Success factors of citizen & consumer paticipation:1

Provide information

  • Provide easy access to information
  • Maintain a customer service centre
  • Issue, at minimum, one consumer bill per month
  • Implement community outreach and public awareness-raising activities
  • Publish a summary of their annual report

Enable consumer consultation and participation

  • Initiate community forums
  • Initiate a public consultation on tariff adjustment
  • Agree on appropriate actions to respond to consumer concerns
  • Provide for adequate representation of consumers on the supervisory board

Resolve consumer complaints

  • Put in place adequate procedures, tools (such as customer service centres or (electronic) complaint registers), organizational structures and at least one trained and dedicated customer complaints officer
  • Enter into a customer contract with each of its customers
  • Publish a tailor-made service charter
  • Be fully responsible for the services delivered through communal water point
  • Swiftly attend to and act on consumer complaints


WASREB, 2013, Consumer Engagement Guideline, Water Services Regulatory Board (WASREB), Kenya,, accessed 07.12.2015

WIN, 2010, Advocacy Guide, Water Integrity Network (WIN), Germany,, accessed 07.12.2015

Berthin, G., 2011, A practical guide to social audit as a participatory tool to strengthen democratic governance, transparency, and accountability, Transparency and Accountability in Local Governments (TRAALOG),, accessed 07.12.2015


Water Watch Groups in Zambia9

Location: Zambia

The major challenge has been to correct the impression that the WWGs concept is not employment but voluntary work for the good of all water users. Many people who applied mistakenly assumed it was like the UN voluntary service with a good allowance. Also, it was important to keep out politicians to avoid the WWG to be used as political instrument.
The WWGs, in carrying out consumer sensitisation, mainly use the media, popular theatre in peri-urban areas, participate in workshops and debates, and open air meetings. The main functions of WWGs include public awareness about rights and obligations of consumers (such as proper use of water, timely payment of bills) as well as handling complaints.
Due to the very high impact on consumer participation and utility response to complaints the energy and telecommunication regulators have come forward to join hands with NWASCO and eight of the WWG have been transformed into consumer watch groups to address energy and telecommunication issues as well.

Lessons learned:

  • Consumer involvement is key to the success of water sector reforms.
  • WWG members must be committed, and operate under clear objectives.
  • WWG activities have to be adequately funded with strict fiscal controls.
  • The volunteer concept has proven to be an excellent tool for reinforcing consumer protection.
  • It is very important to integrate health messages into WSS programs in order to have a holistic approach.

It is essential to pay specific attention to low income urban areas where the quality of service provision usually lags behind.


World Bank, 2009, Scaling up Social Accountability in World Bank operations, World Bank, USA

Vidicia, 2012, Best Practices for Communicating with Your Customers, USA

AsĂ­s, M. G. De, Leary, D. O., Ljung, P. & Butterworth, J., 2009, Improving Transparency, Integrity, and Accountability in Water Supply and Sanitation, World Bank Institute & Transparency International

TI, no year, Access to Information, Transparency International (TI), Germany,, accessed 04.12.2015

Consumer Council for Water, no year, Consumer Council for Water Homepage, UK,, accessed 04.12.2015

Andre, Martin & Lanmafankpotin, 2012, Citizen Participation, Université de Montreal, Canada

WIN, 2012, Citizen Reports Cards Toolsheet, Water Integrity Network (WIN), Germany

WALINET, no year, About Water Action Groups (WAGs), Water and Livelihoods Network (WALINET), , accessed January 2015

NWASCO, no year, Water Watch Groups- Involving consumers in monitoring water supply and sanitation services in Zambia, National Water Supply and Sanitation Council (NWASCO), Zambia

WASREB, 2010, Enhancing consumer participation in water service delivery through water action groups, Water Services Regulatory Board (WASREB), Kenya

Havekes et al, 2013, Building blocks for good water governance, chapter: Participatory Approach, Van der Kerk, Water Governance Centre, The Netherlands


  1. WASREB, 2013, Consumer Engagement Guideline, Water Services Regulatory Board (WASREB), Kenya,, accessed 07.12.2015
  2. WASREB, 2011, Water Action Groups (WAGs) – Implementing the Human Right to Water and Sanitation in the Kenyan Urban Setting by Empowering Consumers and the Underserved, Water Services Regulatory Board (WASREB), Kenya
  3. WIN, 2010, Advocacy Guide, Water Integrity Network (WIN), Germany,, accessed 07.12.2015
  4. Nordmann, D., Peters, P. & Werchota, R., 2013, Good Governance in the Kenyan Water Sector, Gesellschaft fĂĽr Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, Germany
  5. Boehm, F., 2009, Anti-corruption in Regulation – A Safeguard for Infrastructure Reforms, Journal of Competition and Regulation in Network Industries 10(1), 45-75
  6. GIZ, no year, GIZ Anti-Corruption Toolbox – ´Participatory Budgeting´, Gesellschaft fĂĽr Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, Germany,, accessed 04.12.2015
  7. Berthin, G., 2011, A practical guide to social audit as a participatory tool to strengthen democratic governance, transparency, and accountability, Transparency and Accountability in Local Governments (TRAALOG),, accessed 07.12.2015
  8. GIZ, no year, GIZ Anti-Corruption Toolbox – ´Public Expenditure Tracking Survey´, Gesellschaft fĂĽr Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, Germany, accessed 04.12.2015
  9. Global Water Partnership, no year, Zambia: Water Watch Groups, Global Water Partnership ToolBox,, 04.12.2015
Last updated 12 April 2019

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