Citizen Observers

Municipal councils are elected to oversee local administrations and to represent the interests of their constituents. If councilors fail to attend meetings, misarticulate the interests of their electoral constituencies, or participate in corrupt machinations, local democracy takes damage and citizens lose trust. Therefore, we aim at addressing the question of whether regular, direct scrutiny of councilors’s work by ordinary citizens can improve councilor performance and citizen trust.

In a large-scale policy experiment conducted in 118 rural municipalities in Burkina Faso, we are working with mayors to invite randomly sampled citizens to volunteer as “citizen observers” at municipal council meetings. Carried out in two phases between 2015 and 2017 with the help of six regional NGOs, the intervention hit a nerve. Approximately 60 percent of invited citizens took up this opportunity, sometimes walking several hours to volunteer as citizen observers.

We are now testing (1) how the presence of ordinary citizens affected councilor attendance and the dynamics of council meetings, and (2) how personal exposure to municipal decision processes is influencing citizens’ future voluntary participation in local governance. For more information about the research, see our analysis plan at the AEA registry.

Lierl, Malte and Marcus Holmlund. 2016. “Citizens at the Council: A Field Experiment on Citizen Observers in Burkina Faso (Phase I).” AEA RCT Registry #1283,