New Book Explores Citizen Involvement with Privatized Programs

American University News

The U.S. government contracts out an array of services to the private sector, spending nearly $500 billion a year at the local, state, and federal levels on a variety of programs. Just how and why citizens get involved in these programs is the focus of American University School of Public Affairs Associate Professor Anna Amirkhanyan’s new book.
“Citizen Participation in the Age of Contracting” was published in December by Routledge, and coauthored by Amirkhanyan and Kristina Lambright of Binghamton University. To assess citizen involvement with privatized programs, the researchers conducted nearly 100 interviews with public and private managers working in the field of health and human services.Do most public agencies and their private contractors go beyond delivering services and give citizens the power to shape the policies and programs intended to benefit them?While the authors uncovered numerous examples of citizen involvement in privatized programs, the answer to their central research question is disheartening. “Widespread, but narrow in their forms and impact, the participation practices we uncovered did not live up to the ideals of democracy and self-governance,” argue the authors in their research volume, which is geared toward scholars and practitioners.
In talking with managers across four states – Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia – Amirkhanyan and Lambright found that managers were using outdated strategies that had been in place since the 1970s. Not many managers engaged citizens in ways that allowed them to actually take leadership roles and make key decisions.
“Most of these strategies placed citizens, at best, in an advisory role, and as a result, the intensity of citizen participation we found was low to moderate,” said Amirkhanyan. “While we hope that managers can find ways to give citizens greater voice, we acknowledge there are challenges, many of which stem from the vulnerable nature of groups being served.”Health and human services clients sometimes lack the resources …

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