“This is for the benefit of the citizens”, “We have consulted citizens and…”, “This is what citizens want.” The word “citizen” is regularly used by politicians and public authorities to justify their decisions. But sometimes the claim that a decision is based upon the public opinion is baseless. In this article we define citizenwashing and help you spot it. 

In Ancient Greece, “citizens” were those who had a legal right to participate in the affairs of the state. While citizenship is more broadly applied in our current representative democracies (not least because it includes women and is not limited to members of a certain class), it is used to invoke the same sense of a person’s right and responsibility to participate in decision-making for our societies. But are we really all that powerful? Or should we raise a sceptical eyebrow when the term “citizen” is employed time and time again without a clear outline of how our opinions shape public policy?  

Introduction to citizenwashing 

As people become increasingly interested in climate issues – as well as impacted by the effects of climate change – it is becoming more and more important for public authorities and politicians to appear to be including peoples’ concerns in environmental decision-making. But, as we know, appearances can be deceiving. When the public is involved too late in the process, a public consultation garners little response, or corporate lobby interests outweigh the voice of concerned individuals, then legitimizing a decision by throwing the word “citizen” around in a speech or press release is dishonest; it becomes “citizenwashing”.  

When it comes to environmental policies, citizenwashing is sometimes used by public authorities in the same way as greenwashing is by companies. It is a way for politicians and public bodies to give the impression of good governance without doing the legwork of factoring people’s views into decisions about climate policy. While citizenwashing can happen across the political spectrum, it can be particularly aggressive when it comes to social issues and environmental decisions. 

It is important to remember that the public concerned by decisions about the environment aren’t always necessarily citizens. “Citizen” refers to someone with a given nationality and passport, whereas the public concerned are the people affected in an area or by an issue, regardless of their citizenship. This is particularly significant in the case of climate change where we see the economic activity of some parts of the world causing climate related disasters overseas. 

Why does it happen?  

In many cases, citizenwashing is a result of poor planning around participatory processes. For example, the Conference on the Future of Europe – the EU’s most ambitious citizen forum to date – faced criticism for not laying out clear plans in its initial phases on how participants’ views would be taken into account. The conference could end up being labelled a citizenwashing exercise if there is no real follow up to their recommendations.  

“The conference has been a unique experiment. While it has real potential, there is a risk of it being written off as a citizenwashing exercise if there is no real follow up to the citizens’ recommendations. European institutions must understand that citizens’ participation does not in itself serve better buy in from people to European policies. Public participation processes must ensure that policies are informed by different perspectives, get a reality check and benefit from innovative ideas,”

says Patrizia Heidegger, Deputy Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau.

It is yet to be seen how the opinions expressed in the Conference will shape environmental policy in the real world but there is plenty of reason to be hopeful. 

On other occasions, citizenwashing appears to be intentional. Take for example misrepresented public polling figures during the Brexit discussion or orchestrated town hall debates which have no real influence on decisions. Claiming to know what people want without asking them is bad enough, but distorting their replies and opinions is even worse, especially when powerful corporate lobby interests are in the mix.  

How to spot it? 

What you heard: “It is in the interest of the citizens that we …” 

Where:  

  • Run of the mill politician’s speeches  
  • Politicians’ Tweets 
  • Politicians’ op-eds 

The best of a bad bunch. This type of citizenwashing is above all lazy. It occurs when politicians overuse the term “citizen” and make throwaway references to “the citizens.” With no plans to consult such a being, politicians will employ the word, giving an inflated impression of support for their decisions.  

What you heard: “We are consulting/have consulted citizens and…” 

Where:  

  • Public authority press release  
  • Calls for public consultations  
  • Dodgy statistics 

Pretty bad. This type of citizenwashing is a result of poor planning or a predictably ineffectual box ticking exercises. The public is consulted but the consultation process lacks the structure to make it meaningful and effort is not put in to take participants’ views into account. Perhaps the decision has already been taken. People are alienated and public trust in democratic processes is undone. 

What you heard: “Citizens have demanded that…” 

Where:  

  • Angry politicians’ speeches  
  • Response to criticism of a policy decision 

This type of citizenwashing is the most damaging. Here, politicians and public authorities claim to have involved citizens in decision-making when they intentionally have not done so or they misrepresent the outcomes of citizens involvement. Perhaps leading questions are asked and biased information is fed to people before consultation. 

Here, personal and/or corporate interests are misrepresented as the public interest for manufactured legitimacy and persuasiveness.  

At its worst this can take the form of flat out lies twisting a majority ‘no’ into a majority ‘yes’ to manipulate public opinion. 

Why is it bad? 

Tarnishing a politician’s reputation isn’t the worst result of uncovering cases of citizenwashing. People give up their time and energy to participate in public consultations, contribute to feedback processes and engage in decision-making. When they are unable to see how their contribution has been taken into account, or realise that it has been overridden by corporate interests, they can naturally grow frustrated and lose trust in democratic processes. Or worse still, people become totally alienated and are therefore unwilling to participate in future policy making. Fewer voices can only lead to worse policies and ultimately slow down the fight against climate change. 

Through citizenwashing, not only is the public morally deceived, but international legal obligations are also breached. There are lots of democratic obligations to listen to people affected by political decisions. Most notably, the Aarhus Convention – an international treaty on public rights regarding access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental policies – includes the obligation for authorities to allow for public participation early on,1 to seriously consider its outcome,2 and to address public opinion in decision-making, policymaking and law-making. 

Conclusion 

Meaningful public participation improves the quality of decisions, gives them legitimacy and increases public support for those decisions. Citizenwashing does the exact opposite and can only lead to a cycle of political alienation and worsening environmental policy.

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