Responding to anger, Bhutan engaged its citizens

By Chia Jie Lin

Chief Planner Chhado Drukpa of the rural planning division shares how the country has reformed engagement on national and local policies.

Up until 1999, the government of Bhutan forced residents to give up their land for infrastructure, leading to widespread distrust of the government.

Bhutanese citizens were angry that the government had taken their land away from them without prior consultation. “When we acquired land, it brought about a lot of disparity and unkindness to the people,” Chhado Drukpa, chief urban planner of the Rural and Regional Planning Division at the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, tells GovInsider.

Bhutan is known to have come up with the Gross National Happiness index, but the country is not without its fair share of woes. Drukpa shares how the government is introducing ways to involve residents in policies and decisions.

Rebuilding trust

To rebuild trust with residents on land ownership, Bhutan has adopted a unique approach to its urban and rural development called land pooling. Landowners volunteer parcels of their land to be used to build local public amenities like roads and schools.

Residents also gain a say in how their land will be used. “Often, the landowners ask urban planners to provide more amenities besides what has been proposed,” Drukpa says. They then put these proposed policies to a vote, which ensures that the process is democratic. “If we get the agreement of two-thirds of the landowners in the locality, it is approved,” he adds.
“Often, the landowners ask urban planners to provide more amenities besides what has been proposed.”
Earlier this year, Bhutan revised its land pooling regulations to include citizen voices right from the preparatory stage. Landowners must now join public hearings and evaluate the feasibility of land pooling policies - even before they are formulated. This regulation, which was introduced earlier this year, said chief urban planner Tashi Penjor in an interview with Kuensel Online, “would ensure people’s participation where they could write or express issues against the plan”.

Meanwhile, a participatory planning programme launched in 2009 allows rural citizens to plan their own villages. Residents join local workshops where they deliberate on building new facilities or conduct maintenance work for the village. Women’s voices are also represented in the planning process, with each committee containing no less than two women.

National happiness screening

Bhutan runs potential policies through “a Gross National Happiness screening tool”, says Drukpa. The screening tool uses metrics - such as sense of security, physical health, productivity, stress and pollution levels - to measure the policy’s potential impact on citizen's happiness and wellbeing.

The government scores policies by surveying citizens from diverse occupations. Each survey contains screening questions specific to the policy being discussed, and participants rate their responses on a 4-point scale, with 4 being the most positive score. “Any policy has to pass the score of 80% in that screening to get through,” he notes. Policies approved by the tool have since improved living standards, health and service delivery, according to the Centre for Public Impact. 
“Any policy has to pass the score of 80% in that screening to get through.”
The government also launched the “Virtual Zomdu” initiative, allowing elected leaders to connect with remote communities on online platforms. Members of Parliament and their constituents discuss new bills, national and local issues in community meetings via videoconferencing.

The online sessions are open to everyone in the constituency – disregarding class, literacy, social and gender status, and location. It also allows women and vulnerable groups to finally be represented, talking about issues that they face.

Bhutan may be a small country, but its ambitions for citizen engagement are big. It is giving citizens more ownership in developing local regions and enabling them to chart a way forward for their country.