Building Bridges between Regulatory and Citizen Space: Civil Society Contributions to Water Service Delivery Frameworks in Cross-National Perspective

Article excerpt


This paper explores both the direct and indirect roles of civil society in regulation for service delivery of water services, drawing on examples from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, France, New Zealand, and South Africa jurisdictions that have, in varying extents, involved the private sector was involved in the delivery of water services. The paper introduces the idea of building bridges between regulatory and citizen space, which captures the importance of mechanisms that respond to disruption and protest in ways that routinise their impact, while still remaining responsive to the concerns expressed by protestors. Additionally, even where no disruption is present the gulf between citizen concerns and the approach of regulators can still be wide; the role of the end-user can become displaced particularly when regulation is perceived as building a framework for stable transactions between government and service provider. Morgan traces the ways in which the problems caused by these 'transactional regulation' can be broken down and made more tractable by understanding key contrasts that underlie this gap between regulatory and citizen space.


Regulation, Civil Society, Water Service Delivery, Human Rights, Social Justice, Case Study, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, France, New Zealand, and South Africa.

1. Introduction

The provision of urban water services is an essential service that provides a basic good critical to life. Since the early 1990s, important changes in the structure of water service provision mean that the politics of access to water, especially in relation to water service delivery, are increasingly regulatory politics. Whether water services are delivered by public or private entities, they increasingly operate at arms length from traditional representative politics and under the supervision of some kind of regulatory body. Yet the politics of access to water are also a passionate flashpoint for popular social and cultural concerns, often expressed in the language of human rights or through the action of direct protest.

The participation of civil society is often presented as a 'solution' to both the technocracy of regulatory politics and the unruliness of populist direct action. This article explores both the direct and indirect roles of civil society in the regulation of water services, drawing on examples from research conducted in 2003-4 in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, France, New Zealand, and South Africa. (i) The findings emerge from events that occurred during the decade between 1995-2005. The research focused on jurisdictions that have involved the private sector was involved in the delivery of water services, even if only partially. The research design focused in detail on one or two disputes in each case study country in order to draw out the possibilities for routinising disruption.

On the one hand, civil society can assist in shaping regulatory frameworks by helping to routinize procedures and institutional interactions--often through the introduction of legislative, regulatory and custom-based practices that provide a stable framework for actors with widely diverging values to interact. On the other hand, civil society organizations are often important for the organization and expression of more 'unruly' politics, channelling disruption and direct protest to test the boundaries of taken-for-granted choices about regulatory frameworks. There is an important dialectic between routinization and unruliness, and the article explores the role of civil society not only in shaping regulatory frameworks for the delivery of water services but also in challenging those frameworks through activism. Case studies that foreground disruption and direct provide 'limit cases' to discussions of governance that too often prioritise routinisation, and bring the important dimension of agency to the fore (Morgan 2007a).

The relationship between routinization and unruliness can be understood better by categorizing the gaps between regulatory and citizen space that emerge in the case studies according to key contrasts that underlie them. …