How Open is Croatian Government and Why Are They Ignoring Democratization of Democracy?

Although certain improvements are notable, in respect of the principles of transparency, „Kukuriku“ Government coalition still has plenty of room to improve its openness to citizens and especially to the media. It is a relevant issue because if the public is not informed, they are not able to adequately question the government, and it is up to the Government to lead by good example. These were the highlights at a press conference, “How open does the Government rule?“ held on the occasion of the publication of GONG‘s ‘Semi-annual report on Croatian Government Transparency in 2012‘.

Althoughcertain improvements are notable, in respect of the principles of transparency, „Kukuriku“ Government coalition still has plenty of room to improve its openness to citizens and especially to the media. It is a relevant issue because if the public is not informed, they are not able to adequately question the government, and it is up to the Government to lead by good example.

These were the highlights at a press conference, “How open does the Government rule?“ held on the occasion of the publication of GONG’s ‘Semi-annual report on Croatian Government Transparency in 2012’. Croatia is infused with culture of distrust, and the basic precondition for public confidence in political processes, the use of public funds and work of public authorities is transparency of their work. As a top executive, Government has a special responsibility to influence other administrative units by their example and to decrease opportunities for corruption. With regard to previous bad experiences, the epilogues of which we await by following court proceedings, general public and experts expect a lot from “Kukuriku” Government coalition, who announced the introduction of high standards in transparency.

“Kukuriku” Government graded between D and B for its transparency

The first steps are visible, but there is still a long way to the finish line – compared to the previous Government, the executive “Kukurikavci” received grade B, which is not entirely bad result, but the scale has not been raised high enough. In relation to the ideal to which all democratic societies aspire, they earned only a D. In order not to receive a failing grade, all members of the Government must be open and accessible to all journalists and all media in the same manner and at equal conditions for all – the warning was issued at the conference.

“Two-thirds of all law acts passed through government procedure was without consultation with interested public„ warned the GONG’s Council president and professor at the Faculty of Political Science Berto Šalaj. GONG’s CEO Dragan Zelić added that GONG expects changes in Government Rules of Procedure in order to respect the Code of consultation with the interested public. The government committed to that in the Action Plan for Open Government Partnership and the National Strategy for the Development of Civil Society, to fulfill until the end of September. In first days of October, Zelić recalls: “If the public is not informed, they are not able to adequately question the authorities.”

‘Enough of elitist democracy’

“In Croatia, we live by the elitist model of democracy where citizens go to elections every four years, after which the political class continues to rule and leave citizens to tend to their hobbies. We don’t want such model of democracy any more, we have seen where it led us, in Croatia and worldwide. We need to develop a participant rather than a minimalistic democracy. The task of this government is democratization of democracy, but so far it has neglected and ignored it, leaving all the emphasis only on the economy. However, without political reforms, there is no room for progress,” said Šalaj.

To support of this, data was presented at GONG’s conference held last week, on the occasion of the International Day of the Right to Access Information. One of the guest speakers at the conference was Mr. Andrew Stott, one of the founders of the data.gov.uk portal, member of the Transparency council of the UK Government and former Deputy Commissioner for information. Among other things, he stated that :The economic value of open access to data is such that the survey for the European Commission showed the benefits of opening Government information could be around 140 billion euros a year in all 27 countries of the European Union “.

Improvements in the openness of the Government are visible, however …

How openly does “Kukuriku” Government coalition really rule in Croatia – soon to be an EU member – GONG researched by continuously monitoring transparency of public authorities and monitoring open, closed, and phone sessions of the Government in the first half of the 2012. Government websites were also regularly monitored, and on several occasions it was requested that the Government disclose decisions made during their sessions, as well as to explain documents published on their website. Implementation of Code of consultation with the interested public in procedures of passing law acts and other Government regulations was particularly monitored. Due attention has also been given to Government report on the use of budget reserves in the first half of the 2012.

There have been some positive changes in certain areas visible in the Government’s decision to start, though for the first time in March 2012, releasing closed session agendas on their website, along with open session ones. They have also started issuing monthly reports on the use of budget reserves, now easily accessible on-line, thus abandoning the recent closes-session habit of allocating resources from budget reserves to certain groups of interest.

However, it is questionable whether all appointments and dismissals have to be conducted in closed sessions. When it comes to the implementation of the before mentioned Code of consultations with the interested public in procedures of passing law acts, other regulations and acts on behalf of the Government, GONG report shows that this procedure has been implemented in almost 20 percent of the regulation drafts, but it is still only one third of the drafts.

Who really benefits from journalists having to wait outside the Government building in order to obtain statements from the officials?

Given that an important part of Government transparency is their openness and availability to the media that inform citizens and question Government’s work, semi-structured interviews were conducted with six journalists who follow the work of the Government for different media types (public and private television, the press and portals) and with Ivana Grljak, Government spokesperson. Although most interviewed journalists noted a positive shift in Government’s openness, they stated that there is still significant room for improvement in terms of allowing reporters to ask direct questions and sub-questions to all members of the Government in appropriate conditions, and not having them wait on the officials in front of the Government building.

Exclusive television and newspaper interviews, closed briefings with journalists and sporadic statements cannot functionally replace press conferences; it was emphasized by majority of the journalists, who believe that it would be a good practice to hold regular press conferences after Government sessions, as they were convened during the first Prime Minister Ivica Račan’s government coalition. The Government, however, claim that all the media are treated equally and that in the case of some of the media seeking the interview from Prime Minister, priorities are determined in accordance with his obligations. Furthermore, they promised to continue working on their openness to the media and on the improvement of working conditions for journalists, with government spokeswoman stating that plans to organize official statements for media in the Government building are in progress.

Journalists were asked to value Ministries’ performance, and the best graded are: Ranko Ostojić(Ministry of Interiors), Rajko Ostojić (Ministry of Health),Slavko Linić (Ministry of Finance), Mirando Mrsić (Ministry Department of Labor and Pension System), Arsen Bauk (Ministry of Administration) and Željko Jovanović (Ministry of Science, Education and Sports). On the other hand, negative grades were given to the First Deputy Prime Minister Radimir Čačić, as well as to Ivan Vrdoljak (Ministry of Construction and Physical Planning) and Gordan Maras (Ministry of Entrepreneurship and Trade).

Following all of the above, GONG’s report concludes: “Without public trusting their government officials, there is neither citizen nor public participation in the decision making, which weakens the quality of the adoption and implementation of regulations. Only well informed public can be an effective mechanism for democratic control of government, and the role of institutions in advanced democracies is to educate the public and issue the most transparent information about the work of public authorities.”

Author: Andreja Žapčić

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