"Ineffective municipalities and cities shouldn’t necessarily be abolished, but functional mergers are a must"
Should counties be abolished, is there a need to reduce the number of cities and municipalities and why is decentralization such a frequent buzzword? How can the power of local political bosses be curbed and the quality of governing common goods and public services increased? Are election results important for the results of LOTUS and where do citizens and civil society organizations fit in, besides sports clubs, cultural associations and hunting sportsmen’s clubs?
We looked for answers to these and other important questions in an interview with Nives Miošić, head of GONG’s Research Centre, and researcher Dražen Hoffmann, after this year’s round of LOTUS (Croatian: Lokalna Odgovorna i Transparentna Uprava i Samouprava, Accountable and Transparent Local Administration and Self-Government[DH1] ) research demonstrated that as many as 1.473.218 Croatian citizens – a third of the entire population [DH2] – live in in environments that do not enable them to be active and responsible citizens, as opposed to passive subjects.
„It is high time that the national level of government, both the current government and the opposition, takes responsibility for territorial reform and, at least, a functional merging of some local and regional self-government units“, states one of the findings of the LOTUS 2014 research. What exactly did you have in mind – is it about the reform of local self-government, once a proclaimed goal of the current Government’s Plan 21, and is it possible to discern a desirable mode of reform – is it a reduction of the number of counties and/or the smallest municipalities?
Nives Miošić: This is about taking into real account how many local self-government units we really need in order for the state to function and for the citizens to receive the services they expect from their local self-government at a uniform level across Croatia. LOTUS shows that we have an enormous percentage of municipalities that are incapable of communicating with their local publics, also meaning that they are incapable of providing even basic services.
Why is this so?
Nives Miošić: Because they are understaffed – usually one person has to do everything and simply cannot manage. If a local self-government unit wants to maintain its city or municipality status, so be it; however, it is about time that some of their functions are merged with neighboring municipalities and cities. For example, neighboring local self-government units could share a public utility company, a company for the maintenance of urban green areas or some other service. There is no need for every single local unit to have its own public utility company, undertaker service, kindergarten…
Dražen Hoffmann: The recommendations stemming from LOTUS do not necessarily endorse the abolition of municipalities, but rather their functional merging, which should be carried out in such a way that not all municipalities have the same prerogatives and functions, since their capacities vary widely.
Decentralization seems to be the all-purpose buzzword for the future; however, I am personally not so sure that everybody’s on the same page as to what it means, or how applicable the proposed solutions really are, assuming they exist and are more than just “new papers”.
Nives Miošić: Nominally, Croatia already is decentralized, a there are 576 units of local and regional self-government. However, what is not decentralized are the means needed for the self-government units to fulfill their purpose. We are still expecting true territorial reform; whether it will be carried out by abolishing some municipalities and even cities, or by differentiating their functions according to their administrative capacities and resources, is a different question altogether.
But what will happen with the governance of public goods at the public level? Should we fear the perpetuation of local political bosses’ power? How can their influence be minimized and the quality of governing public goods and service provision increased?
Nives Miošić: This is, first and foremost, a matter of political will at the state level – someone will have to make the decision and break the resistance of local bosses. Of course, so long as municipalities and cities function as party spoils, this will not happen; but, if we happen to be so lucky as to have true leaders at the head of the state someday, they might have the political courage to make the cut. Local resistances absolutely must be taken into account, as they will be numerous – after all, statuses, salaries, official vehicles and other benefits are at stake, as are workplaces, leading to the issue of social peace if unemployment should rise as a result. Of course the decision is not an easy one, but is it better to wallow for years or make the cut and get it over with? I would opt for the latter.
Dražen Hoffmann: I think that any attempt to make local matters more participative and open to citizens – starting with consultations about policy formulation and leading to citizens’ involvement in implementation monitoring and getting their feedback – is a good way to cut off the influence of bosses who would attempt to capture decision-making processes at some point. Of course, this is also an issue of political culture, as it is often very hard to get inert, disinterested citizens with more pressing things on their minds to care about public affairs. But an honest attempt should be made.
To what extent do local election results matter to LOTUS results? Can we speak of obvious patterns and what could be said of directly elected mayors – whom are they accountable to, seeing as they can legally hold incompatible offices, such as those of parliamentary representatives? Are they accountable to the citizens, heads of their parties, or someone else, regardless of party belonging?
Nives Miošić: Actually, we have not analyzed the results of LOTUS in this sense – even if we wanted to find out whether there was a correlation between the composition of local government and transparency results, this would be almost impossible, considering local coalitions – in fact, it is questionable whether we could even speak of the continuity of parties in power at the local level. But on the point of whom they are accountable to – i would have to say, to nobody.
Dražen Hoffmann: I don’t expect that the results would demonstrate significant differences with respect to local governments’ composition, as the results are ubiquitous, regardless of party compositions and loyalties at the local level. As for the mayors’ lobby and incompatible offices, this is a real problem, as positions of both the mayor and the parliamentary representative grant powerful leverage. This leads to a very serious concentration of power and establishing an either-or choice between the two seats should be seriously considered, instead of enabling one position to be used to strengthen the other.
What is the relation, in terms of accountability and transparency, between the local and national level of government – is it possible to compare the results of LOTUS and DUH (a research on good governance at the state level)[DH1] ? It would seem that the state level might be more transparent and accountable than the local, but is it really so, especially considering the relationship that the Government and Parliament have towards the Information Commissioner and the media?
Nives Miošić: In principle, LOTUS and DUH are comparable because both indices, each in their own way, measure the openness and accountability of the local or national level of government. However, any possibility of comparison ends there, due to differing functions, areas of work, capacities and resources. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the national level being more transparent – there is a handful of good offices, a lot of mediocre ones and a certain number of those doing an awful job. In other words, it does not really matter how much money a ministry, a city or a municipality has at their disposal, but how the unit is led, what the leadership perceives transparency, accountability, openness and cooperation with the community to be and how it implements those principles.
Dražen Hoffmann: Although LOTUS and DUH focus on different things, both speak volumes about the lack of a culture of openness towards citizens. It is hard to say which level “learns” more from the other – whether rising through the echelons of local government brings bad practices to the state level, or the local level feels like it doesn’t owe anyone to perform well since the state level, with all its resources, does not. The fact remains that neither can really be a good role model for the other, especially considering the fact how much the national government is marginalizing the role of the Information Commissioner[DH2] .
Civil society organizations are key players in combating corruption and promoting transparency, as well as in linking citizens with their governments. When speaking about LOTUS, how much do they participate in public policy formulation at the local level?
Nives Miošić: The real question is how many civil society organizations we even have at the local level, notwithstanding sports clubs, cultural associations or hunting sportsmen’s clubs. Even where local organizations do exist, they have much less resources and capacities than the major organizations that are, unfortunately, mostly based in Zagreb, with a few exceptions like Zelena Istra, Srđ je naš, Marjan…still, these are active in relatively large cities, not small municipalities.
However, even organizations such as these are rarely consulted in local policy-making, as LOTUS has shown. There where the governments are aware of these organizations’ importance and strength, they are often purposefully obstructed, left out and manipulated through local policies. On the other hand, there is a great deal of misunderstanding on the part of local governments on what public policies actually are, how they are made and what the role of an interested public should be.
Dražen Hoffmann: The development of local public policies is a black hole, as the relationship of local governments to civil society organizations is often nothing more than a practice of financing the organizations’ activities for a number of years.
Nives Miošić: It is entirely unclear why the Code of Consultation with the Interested Public is used so little, since it is a way of keeping citizens informed and avoiding outbursts of discontent later on, when decisions are made. On the other hand, every community with an at least marginally developed civil society stands to profit much from the free-of-charge expertise of certain organizations that may be even more versed in their areas of work than local administration employees, and that would care that local policies are made sensibly.
Still, it is hard to expect the authorities to consult citizens and civil society organizations when they are often not included in the decision-making processes and possess no or only limited information necessary to get involved. The official websites of local self-government units that should serve to provide this information are often in such disarray that I doubt whether the pages’ own designers would find their way around them, assuming there is anything there to be found in the first place. The citizens are supposed to be very patient if they expect to gain anything from these websites. What is their purpose – another box next to a legal obligation ticked? How could they be fixed?
Dražen Hoffmann: Websites are a very under-utilized resource and point of contact with the citizens. It is likely that both sides are to blame because citizens are not very likely to attempt to get informed on their respective local self-governments’ websites, and the local authorities themselves do not exactly put in the efforts to keep citizens informed.
Nives Miošić: This brings us back to the issue of capacities. When LOTUS first started in 2009, many local self-government units did not have websites; today, almost all of them do. It took six years for the idea that they should have websites to sink in; now we can expect that it will take another sic for the understanding of what those websites should include to be internalized.
Official websites are used least of all for what their purpose is meant to be – communicating with citizens about decisions impacting their everyday lives. Instead, they still serve as educational/entertainment/religious/humanitarian portals, which is fine, but cannot replace informing citizens on key decisions – only supplement it. Of course, there is the question of the citizens’ own responsibility, their demands of their local authorities, whom and why they elect – it is all interconnected. Unless there is pressure for change, why should governments change anything? They are perfectly content as it is.
Still, citizens want to know how they money is spent – how can they be given this opportunity, are there examples of good practice? Except for Pazi(n) proračun[DH3] , that is.
Nives Miošić: Rijeka is a good example, in the sense that the “budget at a glance” has been published for years now and there are active attempts to include citizens in budgetary decisions through consultative processes. Of course, the question remains how many of the citizens’ wishes find their way into the budget, but still, it is better than nothing. Another good method would be to produce the “budget execution at a glance”, in order to keep citizens informed on what amount of planned spending actually took place
Dražen Hoffmann: The “budget at a glance” is an excellent way of keeping citizens informed about main budgetary outlays. Pazi(n) proračun is taking it another step further and is an example of good practice that I hope will find its niche in other cities and municipalities, as well.
Nives Miošić: However, all of these advancements are taking place at an extremely slow rate, with examples of good practices remaining rare and sporadic for a long time that, even if someone should start publishing the “budget at a glance” at some point, that does not guarantee that they will continue to do so, since the party in power may change or the administrative resources may be cut, with keeping citizens informed usually being the first to go.
Have the previous rounds of LOTUS included questions about local budgets? Why have the criteria been made stricter in the last round of research and what a repercussion has this had in the results?
Nives Miošić: The criteria have been stricter due to membership in the Open Government Partnership and the amended Right to Information Act. In addition, six years have passed since the first round of research and we believe that the time has come for some lessons to be learned, for those who work systematically to be rewarded and those who function sporadically to be penalized. Information is not important only to our citizens, but also to potential investors, who would probably be interested to know what kinds of decisions are made by local communities and through what procedures.
Still, even in spite of stricter criteria, comments coming from citizens and civil society organizations usually warn of the situation being even worse that the results of LOTUS show it to be. Why does GONG choose this approach and what can we expect from future rounds of research?
Nives Miošić: We are aware that some local and regional self-government units’ LOTUS results are better than their inhabitants think they should be, but no methodology could perfectly capture all the aspects of social and political life of a community in a way that would be comparable with 575 others. It is precisely with these limitations in mind that, starting with the first LOTUS, we have built an online database as a tool to be used not only by local authorities, but also by citizens, civil society organizations and journalists. Should they have information contradicting the findings of LOTUS, it is their duty to warn their publics – in essence, to exercise civic responsibility.
Dražen Hoffmann: LOTUS is an extremely practical tool – a transparency check-list of sorts. If anyone employed in local government was to go through it, the fact alone would mean a step forward, getting acquainted with instructions on how to keep citizens informed and involved, with potential to contribute greatly to local democratic processes.
Nives Miošić: As for the expectations in future rounds of LOTUS, I must say that I am unpleasantly surprised by this year’s results. I did not expect them to be this bad. I would go as far as to say that I am shocked and frightened by these results and I honestly do not know what to say about the future. The advances made between the first two rounds left at least some hope for future improvements, but after the third round…
Going by the old saying that “a pessimist is nothing but a well-informed optimist”, it would be fine if things would just remain the same. This way, this backslide (or at least stagnation) coming two years after the previous round of research is truly demoralizing in terms of what we can expect from the communities we live in.