Consultation with citizens is main prerequisite for practicing a participatory and transparent good governance. It is based on the idea of citizens improving their own life by means of own ideas and participation and the administration developing accountable local governance that can be trusted.
Basic forms of consultation with citizens are elaborated in legal documents adopted in the country at both national and local level. Yet, there is no restriction on the methods that local governments can use to solicit citizens input for all issues within their competences. This analysis is an attempt to provide insight into current status of practices utilized by local governments in the country in general.
The analysis looks at the extent and different dimensions of the mechanism for citizen participation focusing primarily on local government representatives’ and citizens’ perceptions on the issue as well on their experiences and what strategies they have at their disposal to deal with the process of consultations. It also look at the effects of these tools.
The findings are based on the results from 412 interviews with citizens from different regions of the country, 32 structured interviews with relevant stakeholders (Mayors and municipal Councilors) from all 8 regions in Macedonia and 8 regional focus groups (CSOs, journalists, businesses, etc.) with 105 participants.
The analysis shows that there is a general perception among the citizens that the local governments are making efforts to consult citizens. This effort is stronger and more effective when it comes to informing the public about the work of the municipality. In that regard municipalities use all means available to them to spread information about the (usually positive aspects of the) work of the Mayors and most citizens have a general picture of what their local government is doing.
When it comes to including citizens as equal partners in decision-making process the situation is somewhat challenging. Both citizens and local governments have at their disposal tools and mechanisms laid out in the legal documents yet they refrain from using them. Again both sides see these mechanisms difficult to utilize due to the legally binding procedures which they need to include. As a consequence, citizens rarely initiate them while local governments use them selectively and devoid of their legally binding features meaning that they use them in a simplified and adapted mode. Thus referendum, civil initiative and citizens gathering are almost never used as tools for consultation in the prescribed format.
Citizens mostly prefer direct contact with decision-makers. Local government representatives also acknowledge this approach and see it as most useful and hence public gatherings, usually within neighborhood units, are by far the most frequent forms of consultation with citizens as well as direct meetings with local authorities at open days or public hearings. In addition to the legally offered tools and mechanisms both citizens and local government utilize other forms of consultation such as community forums, social media (Facebook, Twitter) and websites (forums) usually initiated by donors and CSOs.
The budget, the development of urban plans as well as capital investments are the topics which citizens are most interested to know about as well as communal issues and local infrastructure. Local government representatives acknowledge this yet very often their consultation with citizens on these topics is superficial and serving as alibi for authorities that they are performing and achieving results. CSOs feel that local authorities mostly involve citizens in cases where they have direct benefit such as applying for donor funding or capitalizing on CSO expertise when developing various thematic strategies (for LED, environment, gender equality etc.)
Citizens on the other hand show a very low level of participation. Majority of citizens have not approached their local government for any issues of their concern as was pointed out by both the poll results and by the Mayors and Councilors. This can be directly linked to the effects of the participation and decision to take action. It is worrisome that pressure from citizens groups and CSOs very rarely yields results which are favored by citizens. It happens frequently that the results are completely opposite of what has been agreed by citizens and decision-makers. This in turns demotivates people to be active and to initiate change.
Mayors and CSOs consider the legally offered tools and mechanisms for consulting citizens as not sufficiently adapted to reality, such as conditions for organizing referendum for example, and appeal for overcoming weaknesses and loopholes in the system.
Due to the fact that citizen participation is multifaceted, the approach in dealing with this complex issue requires a variety of actions. This includes refining existing legislation, defining additional tools, educating citizens on their rights and available tools as well as motivating their use.
The analysis provides a set of recommendations for different stakeholders in order to deal with the issue of citizen participation at municipal level.