Opening up local government one person at a time

By Toni Popovski, UNDP

hen the UNDP team was brainstorming with our partners at the Ministry of Local Self-Government about how to bring citizens into decision-making at the local level, naturally, the internet came to mind, with its potential to allow citizens to gather, track, and analyze data and participate with their own ideas and solutions.

But it was also important for us to include those who don’t have Internet access and computers at home. So we came up with a two part prototype: a website where citizens can provide feedback on the work of their local government, and a toll free number for those without Internet access.

Countries and cities around the world have been using online tools for participatory democracy for some time now (we like the classic example of Perm in Russia). And we know it’s not all online either.

But the new website and hotline are a first for the country: It’s the first time citizens can register their level of satisfaction with essential services provided by their municipalities and report any shortfalls in the implementation of laws and policies at the level of local government.

How it all works

Forums provide space for citizens to report on the effects of decisions made by municipal councils and debate issues related to local services.

The site allows the Ministry of Local Self-Government to issue public calls, invite initiatives (crowdsourcing), and monitor how satisfied citizens are with the quality of local services.

Even within the first month, the site has managed to bring the municipal government closer to its citizens, with over 2,000 visitors (from 26 different countries!).

Citizens provided 38 proposals. Four fall under the competence of the State Inspectorate for Local Self-Government, and suggest solutions for procedural shortfalls in four municipalities regarding:

  1. Procedures for adopting detailed urban plans
  2. Timely provision of requested information
  3. Issuing construction permits

The Local Government Inspectorate responds to the proposals (in accordance with the law) and lets citizens know about what will happen next procedurally with their proposal.

For example, for proposals that fall under the responsibility of the mayors, the Ministry of Local Self Government holds regular meetings where they confirm that the proposal has reached the Ministry and issues a request for the mayors to follow up on the proposal.

The remaining 34 proposals generally concern issues of infrastructure such as public hygiene, disturbances in the drinking water supply, pollution from industry, as well as municipal and cultural aspects of local services.

The responsibility lies with the municipalities themselves and the Ministry directs citizens to the institution responsible for resolving the issue.

The administrator of the platform also includes feedback from the phone calls to the toll-free number with the proposals.

A media campaign helped to get the word out, and six of the eight Planning Regions in the country and 70 percent of the municipalities link to the site and phone number on their homepages – a good sign that they’re on board.

The hope

If properly administered, the website and hotline could help make local government more responsive to the needs of the general public.

It’s exciting too, because compared to central government, I think local government offers much more fertile ground for the introducing participatory democracy – that’s where you can meet the people living in your community, and start talking about real life.

Decentralization depends on improving accountability at the municipal level and getting citizens involved in decision-making that directly affects their quality of life.