Citizens Participation – Policy Brief

Introduction:

The main purpose of “Citizens Participation” political review paper, prepared by “Uluchay” Social-Economic Innovation Center, is to provide decision makers, local government and state agencies with recommendations and proposals for citizens to actively participate in decision-making processes.

Community leaders, non-governmental agencies and media representatives have closely participated in preparation of this paper, their insights and comments, as well as insights and comments of well-known experts, are given in this document.

Due to the work with local population and communities, “Uluchay” Social-Economic Innovation Center play a role of bridge between them and decision-makers.  Thus, citizens get an opportunity to present their recommendations and proposals regarding social and economic issues of communities to appropriate government bodies and decision-makers.

Political review

Citizens participation

Effective citizens participation is characterized by the fact that citizens are provided with full access to the information about the decisions made by the government and its affiliates, their implementation, possible outcomes, risks, benefits, and at the same time citizens become one of the parties involved in these processes. Citizens show initiatives in decisions they make and use legal base and mechanisms that ensure implementation of these decisions.

In modern world citizens participation creates mechanisms and tools that make it possible for each willing, interested citizen, Civil Society Organizations to take part in decision making and implementation processes carried out by government agencies. This is the access of public representatives to information, as well as to participation in decision-making process and human rights systems and to non-judicial remedies of human rights infringements (“Aarhus Convention”).

Forms of citizens participation:

– public debates

– public hearing

– public opinion research

– consideration of legislative acts projects and

– advisory letters.

All these procedures are reflected in the Law “On public participation” (22.11.2013). In short, the Law on citizens participation fully provides active participation of citizens in consideration and discussion of certain problem. This Law highlights that state and local self-governing bodies, civil society institutes, public councils and individual citizens can be initiators of public hearing and debates.

Although citizens participation is fully approved by the Law, active participation of citizens in political and economic processes which is one of the important elements of democratic processes in our country is not observed and this do-nothingism leads to certain troubles. Because, active participation of citizens in guiding different viewpoints and provision of various interests is one of the most significant and may be the main attribute. We cannot observe the fact that people living in the region have a constructive and pragmatic approach in terms of protecting their political and economic rights.

Although public participation is of great importance in formation of democratic state government, creation of social harmony in society, dialogue and cooperation between citizens and the different levels of bodies making decisions for their interests and responsible for the implementation of these decisions are weak.

Specific practical examples of dialogue and mutual cooperation between civil society and government bodies are rarely seen. Facilitation of this mutual activities, expansion of opportunities and participation of citizens in democratic processes on local and regional levels are not on the desirable level.

Notwithstanding with the fact that the form and specific mechanisms of citizens participation are fully reflected in national legislation, currently citizens participation is mostly associated with the activities of Civil Societies Organizations.

In our region, there is no experience of public hearing or debate of individual citizens on citizenship issues with their own initiatives using the rights granted them by the legislation, and if occurs, it has a nature of report. And main purposes of that is unawareness, lack of belief, as well as the lack of experience in organization of this types of events.

However, existing legislation allows citizens to express their position through public hearing and debates on active public, social, economic issues. In other words, along with the organizations, citizens also are given these rights. It would be more effective for citizens to use this right.  This aspect regarding citizen participation is, unfortunately, ignored by state bodies and Civil Society Organizations. Notwithstanding with the current situation relating to citizens participation in decision making, government, as well as the authorised representatives of our state legislative body have different points of view on this issue.

According to officials representing the government, participation of civil society in adoption of laws has been organized in Azerbaijan, but discussions show that more work should be done in this direction to move forward. They note that citizens participation in adoption of laws in Azerbaijan is the main requirement of the 1st part of article 54 of the Constitution and appropriate measures have been taken in this direction, among which we can specify the establishment of Public Councils in central, local executive and local self-governing bodies for the purpose of implementation of this requirement. Currently there are 15 Public Councils, each of which represents 5-15 people and the Law doesn’t limit the realization of citizens participation in the form of public councils (5.2). Government representatives consider this as a unique approach.

Either researches and feedbacks of professional experts show, that despite the fact that Civil Society subjects consider to organize Public Councils in appropriate government agencies, main participants of the process are Civil Society Organizations.

Therefore, the effectiveness of Public Councils first of all are about the existence of strong sector of Civil Society Organizations. In recent years adoption of laws restricting this sector’s activity has led to the limitation of monitoring and research opportunities of these institutions, and the weakening of public control and criticisms.

On the other hand, with the exception of some government agencies, in spite of creation Public Council section on web-pages of most ministries and committees, most municipal, regional executive powers and local self-governing bodies, this section contains general information or completely another type of information. When it comes to the content of Public Councils, it turns out that these entities have been created just for show. So, most members are representatives of local government agencies and veterans of labor and war under the tutelage of government, such organizations as trade unions and etc. and within these structures it is impossible to find any Civil Society Organization with independent position and objectively and realistically focused on different issues not from the point of view of certain group. Mentioned groups (Public Councils) cannot present quality product to gain the trust of society. There is no platform for debates and dialogues and the processes being chaotic have no scientific and practical ground.

We can speak about the effectiveness and uniqueness of Public Councils only in case when we have open debates, normal proposals, opportunities for expression of critical opinions and taking appropriate measures as a result of these criticism, finding out different viewpoints and transfer from theory to actions. It seems impossible for Public Councils to function independently and effectively and to gain efficient results without different viewpoints and approaches.

Representatives of international organizations reasoned regarding citizens participation in adoption of laws that the existing legislation in Azerbaijan should be further developed, its development should be ensured according to current pace, this Law should be slightly improved for the possibility of organizing citizens participation more easily.

 

Another concern is a big gap in the relationship between government officials and citizens. Citizens do not benefit from their constitutional rights and are less inclined to participation in adoption of laws by demonstration passivity. Researches show that citizens along with the voting for representatives of different parties in elections, do not benefit from their rights of making decisions on various issues of general, local and regional importance by means of democratic tools. One of the issues in the root of this problem is that the officials in the localities consider the process of citizens participation as a political act rather than a democratic one. Regardless the consent of Civil Society Organizations with the political position of the state, they cannot carry out connecting function between citizens and government bodies on desirable level because of certain restrictions.

There should be conditions for carrying out researches regarding one or another issue, organization public debates and submission constructive proposals for solution of different problems. In other words, it’s possible to achieve a consensus which will satisfy the parties in regulation of many issues due to separation political activism from political activities in the process of citizens participation.

It’s obvious that when citizens participation in decision-making is arranged based on instructions and assignments from above, the process is more formal. And normally, it is simply needed to create fertile conditions to make it possible to form this process from below.

In this case, the institutionalization of civic initiatives and generally of civic activism occurs in society. In short, citizens participation should not be imitation, but should be transferred from the value form to the basic format by a new approach. Otherwise, it prevents the development, and leads to public tension and social conflicts. Public debates and public hearings being a significant indicator, lead to the balancing of cause-and-effect relationships and at the same time improve the quality of adopted laws addressed to rights and interests of citizens.

For this purpose, open and constructive dialogue should be improved between the government and civil society. Only in this case it’s possible to clear out priority issues of social development, find out adequate decisions and this approach fully satisfies the interests of both parties.

The most optimal way to achieve these goals is mutual cooperation (some experts believe that a platform for debates and dialogues is needed), mainly in adoption of legislation, because it forms the basis of sustainable development of this government and society.

It should be emphasized that in recent years there has been a positive tendency in cooperation of a number of government agencies with the public sector i.e. experts in relevant fields. Most experts appreciate this cooperation and claim that such cooperation is a successfully tested mechanism in the world and allows to assess the impact of taken decisions more objectively.

According to their conclusion, government agencies should not restrict this activity with experts and should involve Civil Society Organizations to this process. Because this is required by terms of international platform of Open Government Partnership. And Civil Society Organizations actually cannot function at present. The reason of this are Civil Society Organizations and restrictive changes made to the granted legislation in 2014. Civil Society Organizations are not only workplaces and agencies and currency suppliers of the country, but also an institute that play a major role in formation of experts base. Therefore the government should pave the way for the function of Civil Society Organizations. Professional experts also emphasize the need to focus on “think tanks” and experts community as well as paying more attention to citizens participation in decision-making, and attach particular importance to the strengthening of mutual cooperation in reforming the diversification of the economy.

Based on this, it can be concluded that the most important, fundamental and functional significance of citizens participation is to collect, discuss and apply interesting insights of society that lead to the rise of public welfare and strengthening of mutual cooperation. Involvement of society into decision-making and implementation process makes it possible to discuss insights covering various profiles and selecting more effective and innovative ones.

During the research relating to citizens participation, Center for Social Research (CSR) new agency for the research of public issues has been established according to the decree of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan. The main purpose of this Center is investigating public issues and creating additional tools for learning public opinion, improvement the efficiency of analysis, research, forecast in this sphere, expanding the use of social investigations, modern information technologies and advanced scientific methodological approaches.

According to this decree, CSR will function as a public-legal person and carry out systemic analysis of public relations development dynamics, will define current tendencies and forecast changes in this sphere. Establishment of such a center is very important and commendable, however it should be noted that in case if this Center works closely with Civil Society Organizations engaged in research and investigations in various fields, collaborates with professional experts, creates platforms for debates and dialogues, it will be possible to achieve long-term and sustainable results. Mutual cooperation with Civil Society Organizations with a fund of experience and human resources can improve the effectiveness of public relations development dynamics. This mutual cooperation can be made more productive and dynamic due to regulation of harmonic function of Civil Society Organizations, i.e. the elimination of restrictions in legislation.

Having a look to the process of citizens participation in decision-making process in European countries, we face an interesting and effective experience. For instance, in Valencia, Spain, the local municipality addresses to citizens for suggestions and invests part of budget incomes (€ 7 million) in electronic (online) form for transparent and innovative ideas. Ideas suggested by citizens are selected via online vote and implemented. Moreover, electronic report on local budget incomes formed as a result of tax incomes from citizens and expenditures of local budget are brought to public debates. As a result of this, there are no improper and inefficient budgetary expenditures. Surely, this approach leads to a positive image of self-governing bodies, as well as the increase in incomes.

Another example: in Switzerland if 7 citizens want to evaluate any project of government or make any proposal, they gather and conduct public discussions, and at the same time make their proposal to the government by collecting 50.000 signatures. And the government in its turn together with this group carries out an evaluation and in case if it turns out that the public proposal is more reasonable, then it makes steps in accordance with this proposal. In short, both the government and the society are satisfied with this procedure.

Researches show, that it there is a great need in institutional development of Civil Society Organizations which play a key role in citizens participation. Because currently most Civil Society Organizations functioning in our country have limited potential for building a bridge between the government and citizens, as well as for creation mutual cooperation system. Almost all experts claim that the development of any separate region coincides with the existence of professional Civil Society Organizations operating in that area.

World practice shows that there are few social conflicts and tensions in countries where public dialogue and social partnership and its main element – public debates and hearings are conducted regularly.

While focusing on the processes, it can be seen that the relevant government agencies think that Civil Society Organizations are able to carry out only small projects, so, they believe that these organizations do not have the capacity and potential to implement large projects. This approach is actually understandable, because most part of Civil Society Organizations have not still formed their function because of restricting laws.

It should be noted that citizens participation in our country – public debates and public hearings did not carried out due to the lack of proper experience. One of the main reasons of this is incomplete formation of structuring and institutional development of Civil Society Organizations. However, it doesn’t mean that we need to refuse from methodology of intergovernmental relations, and to the contrary, government should share its political authorities with civil society institutes. This would be an approach serving the development and strengthening of dialogue between the government and people.

There is a serious need for the following activities to achieve progress in this direction and to increase the value and principles of citizens participation:

  • To involve persons who are interested in solution of one or another issues and have a direct impact on the processes;
  • To develop mechanisms for expansion public participation of citizens;
  • Detailed awareness of citizens about the on-site solution of important issues;
  • To achieve a mutual dialogue with authorized persons who are responsible for implementation of adopted decisions;
  • To create opportunities for citizens to individual participation in processes;
  • To explain citizens that they should contribute to improvement of decision-making mechanisms;
  • To analyze the impact of citizens to decisions taken on a regular basis;
  • To provide citizens with proper opportunities for their contributions to the decisions taken;
  • To advance independent and objective position;
  • Objective and realistic approach to the issues, not from the point of view of certain groups;
  • To create proper platforms for debates and dialogue;
  • To conduct open debates, prepare significant documents, normal claim of proposals, create opportunities for critical opinions and make appropriate steps by drawing conclusions from these criticisms.

At the same time, using advanced and practical codes in citizens’ decision-making process increases the quality, transparency and effectiveness of decisions taken.

These are:

  • Participation in decision-making, collecting information and analysis of different views of interested parties;
  • Mutual trust and cooperation between different players and sectors;
  • Ensuring transparency and accountability in cooperation of parties;
  • Free and independent activity of Civil Society Organizations, thus, it’s very important in establishment of mutual relations and obtaining trust;
  • Openness and accessibility of government and local self-governing bodies with citizens in decision-making process;
  • Organization of accessibility of reports on decisions made in the framework of mutual cooperation and consultations and on effectiveness and ineffectiveness of obtained results;
  • Implementation of individual positions regarding the range of interests of government or local self-governing bodies for show and mandatory non-involvement of Civil Society Organizations into these processes in order to give them a democratic image and etc.

Moreover, the following approaches are very significant to support citizens participation in implementing adopted laws and taken decisions:

  • Support public activity of citizens
  • Increase opportunities and business skills of civil groups (subjects) for solving public issues;
  • Ensuring harmonic function of Civil Society Organizations.

In case if all the above-mentioned procedures, activities and recommendations are implemented:

  • Self-attitude and respect of citizens will increase;
  • They will spend their internal energy for positive changes in society;
  • It will cause the formation of a new view to the problem solution of citizens, obtaining information, knowledge and experience;
  • It will lead to increase of effectiveness of decisions taken;

Implementation of successful and sustainable projects will be possible and easy by facilitating the work of local government bodies.