Making public sector organizations work ‘better’ is one of the most persistent and difficult challenges in development cooperation. Yet according to the European Commission (2005), ‘Institutional Assessment and Capacity Development, Why, what and how?’, nothing is more crucial for achieving sustained progress, growth and poverty reduction than efficient delivery of services that benefit citizens on the ground.
In this article, I will talk about how the relationship between government institutions and citizens is shifting – globally and in Serbia, where I work in a program that supports local governments in introducing a new governance style.
Citizens as customers of the public sector
Globally, the role of the state is shifting from that of control to that of coordination. The conventional ‘command and control’ approach is evolving into emerging ‘collective governance’ based on new mechanisms to guide a plurality of interests. This relationship is changing in favor of the citizens, who now are being treated as customers, clients, and main beneficiaries of the public sector.
This shift in relationships helps close the gap between the government and citizens. It has the potential of enabling government institutions to mobilize citizens to ‘co-produce’ services. On a more important level, if the changing relationships are sustainable and institutionalized in the country, its contributions will be highly critical in restoring citizens’ trust in government.
Serbia is not an exception. In line with amendments to the Law on Local Self-Governments from 2018, citizens’ participation in decision-making processes is seen as a basic feature of managing public services.
Towards more capable local institutions
Over the last few decades, the diffusion of institutionalism thought has prompted an important discussion regarding the mechanisms of governance. Local governments are seen as playing a central role in identifying the priorities and programs that are responsive to citizens' needs. Local government-supported programs are perceived to be more efficient, effective, economically sustainable and closer to the local context.
Serbian local governments, very often, are characterized by patterns of cooperation with citizens which are unstructured and ad hoc, with no further analysis of their effectiveness and citizens’ satisfaction. An insufficient level of organizational arrangement is followed by the lack of human and technical capacity. The declining quality of available workers and regulations that hinder development work against the provision of relevant, accessible and quality public services.
Local governments do not monitor policy effects. The citizen dimension of local budgets is being built slowly and gradually with a modest local budget. Scope and amount of participatory allocations of resources from local budgets do not necessarily correlate with the level of institutional and administrative capacity for citizens’ participation management.
The case of Municipal Economic Development (MED II) Program
The local governments in Serbia still follow traditional hierarchical administrative structures, where the majority of decisions are made in a top-down manner. The objective of the MED II program of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has been to bring about transformational changes in the priorities of local actors and good practices in active citizen contributions. This way, the program aims at continuous, long term benefits that shape the future of public services. Moving from problem identification to forward-looking solutions, the program implemented by Helvetas seeks to contribute to improved coordination between levels of governance and policy consultation and formulation processes (i.e. vertical integration) and fosters upward and downwards accountability relations in Serbia.
We assist our partners in introducing a new governance style that uses cooperation with citizens as a major tool. The MED II program facilitates 41 local governments and citizens to improve conventions, behavior codes and norms, leading to new forms of governance that stimulate endogenous development. The public sector and citizens are expected to increase both efficiency and equity in the delivery of public services, and thus, influence deeply the state of people’s lives.
Managing property tax money together with citizens in the city of Uzice
Let us take an example from the city of Uzice. Before the city administration designed the ‘Uzice Local Partnership Program’ together with the citizens, it was grappling with questions such as: how can we, as directly as possible, meet the expectations of the people living in Uzice? How can we best give back to the citizens what they have already invested in their community by paying property tax? Are major projects in the city sufficiently close to everyone living in the city territory?
Miodrag Petkovic, member of the City Council for Budget and Finance, was happy with the results: “Owing to our participation in the Swiss Property Tax Reform Program, we have, together with other 40 towns and municipalities, drafted and formally adopted our operational plan rooted in the citizen participation in the decision-making processes for the first time ever. We were wondering how to rationally manage the money raised through property tax collection together with the citizens.”
The changes have paid off: the participation of citizens has improved, and the responsiveness of service providers has become more responsive. The Uzice Local Partnership Program has allocated EUR 43 thousand in 2019 to prepare a program together with the people of Uzice. The city consulted over 250 citizens and their representatives via four public debates and nine focus meetings. The residents of Uzice decided that they wanted to fund smaller public areas owned by the city (e.g. parks, playgrounds, sidewalks, parking lots, rest areas etc.). To include rural communities (mesne zajednice), the citizens suggested having 20 individuals, namely taxpayers regularly meeting their tax obligations, in the partnership responsible for proposing projects. The project selection criteria were also proposed and endorsed by the citizens. The projects will be funded with a maximum of EUR 4.3 thousand (i.e. a maximum of 90% of the total value), while the informal groups set up in this process are expected to invest in the project with the remaining amount through their own volunteering engagement.
The Uzice Local Partnership Program presents a good case of how phased and facilitated collaborative processes rather than one‐off accountability meetings can work in improving citizen‐service provider engagement. The case also embodies a wise decision of the local government to engage residents of Uzice to support their fellow citizens and assume responsibility for their own community.
Reflecting the global trends, the relationship between government institutions and citizens is shifting in Serbia too – from a role of control to that of coordination. Yet, the convergence of interests as a result of the changing relationships between government institutions and citizens will not be enough to ensure the success of collaborative models. Effective, accountable, and equitable delivery of public services also calls for changes in the traditional ‘silo’ mind-set, adoption of new methods of work and an emphasis on coordination capabilities. This is where programs like MED II come in and support partners to introduce a new governance style.
This article appeared in the March 2020 issue of Helvetas Mosaic.
Branislav Milic is the Good Governance Advisor, Municipal Economic Development in East Serbia (Ph.2) (Property Tax Reform).
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