The services from local governments have always been critical to the well-being of citizens, but never more so than they are today during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the one hand, municipalities had to react quickly in disinfecting and cleaning the streets and residential apartments. On the other hand, they had to also keep up with other areas of the municipal mandates, such as waste collection and other services. This, to some extent, has forced central and local institutions to reduce the number of civil servants and work with essential and limited staff, affecting the efficiency of work in municipalities and possibly their overall performance. This is where the Decentralization and Municipal Support (DEMOS) project in Kosovo has played a role in supporting municipalities navigate the process and encourage citizen participation through online platforms.
When a crisis at the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic happens, it’s local governments that step into the front line. They provide emergency services, communicate with citizens on measures to contain the spread of the virus, as well as ensure that the services that keep communities functioning continue to be delivered to the best standards. Mayors and local authorities are close to the populations they serve.
In Kosovo, the pandemic has been a ‘crisis within a crisis’ – health and economic impacts and a constitutional crisis. While the infection and death rates from the pandemic have not been that many, some estimates indicate that the Kosovar economy will contract by 4.5% in 2020, followed by a rebound in 2021.
The spread of the pandemic has also caused the Albin Kurti government to fall, which has only been in power for 52 days following elections in October 2019. This has brought about uncertainty regarding what comes next and deepening the political crisis. It undermines public trust at a time when this is so badly needed.
In such a situation, how have local governments in Kosovo responded and adapted to the impacts of the pandemic?
In this blog post, we discuss how the Decentralization and Municipal Support (DEMOS) project has shifted to working remotely and kept on the communication and support for all 38 municipalities and relevant ministries.
A project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), co-financed by Sweden and Norway and implemented by HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation-Kosovo, the work of DEMOS shows that municipalities in Kosovo are adapting to the ever-changing situation to provide highly-needed services. The project has facilitated municipalities to strengthen or introduce new ways of working and service provision, including citizens' participation through online platforms.
Facing two fronts: responding to the crisis while providing other services
The pandemic has put enormous pressure on local governments to respond and minimize the effects it may have on citizens. Apart from the regular responsibilities, municipalities had to intensify their work in assisting the most vulnerable citizens and engage in direct communication to prevent the pandemic from spreading.
‘We have been active 24/7 with all resources that municipality possesses in assisting the most vulnerable citizens with food and hygiene parcels,’ says Sokol Haliti, the Mayor of Viti Municipality. Facing a two-front challenge has pressured municipalities to set priorities. It isn’t either/or of delivering critical short-term containment measures and more long-term recovery activities. Rather, what happened in Kosovo was shifting the focus of municipalities to responding and mitigating the impacts of the pandemic.
For Sazan Ibrahimi, who is the Executive Director of the Association of Kosovo Municipalities, this is where coordination and communication between different actors and supporting local governance become crucial. ‘The services from municipalities have been invaluable and strengthening the role of municipalities to fulfill such role is more important than ever due to the crisis,’ stresses Sazan.
Ministry of Local Government (MLG) played a crucial role in addressing municipal needs by facilitating communication between municipalities and central government institutions. ‘Despite the pandemic, we were able to continue the work and engage with municipalities in meeting their demands and offer support accordingly,’ says Rozafa Ukimeraj, who is the General Secretary at the MLG.
Most businesses were closed, and mobility was highly limited. This, in turn, increased the demands towards municipalities and the central government. Municipalities responded immediately by releasing businesses from paying municipal taxes and rent to those businesses that use municipal property, in addition to easing related administrative burdens. Some of these measures will remain in force until the end of 2020.
Engaging citizens: how did municipalities fare?
There has for long been no shortage of talk about the need for greater citizen involvement in decision making. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the importance of uninterrupted citizen engagement and participation. As safety precautions increase and isolation measures put in place, municipalities had to rethink the way they communicate with the citizens.
In Kosovo, municipal assemblies have not managed to hold their regular meetings. In cases where meetings were held, they focused on emergency issues rather than those of exercising their full mandate of oversight. Consultations with citizens were halted, although other forms of communication emerged. Some mayors have used social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to notify their citizens of the measures and plans taken during the pandemic. Some mayors became very active through social media to call on citizens to respect measures such as social distancing and isolation, and a few mayors showed remarkable performance in connecting with citizens.
The pandemic forced municipalities to adjourn meetings with citizens and regular consultations on priorities and matters affecting the communities. Fulfilling the requirements and reaching satisfactory performance is significant for municipalities to be eligible for the municipal grant, provided by the DEMOS project. Serving as an incentive mechanism for municipalities, the municipal performance grant is crucial for the municipalities to undertake projects that fall under three main priorities in local governance, management and transparency, and integrity.
It is uncertain at this time to assess to what degree the pandemic has affected the overall performance of municipalities in the months to come and passing of the eligibility threshold for grants in 2021.
Some of the decisions taken by the ministry were challenged by the municipalities. The Association of Kosovo Municipalities (AKM) was quite active in lobbying to fulfill municipalities’ mandates and competencies as elaborated in the legal framework.
For example, municipalities managed to lobby and ease the public procurement procedures for emergencies and suspension of the assessment of the legality of municipal acts related to financial aspects in the prevention of pandemic. There were many other requests approved by central institutions that aimed at facilitating municipalities' function, releasing them also from a heavy burden during the public health emergency.
In light of the situation and responding to the pandemic, the DEMOS project staff in Kosovo shifted to working remotely but keeping the communication with all 38 municipalities and relevant ministries. The re-planning of activities was introduced, and the training approach was revisited to adapt to new circumstances and municipal capacities.
Online and small group training for municipalities is being considered, to replace the traditional ways of facilitating training. Virtual meetings between municipalities and the DEMOS project, for example, to discuss last year’s performance, are currently being organized. Policy intervention and contribution has continued, despite the legislative agenda not being approved due to the fall of the government on 25 March 2020. We are now exploring some new ideas to encourage citizen participation through online platforms which could be used in upcoming weeks to consult citizens on budget priorities but also looking at ways of minimizing effects of pandemics by including consultations with businesses.
A specific example of the role of DEMOS is supporting the Ministry of Local Government to review the Performance Management System (PMS). This requires updating the regulation that would include data verification methodology and change in control procedures, thus facilitating the reporting in the future by upgrading it to electronic entry. The assessment report that outlines the capacity building needs for municipalities has been finalized and the training plan has been developed. In line with the priorities and the new training approach, smaller group training will be organized based on the identified priorities. The project has also commenced with the evaluation of training provided so far by the project that could potentially serve as the basis for upcoming capacity building for local government.
As we move towards easing of the measures undertaken by the Government, the municipalities will turn towards recovering from the effects of the pandemic. Economic recovery may take some time and municipalities will struggle with priorities as a result of their dwindled budgets. The central government will need to continue budget support until municipalities’ revenues come to the pre-pandemic level.
The uncertainties of the pandemic will continue for some time. This calls for local governments to better prepare in case more waves of the pandemic. The past few weeks have demonstrated the need for more investments and the use of new technologies at the local level, making the municipalities, as first responders, more ready and adaptable to various and unpredictable situations.
To state the obvious, collaboration between the Ministry of Local Government and the Association of Kosovo Municipalities will be critical – to analyze and collect lessons learned and best practices to fill in the gaps and vulnerabilities identified during this period. Policies should also be reviewed to adopt appropriate ones that would further strengthen the capabilities of municipalities to respond and mitigate challenges related to the decision-making processes at times of public health emergencies.
Communication, as seen during the crisis, was crucial for citizens to better understand the magnitude and consequences of the pandemic. Further strengthening of the communication mechanisms could eventually facilitate the work of municipalities in the future and quickly prevent a health emergency crisis. The actions to be taken by the central and local governments may set the grounds for better response and resilience in the future.
DEMOS is here to support!