© Bashki të Forta (BtF) /Arber Kadia

Citizen-Oriented Municipal Services in Times of COVID-19: The Role of Adaptive Learning

FROM: Valbona Karakaçi , Jacques Merat , Arbër Kadia , Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 26. April 2020
© Bashki të Forta (BtF) /Arber Kadia

Governments are adjusting and handling legal and financial challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic to meet the needs of their citizens. A big challenge for municipalities has been to shift to online working modalities. The amount of change and adaptation may seem a lot. Yet, as the experience of Bashki të Forta (BtF), a project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)[1], shows municipalities in Albania are adapting to the ever-changing situation to provide services. The project has facilitated municipalities to strengthen or introduce new ways of working and oversight. This has contributed to increasing transparency towards citizens and improving coordination for effecting actions. Adaptations, and the learning from the process, offer the opportunity to lay the foundation for improved service delivery well beyond the pandemic.

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“Today we need to be leaders. So, we shouldn’t do the popular thing, but what is right at the moment,” says Erion Veliaj, the Mayor of Tirana, Albania. He was referring to the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic and the need for quickly and considerably adapting to the ever-changing situation to provide timely and necessary services to citizens.

The impacts of the pandemic make no exception for municipal services. Thousands of public service workers – mostly local and regional government employees – are on the front line of the emergency, putting their lives at risk to ensure citizen’s safety and deliver services.

Being a mayor at the time of the pandemic isn’t a choice, but a responsibility to act efficiently. The challenge of exercising leadership during natural disasters, such as earthquakes and health pandemics, has proved so hard that two resignation cases are recorded in the same municipality in the last six months.

Pandemic accelerating shifts in service provision

Before the start of the pandemic, public services were going through a large-scale transformation – from demographic shifts to advances in technology (digital tools) and economic and budgetary pressures. Governments around the world, including Albania, are trying to deliver better, faster, and more affordable public services. The improvements often happen by using digital tools and e-Government.

Add the pandemic to the complexities of municipal services, and it becomes a strong driver of citizen-oriented management to improve and adapt public services in a uniquely challenging and changing crisis. The threat to public health, the damage to national economies, and the disruption to daily life and highly necessary services are jarring and frightening.

But, how are municipalities in Albania responding to these challenges? How are they adapting and providing highly needed services to their citizens during the unfolding pandemic?

This blog briefly answers these questions, based on the work of Bashki të Forta (BtF) in Albania, in the context of the pandemic and continuous learning to adapt the services. The project played critical roles, for example, by gathering and disseminating each week's solutions found by individual municipalities. This has allowed speeding up replication and avoiding ‘reinventing the wheel’ in each municipality.

The blog reflects the voices of citizens and mayors as well as concrete examples towards increasing the availability of knowledge and learning in service delivery and its adequate use by different key stakeholders.  

Towards citizen-oriented municipal services  

Before the pandemic, improving effective communication channels between municipal councilors and citizens in Albania was one of the key requirements for citizen-oriented service delivery. The pandemic has increased the importance of using communication to generate knowledge and learning for an effective response.

All eyes of citizens are on municipalities right now. Meeting the needs of citizens during the pandemic and its aftermath calls for an approach in which municipal councils ever more strengthen their representation and oversight function.

Albania has undergone a series of local governance reforms, such as fiscal decentralization, territorial administrative reorganization, and public finance management. The portal for managing the civil service has been established. And a roadmap to create an enabling environment for civil society organizations has been adopted. The policy framework has provided conditions for the positive transformation of local services.

To be fair, all these have contributed to improving the generation of knowledge and learning and its use by different key stakeholders – municipal management teams for better planning and monitoring; municipal councils and the women councilors for taking better decisions and overseeing municipal management teams; ministries and their territorial branches for better monitoring of national policies.

Let’s be more practical. The Service Performance Reports from the majority of municipalities are available online. The performance budget framework allows citizens to have information on the financial allocation per public service area and, besides, on what is achieved in terms of service delivery.

Of course, not everything is rosy. The reliability of the information on service delivery has been low. Municipal officers in charge of managing municipal programs and other related public services are also not sufficiently involved in the budget cycle.

Turning the pandemic into an opportunity for better services  

When the pandemic hit, Bashki të Forta (BtF) quickly realized the need for adaptive learning in municipal service provision. The project has identified some of the actions that local and regional institutions, in cooperation with Albanian communities and government, have taken in response to the pandemic.

What roles did Bashki të Forta (BtF) play?

The project has facilitated holding on-line council sessions and replication all over the country, in the 61 municipalities. This has ensured democratic decision-making to happen despite the lockdown. Transparency in decision-making and oversight is particularly important during the pandemic, as critical and sensitive budget reallocations need to be made.

Equally important, the project has also contributed to the use of the adaptive learning process by municipalities for producing valuable knowledge about delivering services. The process includes just-in-time feedback, pathways, and resources (rather than providing one-size-fits-all services), all in the face of considerable uncertainty. Municipalities evaluate their pre-COVID-19 services for a learning strategy and adaptation of meeting citizen’s demands.

Here’re two relevant examples:

Transparency towards citizens

How do you ensure, in the face of a pandemic, the flow of timely and relevant information in decision making and access to public services? Municipalities have started providing public information about what they are doing and what measures they are taking. It’s all about explaining municipal councils’ decisions and making them transparent.

As part of the adaptive learning, municipalities used live broadcast of the municipal council meeting on social media platforms and local TV, in compliance with guidelines supported by Bashki të Forta (BtF) for institutional strengthening of council secretaries/secretariats (e.g. duties of secretaries/secretariat). Also, municipalities have widened the use of electronic platforms for dealing with complaints or submitting applications for economic aid.

“Our municipal council underwent such a transformation,” reflects Vangjel Ndreka, a Seasoned Councilor in his early 60’s, now serving as Head of Fier Council. “We had to react quickly to the growing demand for decision-making. For someone of my age, this was challenging. With a second attempt, now we see the full potential of working online to provide the much-needed services. The next step would be to involve citizens in online decision making,” elaborates Vangjel.

All municipalities report through social media (Facebook), while 14 of them provide information through local media. Municipalities such as Korçë, Lezha, and Patos are also piloting an online form for social assistance registration. The form is included in local emergency headquarters digital systems.

In all 61 municipalities, the Ministry of Interior is required to use the personal certificate generated by e-Albania for the performance of actions until the end of the emergency, for persons whose digital ID cards have expired. The request has been addressed to the Central Bank and second-tier banks.

Coordination for effective action

The pandemic has also pushed municipalities in two competing directions. On the one hand, citizens expect municipalities to act, and act quickly, and to minimize the impacts from the pandemic. On the flip side, municipalities need to take the time to make sure that what they do is going to be effective and is coordinated with other stakeholders.

Broad and active coordination happens at different levels: among regional health institutions and the municipality; between the municipal police and other police forces following the rules of quarantine of the public; and the engagement and coordination of volunteer groups, mostly to assist in counseling and communication or distribution of food or medicine to the elderly or people with disabilities.

Around 40% of municipalities have undertaken budget reallocations to reduce the economic impact of the lockdown due to the pandemic. Fiscal mitigation measures such as tax reduction (e.g. city tax) and tariff exemption (e.g. social housing) are applied to ease the lockdown effects on business and people in need, including mediation, allowing for agricultural products of Albanian farmers to enter Kosovo.

Another related area of coordination is the implementation of legal acts drafted in response to the pandemic. This requires rules to be enforced and guidelines to be widely shared. Bashki të Forta (BtF) has supported municipalities to mobilize services, such as disinfection, psychological counseling, a social shelter for victims of violence as well as advising on areas of budget review and the use of the emergency fund. An interactive online group initiated by the Association of Local Government Units (ALA) has improved communication between local government and central government.

Conclusion

It’s important to focus on saving lives and minimizing the impacts of the pandemic – and rightly so. It’s also equally important for governments to think through their strategies with both the short and long term in mind. With the support of Bashki të Forta (BtF), municipalities have demonstrated good achievements, for example, in enhancing transparency towards citizens and coordinating their actions.  

Once the immediate threat of the pandemic has passed, what will have changed in the way municipal services are provided? One answer to this question is found in the words of Mayor of Tirana:

“There is no doubt that municipal councils’ decisions have been made more efficient; we should maintain this kind of efficiency even after the pandemic is over.”

Bashki të Forta (BtF) will continue to learn from this experience and improve its work by stressing relevant and flexible initiatives but based on a well-informed analysis.

Related readings

 

[1] Implemented by Helvetas

Valbona Karakaçi is a Regional Advisor for the Western Balkans at Helvetas and Strategic Advisor of Bashki të Forta (BtF), a project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). She has been a key managerial and go-to person for over 20 years in various international development interventions, mainly with Swiss Cooperation, aimed at decentralization and democratic local governance in Albania. She has vast experience and a demonstrated track record of excellence in strategic analysis and steering, stakeholder and partnership management, evidence-based policy dialogue, knowledge management, capacity and organizational development, process facilitation, and project cycle management. She holds the academic title of Doctors of Philosophy, and apart from her international development duties, she is also a lecturer and researcher for the University of Shkodra and the European University of Tirana in the field of cultural studies.
Jacques Merat is the Project Manager of Bashki të Forta (BtF). Involved in the project from its inception phase, Jacques makes sure activities are implemented on time and allow reaching targets. He also makes his wide governance expertise available to team members and partners. Jacques has been working on local governance and decentralization since his early years in development cooperation in 1998. He has advised civil society organizations, local and central governments in many countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia. Economist and Sociologist by training, he specialized in 2001 in governance through a master's degree and attended postgraduate courses later on in public finances and public law.
Arbër Kadia responsible for Communications and Monitoring and Results Measurement for the Bashki të Forta project. During the COVID-19 emergency, he produces a weekly report on the Albanian municipalities' response to the crisis. He is a new addition to the team after having worked as a consultant for the Swiss bases energy project Trans Adriatic Pipeline AG and with a wealth of experience as director of National Heritage at the Ministry of Culture in Albania, mainstream TV media and other engagements in the private sector as a communications consultant.
Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses, & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies