26.11.2014. Open Government Partnership 2015-2016 conference held
On December 26, the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Belgrade (CEAS) held the final conference within the first cycle of the project „Advocacy for Open Government: civil society agenda-setting and monitoring of country action plans“, under the title „Open Government Partnership 2015-16“.
The conference was opened by Jelena Milić, CEAS Director and Irina Rizmal, CEAS Researcher and coordinator of this specific project.
Following the opening remarks, the first panel saw presentations given by Ljiljana Uzelac, representative of the Ministry for state administration and local self-government of the Republic of Serbia, the Ministry in charge of Serbia’s OGP national Action Plan. She stressed the fact that the Action Plan for 2014-2015 has been approved by the Ministry but has not yet been officially adopted by the Government. She also pointed out that this Action Plan is currently on revision by relevant ministries, as well as at the Open Government Partnership initiative, where it has been sent for the purpose of a peer review. Despite the fact that 2014 is almost at its end, Ms. Uzelac concluded that this Action Plan will not be revised or amended additionally, even though some activities were set to take place during 2014, and announced that the Ministry’s agenda for 2015 already contains plans for drafting the next Action Plan for 2016-17.
On the other hand, Rodoljub Šabić, Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection concluded that Serbia is overrun by various Action Plans that are never adequately implemented. According to him, these Action Plans can appear fascinating, but in order to make them reality there is a need for political will. Mr. Šabić believes that Serbia is still far from general standards of Government openness, as there are thousands of complaints filed by citizens on a daily basis relating to the inability to obtain required information, most often caused by the requests being ignored. Ignoring a request is an offence, but, as Mr. Šabić pointed out, over the past three and a half years, none of the relevant ministries opened any misdemeanor procedures against those who refuse to provide information to the citizens, and these are usually ministries themselves, and state-controlled enterprises. He illustrated this overview with the fact that more than half of the ministries in Serbia failed to publish their budget for the current year.
Nebojša Lazarević, from the European Policy Centre, the organization selected for the Independent Reporting Mechanism provided his views on the general state of Government openness in Serbia, stressing that, without an officially adopted Action Plan, the IRM cannot appropriately operate as their work is based on monitoring and evaluating the implementation of activities provided for in the Action Plan itself.
Finally, Marko Uljarević, from Ipsos Strategic Marketng, the organization which carried out the second cycle of public opinion polls for CEAS for the purposes of this project, presented some general trends in public opinion on Government openness, complemented by data explaining other aspects that might be the cause of limited effectiveness of some elements of open Government in Serbia, such as the structure of society (the number of older people who are not computer and/or Internet literate), and statistics regarding the use of Internet in Serbia – which is predominantly for reading news, listening to music, playing games and the like, rather than visiting local Government websites and/or requesting information related to transparency and openness.
The second panel saw a presentation of various citizens’ movements and civil society organization working on Government openness, transparency and accountability in Serbia. The panel posed as a form of training for other civil society representatives, presenting various mechanisms for effective advocacy activities, as well as monitoring levels of Government transparency and holding the Government to account. Saša Radulović, former Minister of Economy, talked about the problem of non-transparent contracts and agreements the Government makes with various investors, providing different forms of subsidies which the citizens end up paying for through taxes and other contributions.
Dušan Jordović, from the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA), presented the steps his organization made in order to become credible in the eyes of the Government and cooperate with it in some aspects of improving transparency – such as transcripts of parliamentary sessions.
Jovan Karanović, president of the Belgrade branch of the European Law Students’ Association (ELSA) provided his views on how students and young people can engage in advocating for greater Government transparency through various programs of including youth representatives in working groups when drafting relevant strategies – such as the National Youth Strategy – insisting on clear deadlines, clear division of responsibilities and clear benchmarks and commitments.
Tanja Maksić, from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network presented the benefits of investigative journalism in exerting pressure on the Government to act responsibly. However, she also emphasized the extent of censorship and self-censorship currently present in the Serbian media which poses as a serious threat to one of the primary channels of information for ordinary citizens.
Jelena Bubanja, from the Social-Democratic Union talked about various training programs available to students and young people on the topic of transparency and accountability and their importance for building a society that is aware of the threats of limited access to genuine information on Government conduct and the ways of exerting pressure to prevent such a situation.
Dejana Stevkovski, from Civic Initiatives, presented the organization’s work regarding the national Action Plan through consultative meetings with the Ministry and reiterated the problem of continuous drafting of Action Plans which eventually never see the day of their implementation. Finally, Ivana Jovanović from the Southeast European Times also provided views from a media point of view, regarding the space available to journalists for direct advocacy activities, but also the general interest citizens have in such topics, especially if the concept is as broad as the Open Government Partnership initiative.
The final panel posed as an opportunity to discuss regional mechanisms and initiatives of advocacy for greater Government openness. Marija Vuksanović, from the Center for Democracy and Human Rights (CEDEM), a partner organization on this project, presented the current status of Government openness in Montenegro. She also provided those present with a wider context of Government transparency and accountability in the process of accession negotiations with the European Union and pointed to some challenges which Serbia might be faced with in the recent future – stressing that we can learn from Montenegro’s experience.
Lejla Ibranović, from Transparency International gave an overview of implementing the advocacy and networking process among civil society organizations, pressuring the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to join the Open Government Partnership this year.
Dalio Sijah, from the Zašto Ne? movement from Bosnia and Herzegovina presented results of a regional research his organization conducted in 2013 on the level of general and perceived transparency of countries in the region, providing comparative result on several Open Government Partnership pillars.
Finally, Irina Rizmal, from the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies (CEAS) closed the conference, with a message that alongside hearing about the challenges for implementing Open Government Partnership standards caused by the Government itself, or perhaps the (un)awareness of citizens, there is also a third aspect that need to be addressed, which are the partnerships among organizations of civil society themselves. Providing an example, she pointed out that CEAS organized a working lunch in early May aimed at gathering civil society organizations working on OGP standards in Serbia in order to initiate a network of CSOs which would continue working in their respective field but have a unified approach towards the Government when it comes to specific deadlines or obligations stemming from OGP membership – and only a couple of organizations expressed interest to join. Therefore, she concluded that Open Government is primarily about partnership – not only between Government and CSOs, or CSOs and citizens, but also among CSOs as well, as this is the only way to act jointly towards the Government which will allow for greater effectiveness on the one hand, and raise awareness among citizens on this important topic on the other, contributing towards greater recognition of the concept of Open Government itself and the benefits it brings.
The project “Advocacy for Open Government: Civil society agenda-setting and monitoring of country action plans” is a two-year project aimed at encouraging governments in the Western Balkans to become more transparent, targeting governments in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. CEAS’ project partners include the Policy Association for an Open Society (Czech Republic); Institute for Democracy and Mediation (Albania), Analitika Center for Social Research (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Riinvest Institute for Development Research (Kosovo), Center for Research and Policy Making, (Macedonia), Center for Democracy and Human Rights (Montenegro), and The Monitoring Center CEMI (Montenegro). The project is being funded by the European Union.