Open government principles are important for anti-corruption and EU accession.
By Ivana Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 18/10/13
Several countries have set up websites for citizens to monitor governments. [AFP]
Faced with single-party political system consequences, Western Balkan civil society organisations are supporting efforts to implement open government principles as well as to motivate citizens in requesting them.
Transparent government procedures are paramount in anti-corruption efforts, and are therefore a priority for the Western Balkan countries' EU accession.
Members of the Policy Association for an Open Society from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are working on a joint project, funded by the EU, to encourage governments in the Western Balkans to become more transparent.
According to their findings, significant improvements have been made in the region, from creating suitable local legal frameworks and implementing online monitoring mechanisms, to joining the Open Government Partnership -- an initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.
Albania joined the partnership in August 2011, Macedonia adopted the Open Government Partnership plan in 2012 and Serbia became a member on April 25th.
In Albania, the most visible results are in increasing transparency and public participation.
"Progress has been made establishing web pages and e-government processes, which has contributed to increasing the transparency in government procedures. Most of the public institutions' official websites invite public participation in planning and programming," Erisa Lame, a project manager at the department of local governance's Institute for Democracy and Mediation in Tirana, told SETimes.
Lame said that even though there is an increasing awareness that official data and documents should be published online, a very small percentage of this information is published.
"Most of the time the data is incomplete, superficial and in a format that cannot be easily understood and processed by the public. There are no monitoring mechanisms or customer feedback systems to control the quality of the public services extended to the citizens. Such controls come mainly from the civil society organisations, in form of sporadic projects funded by international organisations," she said.
In BiH, laws and mechanisms calling for officials to take responsibility have been adopted with the support of the international community, according to Mirna Jusic, a researcher at Analitika, the Sarajevo-based centre for social research.
"At the beginning of the year, there was a draft of amendments to the law on free access to information at the state level. Adoption of the amendments would limit access to documents and information of public authorities. Civil sector organisations sent hundreds of comments to the justice ministry during the public consultations, and the amendments were not passed," Jusic told SETimes.
Marija Risteska, country project manager at the Centre for Research and Policy Making in Macedonia, said that Skopje officials have a strong commitment to the open government reforms.
"The most prominent reforms have been in policymaking. Introduction of mechanisms for making this process open and consultative are on the way. Increasing the level of transparency has been also recognised as high priority, and are integrated in all relevant policy documents," Risteska told SETimes.
"Where the initiative corresponds with EU integration reforms the implementation is more effective as compared with other areas," she said.
However, the lack of awareness and trust in the government among citizens is an obstacle.
Abdulla Ahmeti, 28, an NGO activist from Presevo in southern Serbia, notes progress in the government becoming transparent, like the website that broadcasts the work of parliament and the NGO sites that follow the spending and budgets of local authorities.
"But ordinary citizens still lack proper information about the meaning of open government," Abdula told SETimes.
According to Irina Rismal, leader of the project Advocacy for Open Government at the Centre for Euro Atlantic Studies in Belgrade, the lack of a citizen front to promote and pressure governments to move towards transparency poses a challenge.
Several institutions "have managed to place enough pressure through the media and public advocacy, proposing draft laws and regulations and highlighting the deficiencies of the system," Rismal said.
"This will eventually improve public trust in government, strengthen democracy and improve public integrity and policy outcomes. Moreover, transparency will allow citizens to control their government, thus reducing government corruption and bribery," Lame said.
What can regional institutions do to increase citizens' call for transparent governments? Tell us below in the comments.