I have been active in the civil sector since 2001, and have initiated and participated in numerous campaigns for increasing the public awareness and advocating for public interest at the national and local level. I joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Initiative in Serbia from the very beginning, wishing to contribute to a more transparent and open government. The time during the preparations for the first OGP Action Plan I remember as a complete chaos.
Nobody knew how the process should look like, there was a lot of confusion on both sides - civil sector as well as public administration, there was a change of the Ministry in charge of the process... Following the very short public consultations, the first Action Plan was somehow finalized and submitted. For the 2nd Action Plan the things were done much better, the government’s Office for Cooperation with Civil Society got involved and disseminated the Public Call for civil society organizations (CSOs) to join the OGP initiative. My organization, “Civic Initiatives” played an important role, not just in preparation of the Draft Plan, but in its implementation as well. We have successfully organized high quality public hearings in three large cities, where, together with the Ministry of Public Administration and Local Government, and other CSOs, we presented the Draft, collected feedback and received ideas for more activities that could be carried out. Additionally, we promoted OGP among local governments and local CSOs, explaining them what they could do at the local level to open the public data, decrease corruption, empower and engage with the citizens - by using new technologies.
Looking back, I can say that the government, or at least some of the public institutions, have drastically changed their position and today recognize the benefits of cooperation with the civil sector. I am most proud of the true partnership we have established with the Ministry of Public Administration, in charge of the OGP initiative. Other government ministries are also slowly changing their behavior; only two years ago it was unthinkable, for example, to have the state budget open to the public, while today the Ministry in charge is the one initiating this process and suggesting that this activity be included in the OGP Action Plan.
Despite big progress, numerous challenges and obstacles remain for successful implementation of the OGP. Often times, there is a declarative will to make the changes. The fight against corruption and for more open and transparent government is frequently mentioned in the exposés of high officials, however we as citizens see every day how it looks and translates in the reality. I feel that the EU accession process is now driving the changes, as the membership requirements are seen as some sort of obligation that needs to be fulfilled. I think there is still no true will to make transformative changes, to ensure that openness, transparency and accountability are ingrained in the system, rather than forced from the outside.
What gives me hope is that there is now a significant number of people in the Serbian public administration, who are willing to learn and improve, who have gained new knowledge and acquired new skills, becoming true professionals, who know how to do their job well. These people are the ones who initiate the changes, who make the first drafts of documents. What frustrates me is realizing that those drafts go through many levels and the final decision-makers sometimes change these drafts without any argumentation for doing so. In this way they distort the work of the people who know and understand the topic, who are experts in what they do. I am also upset to see how some government officials at the ‘middle’ level, by default, say a decisive ‘NO” to a proposed change, only to completely change their minds and actions once a political figure we managed to reach out to, tells them that they should do it… Then the same people who initially said ‘no’, suddenly find a way to make it a ‘yes’. As long as the political will is so important, where an individual is more powerful than the system, we still have a long way to go…
Serbia is one of the nine countries selected to receive funding from the World Bank’s Multi-Donor Trust Fund, to assist us to plan for and implement more quality and transformative actions, the ones that change the character of the governance. I am optimistic that with this assistance, and together with the Ministry of Public Administration and other CSOs, we’ll be able to make the OGP initiative more visible, to engage even more government and non-government actors, and to make a strong pressure on key decision makers to support the open and transparent governance system in Serbia. I also think the timing is right, now with the new government’s focus on the digital transformation creating a momentum for long-lasting impactful changes.