I got involved with the Open Government Partnership Initiative in Serbia five years ago. At the time the Government decided to make the Ministry of Public Administration in charge of its implementation. At first, I did not have high expectations, not knowing how it will turn out. I have to admit, the first Action Plan we submitted was more of a typical government document, where you have a Ministry make a draft, organize small-scale consultations with some civil society organizations (CSOs) to present them the Draft, and soon afterwards finalize and submit the Plan. However, we were learning quickly, and by the time the 2nd Action Plan was due, it was a whole different story! This time we started from tabula rasa, with no preconceived notion on what are the main problems that should be tackled and which are the activities that needed to be implemented. We announced and widely promoted a Public Call for CSOs to join the public officials, identified the obstacles and opportunities together, and decided what can be done to make the government more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens. Fourty CSOs applied and all became participants in the discussion and provided valuable suggestions, with the best ones being incorporated in the 2nd Action Plan.
Today, after many years of hard work on this initiative, I am proud that we have established excellent cooperation and became true and equal partners with the civil sector. CSO representatives are now members of the Working Group (Multi-stakeholder Forum) in charge of the OGP initiative. I believe that the level of understanding and trust of both sides has increased and now we are taking a step further, involving local governments, as well as local CSOs - to jointly come up with their suggestions and draft the local Action Plans for opening the public data. The representatives of National Assembly have also joined the Working Group, and announced that they will initiate some activities of the National Parliament contributing to the OGP...
When I think back, the most difficult part in the process was to explain to CSOs how complex is the public administration system, that for any change to be made it takes time and many decisions need to be made, involving many actors, at various levels and institutions within the system, to achieve the desired goal-make the change happen. My message to CSOs is that they have to have patience and be ready for a compromise. Sometimes they have great ideas and solutions, but the timing may not be right...
At the same time, I am well aware that not all government institutions and bodies are equally ready or motivated to open their data. I remember a two-page response from one of the ministries listing in great detail all the reasons why the proposal we sent could NOT be implemented. That did not deter me. I organized a ’bilateral’ meeting, gathered the CSOs and we went to the Ministy in question.
Let me tell you, it was a four-hour long meeting, but out of the four proposals we had on our list, we agreed on three to be implemented! The key was explaining to the public officials why the change is beneficial, not only for the citizens, but for the government institution itself. We also presented the analysis and best practice examples from other countries with similar challenges. In the end, this ministry, just like many others later on, realized that it is easier to work together with the civil sector from the very start than to be under their constant pressure, often leading to difficult, long and frequently unproductive public hearings. When the CSOs are involved and gain understanding of the complexies behind the change in the system, they make more realistic and more constructive proposals, easier to be implemented.
I enjoy what I do, I keep learning from CSOs and colleagues from the public administration alike. I feel that things are moving, the change is happening and that motivates me to continue. I want our state to become better than it is now, more open and participatory.
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