A Lack of Transparency: The COVID-19 Pandemic in Serbia

Symptoms: The Unknown Data behind Government Decision-Making

“You cannot fight a fire blindfolded!” These were the words spoken on 16th of March 2020 by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, chief of the World Health Organisation. He was primarily referring to the importance of testing, identifying, and making transparent the precise number of individuals infected during the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Around the same time in the Republic of Serbia, due to an increasing number of citizens infected by virus, the authorities (the government and president) proclaimed a state of emergency and imposed measures such as to limit freedom of movement and assembly.

Following Mr. Ghebreyesus’ recommendation, the Serbian government has started to regularly keep and update data regarding the number of tested, infected, recovered, and deceased citizens. Yet, the data collected and published do not fully reflect the decision-making process and the rationale of decisions made by the national authorities. The data supporting the choices made in this time of pandemic should be made transparent. This also means for Serbia.

Diagnosis: A Lack of Transparency in the Midst of a Pandemic

“The situation is dramatic. We are approaching the scenarios seen in Italy and Spain. Please stay home.” This text message was sent on 31st of March 2020 to users of the country’s largest mobile service provider, the state-owned “Telekom”. It was not completely clear why such a grave situation was to be expected and what lies behind this prediction and analysis, considering that at the time Serbia had registered 900 infected and 23 deceased citizens. In other words, Serbia’s citizens do not know what kind of data the government has that can forecast such a scenario. Moreover, this kind of claim (a threatening statement presented without any data) can raise anxiety among the citizens. According to the data available, it appears that levels of concern rose significantly after receiving this text message.

Source: Website of the Psychosocial Innovation Network and data of the Laboratory for Experimental Psychology at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade.

On the official websites dedicated to the ongoing pandemic in Serbia, covid19.rs and covid19.data.gov.rs, there are data indicating the number of citizens infected by the virus. These data are regularly updated and presented in a machine-readable format which allows for their visualisation (such through graphs).[1] Yet, other data potentially involved in authorities’ decision-making processes are not presented on the website. For example, the Open Data Portal recently published the number of, so called, COVID-19 ambulances around the country. Yet, there are no clear and open data regarding available beds and the number of medical staff servicing these ambulances. In addition, there are no data regarding the exact numbers of necessary equipment (most importantly, medical ventilators) and their availability by specific institution. Lastly, there are no data available or published regarding the number of doctors and medical staff in Serbia available to treat patients diagnosed with COVID-19. The key institution in charge of collecting and publishing this sort of data is the Dr. Milan Jovanović Batut Institute of Public Health. Yet, even in normal circumstances, medical data are not updated regularly. The last updates regarding available doctors and medical staff and available medical equipment were published as annual reports in 2018 and 2017, respectively (specific equipment only). Furthermore, these data are not presented in clear manner and in accordance with the principles of open data; that, for improved governance, citizen engagement and inclusive development and innovation, data should be open by default, published in a timely and comprehensive manner, accessible and usable, comparable and interoperable.



Source: Reports and data delivered by the Dr. Milan Jovanović Batut Institute of Public Health on its website and on the Open Data Portal.

On the other hand, it can be hard to understand the decisions made, due to the lack of transparency of the entire decision-making process. According to the principles of public administration supported by the European Commission, government decisions should be prepared in a transparent manner and based on the administration’s professional judgment, with policymaking to be done under parliamentary scrutiny. Now, however, in the current state of emergency, these principles are being jeopardised. Bearing in mind the list of the measures and acts on the government’s main website, it appears that all, or at least the majority, of the decisions made in the past month were done so behind closed doors and without any insight and input provided by citizens or their representatives in the National Assembly. Furthermore, the National Assembly did not have any sessions during the state of emergency, a measure for which a formal explanation was published a couple of days later, after sessions had been cancelled. Some sources indicate that Serbia is one of the few countries in Europe that has not had any parliamentary meetings in the course of the pandemic. Besides this, all government measures are done as decrees, without clear and transparent parliamentary procedure supported by careful explanation and related data.

Lacking transparent procedures and open access to the data being used in decisions, it remains hard to keep officials accountable and to understand some of the decisions made. This lack of information may risk creating widespread panic among citizens, while in times like this, informed citizens can represent a core of the fight against the pandemic.

Treatment: Open Government Data

“Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder.” As said above, during the pandemic, it would be crucial to have the data on medical institutions, number of health workers, and equipment opened, presented to the public and regularly updated. The existing websites, “covid19.rs” and covid19.data.gov.rs, can serve as a perfect spot to do so. Recently published information regarding the COVID-19 ambulance represents a good step in this regard, as it specifies the number of medical institutions providing medical care for the citizens infected by virus. Besides, such open government data efforts would go in line with the opening statement of the prime minister that showed firm commitment towards digitalization. On the other side, practice of transparent decision making would provide citizens or their parliamentary representatives with an insight in the procedures undertaken during the state of emergency. For example, the website, covid19.rs, along with the portal the e-Government portal can be used for collecting feedback regarding measures to apply directly from citizens. Consequently, this would open a space for public input and discussion regarding the upcoming measures. In such a way, overall communication with citizens can be improved. In addition, each measure and decree adopted should also include explanations and related data. In this way, the reasons why specific measures are taken can be better communicated with the citizens.

By opening these data and increasing transparency in the decision-making process, authorities can make their work more accountable to citizens in this urgent moment. Citizens would be better familiarised with the background and attributes of the decisions made. Finally, the authorities themselves can benefit from collecting, opening, and presenting, data. Namely, decision-makers can have a better overview of the situation and the resources available. They can determine potential hotspots, define needs better, and plan future activities more efficiently. It would be clearer where and what kind of intervention is needed.

Petyr Baelish “Littlefinger’s” quote at the beginning of this section reflects what a time of crisis can provide for the future. This very moment can represent a chance to considerably improve practices of opening data to the public and transparent decision-making in a general sense, not only in Serbia, but throughout the world. Rather than being a time of despair, it can be an opportunity for improving transparency and, thus, for creating a healthier society.

[1] The official glossary of the Open Data Handbook clarifies “machine-readable format” as the following: “data in a data format that can be automatically read and processed by a computer”, Open Data Handbook website, Open Knowledge Foundation, https://bit.ly/2Y1R42X (accessed on 24th of April 2020).