CSO Participation in Policy Making

Nowadays, there is a notable worldwide tendency to increase citizen participation in policy and decision making processes which influenced the coining of the terms deliberative and participative democracy.

Namely, it is argued that participatory governance would introduce otherwise marginalized social groups into the policy making arena and enhance the transparency, openness, responsiveness, and accountability of government, consequently advancing the rule of law. More specifically, it is not merely limited to activism, pressure and advocacy but reaches into the promotion of institutionalised mechanisms of citizen participation in policy and decision making that will channel societal influence in adequate manner. It is considered that participatory mechanisms will create the necessary space for citizen participation, consequently ensuring sustainability and irreversibility of the participative process which bestows the citizens with a greater role in government work. As a result, participatory mechanisms are deemed complement representative democracy and contribute to the establishment of participatory institutions.

Turning to the European Union, the last decade was permeated by a debate on a ‘legitimacy crisis’ and a ‘democratic deficit’ and efforts aiming to advance representative democracy, which in return eventually turned the focus to the civil society as a crucial actor promising to bring the added value resulting in a participative democracy and a shift from ‘government’ to governance’.[2] The Treaty of Lisbon is a case in point as it states that the Union founded on representative democracy is based on direct and indirect public participation and thereof extends the democratic model to incorporate a horizontal and vertical Civil Society Dialogue, the consultations of the European Commission with stakeholders, and European Citizens’ Initiative (Article 11 TEU). Likewise, the EU explicitly recognizes CSOs as “an inherit part of enabling participatory democracy” that “create[s] demand for enhanced transparency, accountability and effectiveness from public institutions and facilitate[s] a greater focus on the needs of citizens in policy making.”

The European Commission (EC) in particular argues for “the inclusion of organized societal interests in the informal decision-making procedures” as part of its progressive activation strategy aiming to devise access points for civil society actors predominantly in supranational policy formulation laid out in the European Governance White Paper, a landmark document in the incremental evolution of involving civil society in EU policy making.[4] Moreover, the White Paper states the general necessity to stimulate active participation and meet citizens’ needs and expectations through enhanced quality, relevance and effectiveness of EU policy, in order to “create more confidence in the end-result and in the institutions which deliver policies. In this view, it is worth noting the online consultation system operationalized through the website “Your Voice in Europe” that calls for consultations, discussions, and other tools for expression of views during the Commissions’ policy formulation phase.

Policy making is one of the core questions of the EU accession process which has not been properly understood to a large extent and was therefore undermined in Serbia, as noted in CEP’s previous endeavours. At the onset of the negotiations process, there is a notable growing focus on the part of the EC in respect to “the sustainability, efficiency and consistency of policy making aspects of horizontal governance reforms.” In this light, policy formulation i.e. the initial phase of the policy cycle is denoted across literature as having a strong influence on the final policy outcome and thus, having a greater impact in policy shaping than the final stages.[7] As CEP’s Study showed, policy formulation is specifically underdeveloped and has not been tackled accordingly as its importance was insufficiently recognized. This characteristic along with the over-emphasis on the legal drafting phase as the primary “go to” policy solution without the necessary preceding  analysis  and  assessment has negative implications for all other stages of the policy cycle and consequently diminishes the quality, responsiveness, and sustainability of the final policy output.

What is more, policy formulation is envisaged to necessarily incorporate not only inter-ministerial consultations but also consultations with the public. Speaking from a normative perspective, consultations with non-state stakeholders should be initiated in the inception phases of the policy process. In such a manner the decision on the policy option will be based on evidence stemming from a wide range of information sources in order for the particular viewpoints of the concerned stakeholders to be considered and incorporated in the process of policy formulation. Conversely, a survey conducted by the Civic Initiatives, illustrates the majority of CSOs deem that they are not impacting the formulation of state policies to a satisfactory degree, while the crucial role of informal contacts is one of the problems inhibiting cooperation with state which was emphasised. Since policy analysis is understood as a “client-oriented advice relevant to public decisions and informed by social values,” CEP has argued for “the collection of data that goes beyond stakeholder consultations and expert research […] to make the policy in stake more responsive” which is in line with the academic perspective proposing input legitimacy.

Even though it is not an explicit requirement, based on the experience of the Eastern enlargement, the EU places an added emphasis on the role of civil society in European integration. Particularly in the accession negotiation process the EC heralds a partnership between civil society and the state through dialogue and cooperation, based on willingness, trust and mutual acknowledgment around common interests, particularly seen as necessary for the implementation of EU legislation. Namely, according to the Commission’s Enlargement Strategy, the EU aims to through inter alia financial and capacity building assistance encourage and foster an environment conducive to CSO activities, raise CSO capacities and promote their role so as to become actively involved in the policy and law making processes.

It is indisputably relevant to provide adequate access points and participation mechanisms for civil society contributions in the negotiations process, but the focus should also be turned to the policy making system which is essential for the country’s success not only mid-term i.e. accession negotiations, but also upon becoming a fully-fledged EU member state. In other words, it is in the candidate country’s interest to build a robust policy making system in the light of the experiences and good practices of EU member states also in the sense of CSO participation, as the ultimate goal is not to merely achieve EU membership but to become a respected, consistent and well-functioning member state on the EU multilevel policy making plane.