Belgrade, 8-9 November 2022 – “As WeBER, we have matured as of 2015 in the sense that we realised that as CSOs, we cannot speak without the voice of citizens. We drew a precious lesson from citizens’ consultations. We could be much more persuasive, and a bottom-up pressure could be created in a more effective way only if we manage to empower citizens.” With these words, Milena Lazarevic summed up the aim of the Third Regional WeBER Conference Citizens First: Better administrations through citizen consultations.The Conference held in Belgrade on 8-9 November, the same as the first one in 2018 and the second in 2021, was organised by the European Policy Centre – CEP Belgrade, WeBER Project Coordinator. In two days, the WeBER Conference brought together 51 regional and EU experts and officials and hosted more than 180 guests.
The Conference was launched by the keynote speeches of Milena Lazarevic, WeBER2.0 Team Leader and Programme Director of the European Policy Centre – CEP, Admirim Aliti, Minister of Information Society and Administration of North Macedonia, Maciej Popowski, Acting Director-General for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), and Gregor Virant, Head of SIGMA/OECD.
As the conference title implies, the central topic was how to bring public administration closer to the citizens based on their own experience shared within the citizen consultations conducted at the local level across the region while using the EU’s good practice of implementing European Citizen Consultations. Gaetane Ricard-Nihoul, Deputy Head of the Unit of Citizens’ Dialogues in the European Commission, Maike Brakhan, Project Manager at the Missions Publiques, Kalypso Nicolaidis, Professor at the European University Institute and Milena Lazarevic, discussed the outcomesin a panel moderated by Corina Stratulat from European Policy Centre – EPC Brussels.
“We need to develop a vision of a pan-European system of deliberative and participatory democracy. The role of CSOs is to bring the citizens into a more inclusive, common space”, commented Nicolaidis upon Lazarevic’s presentation on experience with citizen consultations. Altogether 25 of them were conducted with the assistance of the WeBER2.0 local grantees.
Later on, Jesper Johnson, Senior Policy Analyst at SIGMA/OECD, presented the SIGMA data portal and policy simulator launched in September 2022. It involves interactive graphs and tools that allow national administrations, civil society and those supporting public governance reforms to simulate which reforms are necessary to improve the performance of public governance in the future.
The first day of the Conference was closed with breakout sessions on each area of public administration reform, where WeBER2.0 researchers presented their findings of the new PAR Monitor by the PAR area. Presentations were followed by a discussion of experts and representatives of public administration from the region.
The second day of the conference began with parallel sessions in which public administration reform at the local level was discussed. In one of the sessions, WeBER2.0 grantees presented the results and reports of citizen consultations. In the second parallel session, Cities and municipalities in Serbia in focus / Public administration reform at the local government level, the findings of the research conducted by the CEP in 17 cities and municipalities in Serbia as part of the Public Administration Monitoring for Better Local Governance project were presented and then discussed by representatives of municipalities, project partners, as well as Jana Belcheva Andreevska, Smart City and Digitalization Officer at the Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South-East Europe (NALAS). This panel was moderated by independent journalist and CSO expert Nenad Sebek.
In two subsequent sessions on the second day, the Conference focused on the personal experiences and stories of the citizens themselves – firstly in the presentations of regional video with stories recorded by local grantees (which will soon be available online), discussed by Tiina Randma Liiv, Professor at the Tallinn University of Technology and Maja Handjiska-Trendafilova, Director at the Regional School of Public Administration – ReSPA. After that, the analysis of more than 5,000 experiences of citizens from the entire Western Balkans collected through the platforms citizens.par-monitor.org, as well as street actions, was presented by Sava Mitrović, Researcher (CEP) and Dragana Jaćimović, Project Associate, Alternative Institute, Montenegro. Citizens’ (dis)satisfaction with service delivery and recommendations were discussed by Florian Hauser from DG NEAR and Simonida Kacarska, Director of the European Policy Institute – EPI. Nenad Sebek also moderated these panels.
“We should distinguish between the role of citizens versus customers. Citizens have a much broader role. They are not only customers but also the
owners of the services; that’s why they are policy takers and policymakers. We should distinguish between the role of citizens versus customers. Citizens have a much broader role. They are not only customers but also owners of the services; that’s why they are not only policy takers but also policymakers.”, highlighted Liiv. Handjiska-Trendafilova agrees: “Citizens should self-identify with the role of the co-creator of policies, not only with the service-user role!”
Kacarska pointed out that the problem is that “there is a hierarchy structure of public administration in which the citizens are only viewed as consumers, and that creates an unpleasant environment for them actually to use the public services”, while Hauser talked about the problem with “crazy legislations” in many aspects of public services across the Western Balkans. “People in Western Balkans complain about the humiliation they feel when dealing with public service. It shouldn’t work this way; public administration is here to help them solve their problem together”, said Hauser.
Nicola Bertolini, Head of Cooperation at the EU Delegation in Belgrade and Milena Lazarevic gave the conference’s closing remarks. Bertolini said that “democracies in the Western Balkans are still developing”, and there are still a lot of challenges. “Citizens need to be first, and we need to channel their voices better. Civil society should be very responsible – it needs to fulfil its role of representativeness. You will have our support in the process,” said Bertolini.