7 November 2020

Can More Open Government Build Citizens' Trust in the Western Balkans?

All the countries of the Western Balkans, except Kosovo (essentially owing to non-recognition of the territory), have joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP), and in total they have made more than 350 commitments to implement open government reforms. "Yet ongoing institutional and political challenges have reduced the impact of, and have even weakened, democratic progress made over the years," write Jeff Lovitt and Andreas Pavlou in a new OGP blog. "Continuing open government reforms and restoring civic space will help to ensure these countries continue their path towards being stronger democracies."

Given the ongoing political divisions in the countries, and of course in some cases between countries in the region (especially Serbia and Kosovo), progress towards more open government, let alone EU membership, remains a thorny question. Boycotting of parliament by the opposition has become the norm in Serbia and Albania, and a frequent occurrence in Montenegro and North Macedonia, while corruption is rife and an independent judiciary a distant aspiration in nearly all the countries. Even in Croatia, the EU member in the region, only 24% of the public perceive the judiciary to be independent, the lowest in the EU. 

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has strained the region’s engagement with open government principles, note Lovitt and Pavlou. "Constitutional courts, investigative journalists and civil society monitors have highlighted and challenged the use of state of emergency powers to severely limit fundamental freedoms and human rights, the concentration of power in the executive over parliaments, and questionable public procurement decisions."

Based on data gathered by the OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM), the most recent Western Balkan action plans submitted in 2018 and 2019 contain 70 open government commitments, including some relevant to EU membership. As the authors note, "of these 70 commitments, 51% could lead to significant progress in areas like access to information, citizen engagement, and fiscal transparency. However, there is a wide difference between governments in the region in the number of ambitious open government commitments. For example, some countries have no such commitments, while 26% of the commitments in Croatia’s 2018-20 action plan are potentially transformative."

Potentially transformative commitments from the region "stretch from improving implementation of proactive transparency measures in Serbia’s freedom of information legislation, to fiscal openness in Croatia and North Macedonia by publishing detailed budget and spending data at all levels of government. Additional steps, such as raising awareness among data users of new proactively published information and working closely with civil society to improve the relevance and quality of this information, could further enhance the commitments’ impacts. Other such commitments introduce access to justice measures in North Macedonia, as well as whistleblower protections, a centralised online government portal, and political and election campaign financing transparency in Croatia."

The authors identify three policy areas where OGP commitments could be important: public procurement; civic space and engagement in policy-making; and open justice. Moving forward, all Western Balkan countries should ensure that multi-stakeholder forums exist to co-create OGP action plans: "They must engage with a broad cross-section of citizens, and provide reasoned responses to civil society and citizen input. The OGP co-creation process provides a space to build up greater trust between civil society and government, draw up an agenda for greater openness in government decision-making and increase confidence in the rule of law. Improvements in access to justice, countering corruption in procurement, and enhancing civic space make an important contribution in moving closer to EU membership and, crucially, in building citizens’ trust in government."

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