Since Ukraine gained independence in 1991, the country has struggled to implement decentralization. But following the Euromaidan revolution, Ukraine’s new leaders declared that decentralization – shifting powers from a central to local government – would become a priority. This month the European Union announced it would inject 50 million euro into a program that would further the process.
Daniel Popescu, Head of the Democratic Governance Department at Council of Europe, says that even after five years there is still a lot of support for decentralization reform in Ukraine.
“And most see benefit from it,” he adds.
However, he says, this process is still developing and challenges remain – one of them being getting local authorities to engage with local people – and vice versa.
“There is no culture of cooperation from the public authorities. Very often they just decide in their offices about a new draft law, about a new draft decision by local councils. They adopt them very fast and they’re sure that they solve the problem. And they don't take the time to consult people,” he said.
Daniel Popescu, Head of the Democratic Governance Department at Council of Europe, speaks to Hromadske. Photo credit: Hromadske
“But by simply involving other brains, other people who know what they need and what they want, who collect information, process information and give you answers to your questions – it's just the quality of the decision will be better. It's expensive, but it's worth it."
Hromadske spoke to Popescu about the benefits and challenges of implementing decentralization in Ukraine.
How can the local government system be changed so that the role of ordinary citizens is not limited to just participating in elections?
Well, that's a very difficult question. There are many ways to involve citizens and each local authority needs to adapt these ways to their needs. You can involve formal NGOs, you can involve citizens directly, creating new forms you can use online instruments to make the opinions of the citizen count, but you have to do this depending on the team which you're consulting. You shouldn't expect that the same mechanisms will work for all the themes. And probably what’s the most important: you need to give the feedback to the citizens about how you use their contribution. You can't expect them just to contribute and never hear back about what their contribution was used for.
At the moment, involving citizens, especially youngsters, in local government structures in Ukraine is not the norm. In your opinion, should this practice be imposed by the state through law creation, or will it only work if the initiative comes from below?
Well, you can't force citizen to participate. So you can't solve the problem of low participation by legislation. You need to convince people that their voice is important, that their voice counts and that it’s in their interest to participate. Now having some form of legal framework is not a bad idea. Many countries do have, let's say, laws that oblige different institutions, ministries, sometimes less often local authorities, to do some consultations on very important issues. But I would say that the most important, because we are talking about local authorities and they should be autonomous, is that they understand the need to involve citizens, that they look at the issue at stake and they adopt and adapt the right ways to engage citizens and that they believe in the process, because if it's just a legal obligation, a box to be ticked, then it will not work. You need to believe that citizens count, that they are [at] the center of policies and that you can use their mind, their contribution, their energy to do things better – differently and better.
Is there a secret to motivating people to be more active?
No, what would motivate you to get more involved? It's as simple as that. You live in a big city and you benefit from the number of services, right? You need to be convinced that these services can be improved if you contribute to them. So for this you need to remember a number of things – you need the public authorities to explain to you in simple terms what this service will do and how it can be improved, and then ask for your opinion, [so it] makes you convinced that your opinion counts and then gives you feedback. And, for example, if you see the situation with public transport has been improved because of participatory process, that you gave your voice and your voice was heard and something happened afterwards, you may be convinced to continue to participate. So it's just about trying to show to the citizens that it's important for them to get involved in the decision making processes.
In your opinion, where is it easier to be more active? In big cities, or small towns, or even in villages? Our report is about a small village. Is there a correlation between where people live and their level of participation?
Normally, it's more in the villages. Because here, simply, local authorities are closer to the citizens. You have more opportunities to meet counsellors, the mayor, in informal situations. The services, which are provided by small cities, are clear to citizens and of course it's just a question of numbers. The contribution of citizens, of each citizen, will count more in a village of one thousand than in a city of three million. That being said, it's important also in big cities to participate. And it's important, because even though, let's say, this link with the elected people is less direct and close, the number of services is more important. So you can be involved in more things. There are more services, which are offered by the municipality of Kyiv than the municipality of one thousand inhabitants. So it's important to get involved and it's important for Kyiv to get people involved. And, actually we have helped to Kyiv to get the citizens involved.
It's important for Ukrainians to get involved in local governments and it's important for Kyiv to get people involved, says Popescu. Photo credit: Hromadske
If we go back to local authorities – and you follow the topic of how local self-governments develop – would you say that local governments in Ukraine are open enough, has the level of openness increased recently?
Well, I think that no local authority’s open enough, I think that all local authorities in all Europe can do better. There are some models. There are local authorities, who try to involve very much. I think that there is a lot to do in Ukraine. There is a lot to do because there is no culture of participation and there is no culture of involvement. And this is the most difficult thing. You can't change the culture of participation through law. You need to show people that it's important for them to participate. I did see a number of interesting experiences, innovations, and there are number of towns and villages and cities, [which] are making efforts in this respect and, actually, plan next year to help more cities to create more participatory mechanisms. Is that enough? No, it's far from enough.
Does this take a long time to learn, in your opinion?
It never ends. It's a process, it's like life itself. You try to do better all the time. Maybe once we have artificial intelligence and everything is managed online, maybe then we'll reach a situation where you don't need more participation because everybody will participate. But I don't believe in that. I think that the bond of trust between the local authorities and citizens needs to be permanently maintained. They need to talk to each other. Even in the European Union there are very bad statistics concerning trust in local government and in central government. And this can only be changed with a closer link, with more participation and the quality of the services will improve with the participation. I don't think that any citizen will say that the quality of services in my municipality is sufficient and it doesn’t need to improve. You can always improve. So you always have a motivation to involve citizens more and citizens always have a motivation to help local authorities to improve the way they do business, the way they exercise public authority and the way they provide services.
In your opinion, which European or international models are best suited to Ukraine in terms of ensuring citizen participation in local governments?
I don't know. I don't know, it's up to you to see, it’s up to the local authorities here. We have a big range of options. As I said, you can create, let's say, citizen’s neighborhood councils. I know that there was a draft law in this respect in Ukraine. You can create thematic councils. For example, if you want to improve water delivery in a city, you can just try to create a special council and involve those associations and citizens, who are competent and interested in the issue. You can just use online tools. You can just have general platforms for NGOs. You can have citizens’ panels. Now it's a very new and modern way. You get a panel, a randomly selected number of 20 citizens, you take maybe one or two days of their life, but you present them information in a very condensed format and then, in the end, they decide. That's what we also sometimes do. So there are many forms, but it's not up to us to tell you what works for you, what you need. It's basically up to the local authorities and citizens to see what works best.
You are looking at Ukraine from the outside. Is there anything that surprises you about citizen participation in local governments in Ukraine?
Well, there are good things and bad things.
Can you talk me through them?
I think that there is a high-level of patriotic feelings and engagement in Ukraine, which is beyond what I see in other countries. And there are good reasons for this. Then, I think that all citizens here want to have better, more modern lives and want to have progress in reforms. I’m surprised that [after] almost five years of reforms, how much people still support the difficult reform of decentralization. They still support it. And most see benefit from it. We have our opinion polls and it's very encouraging. In most of the countries, citizens get used with the reform and then stop supporting reforms after a short time. Now, the bad things. Probably [it’s that] there is no culture of cooperation. There is no culture of cooperation from the public authorities. Very often they just decide in their offices about a new draft law, about a new draft decision by local councils. They adopt them very fast and they’re sure that they solve the problem. And they don't take the time to consult people. Now, this consultation participation takes time and resources. We know that. But by simply involving other brains, other people who know what they need and what they want, who collect information, process information and give you answers to your questions – it's just the quality of the decision will be better. It's expensive, but it's worth it. The culture of cooperation also lacks at an individual level. Very often I see citizens, who are quite individualistic. It’s not surprising. I mean, I come from the country which went through the same process. And it takes time to change culture, to understand that there are common goods. Our apartment, our car is a private good, but the affairs of the town, of the city, of the village are common goods. And in common goods we need to invest ourselves, we need to benefit all. We don't need to take the most we can while the others lose. We can win together. And this culture of cooperation still needs to evolve, I think, in Ukraine.
To summarize, what are the Council of Europe’s recommendations for strengthening links between citizens and local government?
I don't want to get very technical on recommendations. We have a document, a standard which was adopted by our committee of ministers, guidelines for participation of the citizens in decision-making processes. We have a recommendation about citizen participation at a local level and even have a convention, a protocol to the European Charter for Local Self-government concerning participation at the local level. You'll see there are quite a number of guidelines on how this can be conducted, how to start it, how to do it and how to benefit from it. But the main idea, I think, is just to keep this always at the back of your mind that you're a decision maker. It's important to get input from citizens on major decisions, of course not on every day-to-day decision. But it's important to take the time, invest the time and resources for important decisions to get the feedback from citizens. And you'll make towns, cities better.
/Interview by Natalka Ponomariv
/Introduction by Natalie Vikhrov