Whenever we talk about public participation, we think of such topics as inclusion, consensus-building, citizen engagement and empowerment. However, public participation is also centre-stage in ongoing conversations about fighting corruption. But how are participation, civic tech, and fighting corruption connected? The answer to this question lies in the discussions we had with city officials and members of civil society in Sofia, Bulgaria, on 19-20th of July.
On those dates, International Republican Institute (IRI) held a national conference on Combating vulnerabilities to corruption at the municipal level. The conference started with a presentation of the outcomes of the Vulnerabilities to Corruption Approach (VCA) Assessment. It has been applied by IRI in 10 municipalities around Bulgaria. The list of places includes municipalities of different sizes, socio-economic composition, and regions in order to capture the widest range of issues that make cities vulnerable to corruption.
Corruption flourishes where decisions are made not based on due process and data but are dependent on a will of individuals that hold a decision-making power. So, one of the key contributing factors is unresponsiveness of administration that leads citizens to use informal channels. An example of this could be such a case: a person applies for a driver’s license. The process is supposed to take no longer than 30 days, yet it is over 35 days and the person hasn’t even heard from the municipality. So they call a friend of a friend who works there and who can speed up this process.
The fact that corruption prevention mechanisms are seldom used further contributes to creating an environment that preserves corruption. The reasons for it may vary: people either do not have an incentive to report cases of corruption or trust that their input will be duly processed. In addition to that, a lot of citizens simply lack awareness about their existence and a habit of using them. All of it reflects a general trend of citizen disengagement that makes the political system all the more fragile.
One of the things that can help rebuild citizens’ trust is transparency. However, in the case of Bulgaria, whenever transparency is practiced it often suffers from the lack of attention to accessibility of information. Inaccessibility of information makes it de facto impossible for non-experts – including regular citizens – to understand data and hold their government accountable.
At the same time, due to all the citizens’ mistrust, lack of accessible information and participatory culture as well as rigidity of existing participation mechanisms, citizens do not have the willingness to be a part of participatory processes. That means low quality or complete lack of data that could increase the quality of policies and decision-making and further disengagement and growing space for corruption. Civil societies that can help build bridges between municipalities and citizens or substitute missing municipal capacities for communication and engagement also do not play a substantive role in local governance.
So, naturally the conversations during panel discussions and work group meetings quickly turned to public participation and the use of civic tech. You may ask: what do public participation and civic tech have to do with all of it?
Well, public participation assumes creation of effective two-way communication channels between municipality and its citizens. These communication channels should be created to last beyond one time off projects and to gather real-life data that would ensure that decisions that are being made reflect actual needs of the citizens. This way participation can help fill in the data gaps and create accountability and hence increase citizens’ trust. Systematic participation can also help build relationships with local civil society and effectively involve them in local policies as allies rather than perceived threat.
At the same time, civic tech can serve as a great instrument for facilitating these processes by and can also help maximise the reach of participatory programs. Besides, civic tech solutions can help municipalities publish data about citizens’ needs in an easily understandable format which can further increase transparency, accountability, and citizens’ trust leaving less and less space for corruption and political disengagement.
The conference also provided space for discussing best practices and international resources that could serve as an inspiration or a practical tool for Bulgarian municipalities moving forward towards more transparent local policy-making. Adria Duarte Griño, a coordinator of IODP at UCLG, has provided an overview of Participatory Budgeting (PB) overall structure highlighting its value for building citizens’ trust and engagement. During the same panel, our co-founder and a board member of People Powered Katya Petrikevich presented a recently published Digital Participation Guide and Ratings providing a brief overview of top 27 platforms from all around the world and discussing basic Do’s and Don’ts of digital engagement. In the course of her presentation she made sure to remind the audience that a digital platform should not be seen as a solution to all the existing problems but should be treated as a useful instrument that should serve a specific pre-defined purpose in a well-designed process.
This conference reminded us about the value of public participation and digital engagement in combating corruption and creating a more equitable society. It also gave space to over a dozen of Bulgarian municipalities to showcase their current efforts and voice their needs including their acute need for systematic participation to be brought to each municipality in order to create sustainable infrastructure for its social and political development.
If you are interested in learning more about creating sustainable infrastructure for digital and in-person participation, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.