Supporting municipalities to bridge the gap with citizens through online meetings

Local governments are at the forefront of the COVID-19 crisis. They are coordinating health services, ensuring waste collection, offering access to online public services and trying new ways to engage their citizens in decision making processes. As safety health measures increase, local governments need to rethink and find quicker and better solutions to engage with their citizens.

At DEMOS project we are aware of our personal responsibilities and the whole team shifted to working from home.  In order to limit social contact, all our usual activities such as in person meetings and planned events are being held online or are postponed.

In this new arrangement, all our efforts are geared towards assisting local governments in any way we can. We believe that it is vital to ensure democratic continuity while communities become accustomed to these new circumstances, and we are here to help with this process.

It goes without saying that during the ongoing pandemic, the municipalities are facing constraints on carrying out their work. As a result of lockdown, distancing, and quarantine measures for most of the municipalities it was almost impossible to organise their regular meetings with citizens.  Being as one of the most important principles of democracy, the citizens’ participation is affected the most by newly created situation.

These past two months, our team held virtual meetings with Mayors, directors and other municipal representatives to talk about the municipal performance grant and their individual performance in democratic governance, municipal management and service delivery. During our lively meetings with municipalities we discussed the challenges that municipalities are faced with and opportunities to improve their performance. Moreover, we used this opportunity to put the emphases on the importance of accountability, transparency, participation as the main principles of any local democracy. This way, together with municipalities we explored the possibilities and looked into different ways of support that we can provide in order to put in motion the idea of online meetings with citizens.

The idea behind this support citizen participation in decisions making process as well as help municipalities to fulfil minimum standards in consulting the public on important topics. This way, municipalities would ensure higher transparency and downward accountability to their citizens. Additionally, by facilitating the online meetings with citizens, municipalities could also improve their performance in Municipal Performance Grant.

Up to date, only eight out of thirty-eight municipalities expressed their interest to have online meetings with citizens and asked for our support.

The first municipality to organise online meeting was the municipality of Rahovec/Orahovac. The Mayor met leaders of villages and neighbourhoods and used this opportunity to discuss the effects and impact of COVID 19 in the municipality, implementation of capital investment projects and six-monthly report of the mayor. Village and neighbourhood leaders were very active asking the municipality to be more effective in implementing its plans for better municipal services.

The municipality of Gjilan/Gnjilane was the second municipalities to receive our support in organising online meeting with citizens. During the meeting, the Mayor of Gjilan/Gnjilane presented the successes, achievements and challenges during the first six months of 2020 and discuss concerns of citizens. There is a high level of Kosovo citizens use of and presence in social media and other online platforms. Despite targeted measures to mobilise citizen interest for these online meeting with their municipal representatives, participation in online meetings is rather low. Unfortunately, participation of women is even lower!

At the moment, we are working very closely with six other municipalities, providing advice and access to online platform to make these meetings possible. Possibilities should be explored to target organised communities and civil society organisations to generate higher interest in participating in public affairs and holding their municipal representatives accountable.

The newly created situation, not only in Kosovo but all over the globe, can be looked at not only as health crisis but also as an opportunity to change and adopt different ways on how to better utilise the available technology, develop new participation channels and mechanisms in order to bridge the gap between decision makers and citizens.