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Participatory budgeting – a necessary element of democracy

 

According to the 2017 Open Budget Survey, Georgia’s budget transparency score is quite high – 82 out of 100, up by 16 points since 2015.

According to the same survey, the public participation in budgeting score is 22, which means that the population still has a very limited possibility to participate in the budgeting process. 

“This survey clearly reflects the circumstances that prompted the Europe Foundation, several years ago, to start working in the area of budget transparency, pursuing the aims of improving the transparency of public finance management and of enhancing public participation in budgeting processes,” says Natia Meladze, Program Manager of Engage and Monitor for Change.

In her opinion, there are several reasons for the low level of public involvement in budgeting processes. On the one hand, there is a lack of political will and, consequently, resources are not mobilized to facilitate the active involvement of citizens at various stages in the budgeting process. On the other hand, the population is not well-informed of the mechanisms provided by the law for their involvement in the budgeting process.

“In reality, the involvement of citizens at various stages of the budgeting process should function as a gurantee that the budgeting process will be conducted effectively – that the issues to be envisaged in the budget will be properly prioritized and citizens will be given every possibility to have their needs and desires reflected in the country’s budget,” says Meladze 

Participatory budgeting is a necessary element of democracy – through this process, the population contributes to the redistribution of local or national budget resources.

“It is not sufficient for the development of democracy to simply hold elections. The authorities must listen to their constituents and recognize their accountability to the voting public. Budgetary issues and the entire budgeting process are crucial in this regard as the implementation of any initiative or the delivery on any promise is always linked to the budget. Moreover, participatory budgeting improves the transparency and efficiency of the budget and enables citizens to have their voices heard by the government,” Meladze continues.

Our legislation obligates the central and municipal governments to organize meetings with citizens during the planning of the budget. These government bodies are also required to ensure public participation in budget-related discussions in order to gather information about their constituents’ expectations and needs in order to be able to plan the budget accordingly. On the other hand, the same law enables citizens to participate in the budget process in a number of ways. These include: a general meeting of settlement,  petitioning, forming a council of civilian advisors, participating in municipal council sittings and commissions, hearing reports on work performed by mayors and municipal council members, and et cetera.

“When we started to work in the area of budget transparency, we identified several priorities: to cooperate with all involved parties on various levels in order to increase the involvement of citizens in budgeting processes;  to make public information more readily available, and; to support those platforms and initiatives that will facilitate public participation at all stages of the budgetary process,” Meladze recounts.

As a result, Europe Foundation started to take steps towards improving the transparency of public finance management processes and towards increasing accountability. To raise public awareness, Europe Foundation engaged in a number of actions, including: the organization of a series of trainings on issues of public finance management for civil society organizations and media outlets in Tbilisi and the regions, and; the issuing of funding to several organizations to carry out assessments of public participation mechanisms on local and national levels and to then prepare recommendations for how to improve public involvement in the budgeting process.

The Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) is one of those organizations which, with resources received from Europe Foundation, has worked on a budget participation project in three cities – Telavi, Rustavi and Gori. According to then project manager and current executive manager of GYLA, Irma Pavliashvili, the project revealed the total inactivity of the population in these regions as well as a low sense of accountability on the part of the government.   

“We surveyed around 200 persons in the course of the project which revealed that the population does not actually approach local governments with any initiatives or requests, save the request for social assistance,” Pavliashvili says. “As regards the self-government bodies, the Telavi self-government, for example, refused to sign a memorandum which would confirm its readiness to facilitate public participation in budget processes.”

 

In this situation, GYLA launched information and advocacy activities. “We started with  informative activities and a cycle of trainings, explaining to the population how the budget process is conducted, and when and how they may participate in this process, present their opinions, engage in the preparation of documents. We also tried to help local citizens develop advocacy skills, including ways of requesting public information, involving the media, and et cetera. Within the scope of the project we conducted a survey to find out local citizens’ attitudes towards various forms of public participation - which form of public involvement in the budgeting process was viewed as more effective, which mechanisms worked better and which did not,” Pavliashvili explains. The survey revealed, that

Certain forms of public participation, such as settlement meetings and petitions, are not actually applied. Locals tend to see participation in municipal council sittings as the most effective mechanism, though the actual involvement in this regard is low.

The government, however, is prone to encourage the representatives of local LEPLs to participate in municipal council sittings, which means that public discussions of budgeting issues are not virtually conducted.

Pavliashvili recalls that, as a result of the advocacy campaign conducted within the scope of the project, a number of the populations’ needs in the participating cities were reflected in the budget; for example, in Telavi the quality of water was tested and road signs were installed.

“There are a number of deficiencies in the legislation that complicates the mobilization of citizens. For example, a meeting of settlement must be attended by 20% of the population, a percentage share which is, in reality, unrealistic and therefore must be reduced. Moreover, we believe that

the government must allocate some of the administrative budget to the population to enable them to self-mobilize, to cover the costs of creating and signing petitions, et cetera.

We believe that if citizens are given the right to participate in the budgetary process they must also be provided with an effective mechanism of involvement,” Pavliashvili says.

As Pavliashvili recounts, while implementing the project, GYLA studied the example of Poland for comparative purposes. One issue concerned the preservation and improvement of a public garden in one of the cities. According to Pavliashvili, the self-government surveyed the entire population and only after that took a decision on whether or not to leave the garden on that territory. After that, the self-government assessed household waste to analyze how to divide the territory into zones for small children, adults or elderly people. 

 “We cannot yet boast such examples in Georgia, though much depends on the activity of the public too. The Tbilisi City Hall, for example, had a web-platform which allowed the population to distribute the budget according to their priorities, but this platform had only 35 users,” Pavliashvili says.

In 2015-2017, Europe Foundation issued grants totaling GEL 135,519.6 to improve public finance management and accountability.

“We believe that government accountability and the civil awareness of the population will rise by means of sharing best practices and implementing practical programs. The Foundation will continue intensive activity in this direction together with its partner organizations,” Natia Meladze says.

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