The Unanswered Letters of Batumi
With a population of 158,800, the Batumi municipality is the largest administrative unit in Georgia.
However, if any of these citizens happens to request public information from the Batumi municipality, there is a 15% likelihood that the citizen will not receive any response, a 7% chance that he/she will receive incomplete information and a 66% chance that he/she will not receive the requested information within the legally established, 10-day response period. This means that the Batumi municipality properly processes a mere 12% of all the information requests it receives from the population it serves.
This data is taken from a 2017 study on the access to public information which was conducted by IDFI.
According to the same study, the most serious problems in the process of issuing public information are seen in self-government bodies. In particular, in 2017, the highest number of requests, in percentage terms, were left unanswered by municipal bodies - 559 requests out of total 2800 were left unanswered.
The study on the access to public information also revealed the types of information that municipal bodies seemed especially reluctant to disclose: data on (I) bonuses and salary additions, (II) decreases in administrative expenditure resulting from the self-government reform, and (III) expenditure and limits on fuel consumption.
In general, the Batumi municipality was not ranked high for transparency (27%) in the 2017 national, local self-government index. Among all self-governing municipalities it sat at 15th place with regard to its transparency score and was outstripped by such municipalities as Ozurgeti, Tetritskaro, Kharagauli, Marneuli, Gori, Lagodekhi, Chkorotsky and others.
“One of the important factors ensuring transparency is access to public information. Without such access, self-government cannot be effectively implemented. This is what prompted us to launch the project on facilitating access to public information in the Batumi municipality,” explains Natia Apkhazava, the head of the Batumi branch of the Civil Society Institute (CSI).
CSI has obtained financial support for this project from Europe Foundation. However, this is not the first grant that CSI has received from EPF. In 2007 Europe Foundation funded a project entitled “Administrative Reform of Batumi Municipality”. Within the scope of this project, a one-stop-shop service center for citizens was opened in the municipality. This was the first center enabling citizens to receive multiple, municipal services at one location to be opened in the whole of Western Georgia. In parallel, CSI, with support from Europe Foundation, worked to increase the openness of self-government and citizens’ engagement standards in Batumi municipality.
“When I am talking about the standard of citizens’ engagement in public governance I mean all three components of engagement: the provision of information to citizens, their involvement in decision-making and, feedback from the government (in other words, accountability). If not informed, citizens cannot be involved and, consequently, the accountability of public entities and the establishment of a feedback system cannot be achieved,” Natia Apkhazava noted.
“We work not only with municipalities in the areas of systems development and employee capacity but also with society because without the readiness of both parties, effective self-governance cannot be achieved. For this very reason we conducted 26 community meetings to inform citizens about the procedures for requesting public information and their rights and obligations,” Natia Abkhazava continued.
A thorough monitoring of the availability of information revealed a number of serious deficiencies: mandatory information was not published, necessary information was not placed on information boards, acts to be approved at municipal council sittings were published with delay, et cetera.
“Most importantly, there were no standards set for the publication of and public access to information, that is within what timeframe and in what form must this or that information be published, and who is responsible for making information public. Moreover, accountability mechanisms were not in place, so on and so forth,” Apkhazava recounted.
After the situation was assessed, with the involvement of CSI, a number of improvements were made: the list of public information that is mandatory to publish was extended, municipality employees engaged in the exchange of information were retrained, and procedural issues impeding the publication of information were put to rights, to name but a few.
According to Nukri Dekanadze, the head of the Batumi municipality administrative office, the public engagement system has been improved step-by-step over the past few years. The municipality makes efforts to effectively apply the engagement forms specified by law, though some problems still remain.
In particular, a general assembly of settlement is dysfunctional because it has proved difficult to bring together 5% of the population to legitimize the meeting. Therefore, the municipality is currently working on the District Unions Project. In particular, district unions comprising chairpersons of friendship associations are being set up in each administrative unit; their function will be similar to that of a general meeting of settlement which cannot operate due to a lack of quorum.
Moreover, the rule of manning at the municipality has been amended to specify the criteria of manning and to change the procedure for selecting a council chairperson – instead of being appointed by the Mayor, the chairperson will be elected by council members.
“As regards the access to public information, we systematized those issues which will improve communication with the population. The process of digitizing the archive is underway, which will facilitate timely responses to letters. Separate archive and public information departments have been set up in the mayor’s office. A municipal services agency was established which will also be responsible for creating a common portal where all the necessary data will be published and information about all municipal organizations and services will be provided,” Nukri Dekanadze said.
According to Dekanadze, the Batumi municipality must process 100 000 documents a year, which means that, in order to keep pace, 300-400 documents must be considered daily.
“It is clearly hard work and an additional headache for them, but our aim is to improve democracy on the level of self-government. For example, if I, a Batumi citizen, am unaware that a construction permit is under consideration, I will not be able to protest the issuance of this permit. In general, the local government does not tend to view citizens as partners although in democratic systems, municipalities are responsible themselves for establishing a standard of engagement and offering it to the population. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the self-government to stir up interest among the people. In Georgia, however, we have a situation in which society in general lacks the relevant knowledge and experience and thus self-government believes that it knows better what the citizens need,” Natia Apkhazava said.
Over the course of the project CSI initiative groups, by means of requesting public information, detected a number of systemic problems. One such problem, for example, is that the Batumi municipality does not have information about the retrofitting of municipal buildings to the needs of persons with disabilities (PWDs), although there are tens of such buildings in Batumi.
Ramin Macharashvili, a PWD, participated in the initiative group. He requested information on the adjustment of buildings from the Batumi municipality but in response received only the addresses of supposedly accessible buildings. It turned out that none of those buildings, save the main building of municipality, is accessible for PWDs.
CSI, along with other interested organizations, advocated for a system which would control the issue of the adjustment of every newly built municipal building to the needs of PWDs. “Nevertheless, we found out that the supervision service of the municipality accepted a newly built kindergarten so that it was not adjusted. However, we are talking not about the accessibility of the buildings but their full adjustment to the needs of PWDs,” Ramin Macharashvili said.
It’s clear that the activity of citizens in requesting public information is helping to push things forward. For example, after the kindergarten incident, the Batumi municipality has started to retrofit bus stops to meet the PWD standards. Moreover, a group of professionals and PWDs was set up to work on the concept of adjustment of Batumi.
Author: Ketevan Magalashvili
Photos by: Irakli Shalamberidze