CITIZENS ENGAGEMENT IN THE PROCESS OF DESIGNING OPERATIONAL AND COOPERATIONAL PROGRAMMES IS IMPORTANT FOR DIRECTING THE FUTURE OF THEIR REGION
The concept of active civic participation has become increasingly important over the years. A series of documents at international and European level not only introduce the notion but provides a pathway for its realisation. The regulatory system emphasize opportunity for involvement in the decision-making processes both by the citizen himself as an individual and through the mediation of civil society organizations (NGO) – representative of public positions and accumulating the interests of large groups of people other than political formations.
The legal order provides various mechanisms and pathways for citizens involvement at several levels where each subsequent includes and upgrades the previous one. They can be applied at any stage of the decision-making process, but are often particularly relevant at certain points in the process.
Obtaining timely and accurate information is a key prerequisite for democratic participation in planning and decision-making processes.
The Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria and the Republic of Romania provides the right of citizens to seek, receive and impart information. The legislation of these countries implements the relevant conditions for the exercise of this right. The legislative regulation for access to public information (similar laws in both countries) imposes obligations on public authorities to regularly disclose information about their work, as well as to provide easy access to documents of public interest.
In addition, the legislation provides for the relevant conditions under which any natural or legal person may request access to information related to public affairs or personal interests. This shall be provided on the basis of an oral or a written request addressed to the designated departments.
A written request application can be submitted on paper or electronically. In the general case, it must contain:
- The three names, respectively (in case of legal person) the name and the seat of the applicant;
- Description of the requested information;
- Address for correspondence with the applicant.
Any information on personal data, as well as classified information on national defense, public order, discussions of public authorities and national political and economic interests, falls outside the scope of the law. An exception may also be made in respect of commercial information if its disclosure would infringe intellectual property rights and the principle of fair competition.
2. CONSULTING AND DIALOGUE
2.1. Participation in public consultations and discussions
The right of people to participate in the elaboration of normative acts is confirmed both in international documents and in the national legislation of the Republic of Bulgaria and the Republic of Romania. A widespread and practically applicable tool for ensuring this right and active involvement of citizens in the legislative process (and not only in it) is public consultation (or also known as `public discussion`).
Consultations with the general public helps policy-makers at national, regional and local levels to develop strategies that lead to better results at lower costs. The process has a double meaning. On the one hand, it provides all stakeholders with a better understanding of the problem, the options, the risks, as well as the benefits and costs associated with the individual alternatives. On the other hand – it offers constructive opinions and various points of view to the decision-makers.
Specifically, the Law on Normative Acts in the Republic of Bulgaria and the Law on Transparency of Decisions of the Public Administration of the Republic of Romania introduce requirements for the public institutions to discuss with the people every project of regulative or strategic document since the beginning of its elaboration. Although there are some differences in the general organization and period of consultation, both Bulgarian and Romanian public and local institutions are obliged to provide wide access to normative or strategic documents that are being drafted or edited so that all stakeholders can to get acquainted with them and to make constructive proposals for their improvement. Proposals received shall be evaluated and may be reflected in the final version of the document submitted for voting.
2.2. Participation in meetings and discussions
Citizens and interested organizations can also participate in decision-making processes by submitting proposals directly to the responsible institutions. The most effective way to do this is to participate in the meetings of the responsible institutions and to hold discussions on the topic of interest.
The body of local self-government in Bulgaria is the Municipal Council, and in Romania – the Local Council. Both bodies act on behalf of and in the interest of the community they represent. To ensure their work, they hold regular meetings, which are public (open). In very rare cases, closed meetings may be held. The decisions taken are recorded and announced to the general public. Councils can form specialized, thematic, commissions to support their work in specific fields.
The legislations of both countries provide an opportunity for all citizens to attend and speak during the meetings of the formed Municipal or local council and their auxiliary commissions. There is also an normatively regulated opportunity to submit questions, suggestions and opinions and respectively – to receive answers and information regarding the raised issues.
3. PARTNERSHIP AND DIALOGUE
3.1. Participation through the mechanisms of so-called `direct democracy`
Citizens participate in the of the governance of a municipality / region both through the bodies elected by them and directly – through a referendum, local citizens’ initiative and others.
- Local referendum is a direct consultation of the people regarding issue of local or regional importance. Citizens with right to vote must express their opinion regarding the subject.
In Romania, a local referendum can be held at the suggestion of the mayor or part of the municipal councilors, while in Bulgaria a group of citizens can be the initiator.
The poll is conducted through ballots containing a question, to which voters answer “YES” or “NO”. The questions are tested in common language, short, precise and clear.
The proposal shall be adopted by a majority of the votes of the citizens with the right to vote and residence on the territory of the respective territorial-administrative unit.
- In a Local Citizens’ Initiative, citizens send proposals to a municipal council, the mayor of a municipality, district or town hall, or to district or regional executive bodies to address issues of local importance.
The local citizens’ initiative is implemented through a subscription organized by an initiative committee on the territory of the respective municipality, region, town hall or settlement, as the order and conditions of the organization differ for the two considered countries.
- A general assembly of the population is an opportunity provided in the Bulgarian legislation, applicable for settlements and neighborhoods with a population of up to 10,000 inhabitants. The decisions of this meeting are taken by a majority and are certified by the signature of those present.
- The petition is the regulated possibility of Romanian citizens and their organizations to send in writing or by e-mail a request, complaint, notification or proposal to address to central or local public bodies and institutions, decentralized public services of ministries, etc.
3.2. Participation in specialized local commissions
The specialized commissions are bodies that assist the local government in the processes of planning, coordination and implementation of the policy on issues important for the local community. Their form of organization is different in both countries depending on their goals and purpose.
Specialized local commissions are usually formed by thematic areas, the most common being on issues of tourism, culture, youth, economic development and others.
The nomination and election of members of these bodies must be as transparent as possible, subject to clearly defined rules and criteria. This also applies to the work of the commission, which must be as open and public as possible.
In the activity of these bodies it is possible and recommended to involve citizens and organizations, which are not part of their permanent membership. A report on the activity is periodically prepared, which is presented to the local community and the municipality.
4. CIVIC PARTICIPATION THROUGH NGO
Citizens’ associations, known as civil society organizations or NGOs, play an important role in democratic participation. These are “voluntary self-governing organizations that pursue mainly non-profit goals of their organizers or members“. (Code of Good Practice for Civic Participation). They engage a large number of people and have the ability to catalyze knowledge and expertise in the decision-making process. In addition, they can support the process of planning and making management decisions with knowledge and independent expertise.
NGOs enjoy a positive image among citizens, which is a sign of increasing trust in them, as well as seeking their assistance in addressing important socio-economic or life issues, including through the use of forms of civic participation.
Civic organizations have the right to benefit from all the mechanisms provided to the people, but they can also:
- Take part in the collective bodies for planning and monitoring of programs financed by European funds;
- Participate in the decision-making process by joining working groups
- Develop and successfully implement projects in support of local and regional development