The goal of this work meeting was to provide an opportunity for sixty representatives of the local self-government, the state bodies, nongovernmental organizations, media and the development sector from the country and abroad – to share experiences in the area of inciting active citizen participation by applying new technologies, based on the experiences from Macedonia and the Lower Normandy region in France (good practices and lessons learned).
The round table was opened by the president of the Regional council of Lower Normandy, Mr. Laurent Beauvais, who came at the event after meeting with the Macedonian minister for local self-government, during which he had signed an agreement for cooperation between Macedonia and the Lower Normandy region. He emphasized that the new information-communication technologies are contributing to the strengthening of democracy and preparation of the citizens for progress, especially in the sphere of communications.
Mr. Beauvais highlighted the role of the Centre for new technologies (CTN) in providing equal chances to all the citizens for accessing new technologies. For instance, in the Lower Normandy region (which is similar to Macedonia in terms of area and population) the regional and local authorities have established more than a hundred centers providing this kind of access to the whole society, including the young and the more mature citizens.
Ms. Antonella Valmorbida, director of the Association of the Local Democracy Agencies (ALDA) said that the decentralized cooperation should be combined with the strengthening of the good governance in Macedonia, which would also mean strengthening of the capacity of local authorities for responding to the problems in cooperation with all the competent institutions, and with the civil society as well.
During the first working session dedicated to the explanation of the concept of active citizen participation by the NGOs, Mr. Srgjan Cvijik (EU Program: Europe for the citizens) from the office of ALDA in Brussels, held the first speech and transferred EU’s perceptions for this concept, as well as the available instruments for inciting this concept.
Afterwards, Ms. Sunchica Kostovska Petrovska (Model for active citizen participation in decision making), director of the Civil Society Program, at the Foundation Open Society Institute – Macedonia, shared the experience from the Community Forums program supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, enabling citizens’ participation in the decision making for the allocation of funds intended to resolve specific problems in numerous municipalities throughout Macedonia.
The representative of NGO Studiorum, Ms. Ivana Tomovska (Active citizen participation, local government and civil society), reported on the results from the project for active citizen participation, in which the municipalities Veles and Probishtip were included.
Outlining the application of the Law on Free Access to Public Information, as a potentially powerful tool for achieving participation on the initiative of the citizens themselves, Ms. Nade Naumovska (What is active citizen participation?), a project coordinator from FOSIM’s law program highlighted several practical steps and sources of information for this purpose: the Commission for protection of the right to free access to public information and SPInfo.
The second work session was dedicated to the presentation of experiences by the providers of e-services in Macedonia. First to present was Elena Stamatoska (e-servives, An opportunity for increased citizen participation), deputy director of the USAID e-Gov project, who presented the project Responsibility through transparency, with which several municipalities were provided with applications for communication with the citizens.
Unfortunately, in most of the cases so far, the level of usage of the applications by the citizens is very low, and there were benefits in terms of automation and informatisation of the municipal administration.
The representatives of the City of Skopje, Ms. Mirjana Apostolova (The experience of the City of Skopje) deputy manager of the Department for international cooperation and cooperation with citizens’ associations, and Mr. Lazo Petrushevski, manager of the IT sector, presented the forms in which the City is enabling participation of the NGOs and citizens in the decision making process, starting with the adoption of the Strategy for cooperation with the NGO sector in 2007.
As a specific example for the enabling of direct communication between the citizens and the civil servants in the municipal administration, Mr. Aleksandar Spasov (Citizens’ Service Center), associate for local economic development, presented the application that the municipality of Aerodrom is applying with support of the Norwegian embassy.
During the third session, Ms. Irina Shumadieva from the Metamorphosis Foundation shared the experiences from the recent working visit of the Lower Normandy region regarding the complementary practices encountered by Metamorphosis, by using a multimedia presentation combining video elements. Recorded statements of officials from this friendly French region were also presented.
Ms. Irena Cvetkovik, a blogger and Freedom Square activist, was the last official presenter, who shared the experiences from using new media for launching public campaigns for transparency and accountability of the institutions when spending public money. She emphasized that the activists who want to achieve positive changes should not reply reciprocally to their opponents who are labeling them or using hate speech, since this is increasing the possibility for physical violence to occur, as well as other consequences from these online discussions. As another experience from Macedonia, she highlighted the campaign for adoption of pets, whose initiators conducted the promotion on the internet only, and which resulted with more than a hundred dogs adopted. She also outlined that the online activism must be linked to forms of real action – and not on the internet, otherwise it would all come down to “Facebook activism” (or “activism from a chair” – prim. F.S.) when citizens are only calming their conscience by joining various groups and signing useless petitions that do not result with any real effects.
During the discussion that took place later on, the shutting down of most of the open forums on the municipalities’ websites was mentioned, which was explained with the great number of insulting and threatening comments constituting criminal acts, in combination with the inability to allocate moderation resources. Mr. Darko Buldioski from the New Media Center outlined that the structures of the Government must not react reflexively and should not immediately end projects that are not working as planned. Ms. Vanja Mirkovski from USAID’s e-Gov project stated that this requirement can also be an opportunity for municipalities to delegate competencies to NGOs.
Mr. Bardhyl Jashari, the director of the Metamorphosis Foundation, stated that the use of new technologies should not only be a goal, but a result of the commitment of the municipality to include the citizens in its processes. According to him, there are several reasons for the insufficient use of the existing services, and the validity of these reasons should also be determined: the absence of a culture of participation, fear, lack of access or knowledge in using new technologies. However, he mentioned that the state’s commitment will be truly indicated by the state structures’ effectuation of the initiatives conducted by combining new technologies offline.
The round table ended with the conclusion that the subject of active citizens’ participation in the application of new technologies is not exhausted yet, and that we need to further enhance the perception that true democracy actually means citizens’ participation not only during the elections, but during the Government’s mandate as well, in terms of consulting on various issues and addressing citizens’ needs. This discussion will continue not only on the internet, but during other public events as well; the next one will be held in September within the frames of the Project for decentralized cooperation between the Lower Normandy region and Macedonia, during CTN’s visit to Macedonia.