Digitalization – A priority in the Open Government Partnership National Action Plans of the Western Balkan countries

Open Government Partnership – Local actions – Global impact

As a global initiative, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) is a broad partnership composed of national and local level entities who work together to co-create action plans with concrete steps – commitments – across a broad range of issues. Since 2011, the OGP’s idea is that an open government is more accessible, more responsive, and more accountable to citizens, and that improving the relationship between people and their government has long-term, exponential benefits for everyone.

Working in a wider context of democratic backsliding, closing civic space and the rise of authoritarian and populist politics, this mature partnership with 78 national members composed of a growing number of local governments and thousands of civil society participants, has enabled the co-creation of over 4000 open government reforms, of which a significant proportion have shown major impact.

Source: OGP website

 

Western Balkan in Open Government Partnership

Among the national members of this initiative are also the Western Balkan governments, namely Albania (2011), Bosnia and Herzegovina (2014), Montenegro (2011), North Macedonia (2011) and Serbia (2012), Kosovo being the only country not part of this process despite their best efforts to join in.

The Assembly of the Republic of North Macedonia is the only legislative power among the Western Balkan countries that is part of this global initiative, and for the first time, the judiciary of North Macedonia also became part of the latest OGP National Action Plan (NAP) in order to improve their openness and transparency towards the public.

This short analysis will be focusing on the efforts within the initiative by the targeted Western Balkan countries that are part of the ICEDA regional network, where Bosnia and Herzegovina is not included.

 

Digitalization as a priority in the Western Balkan Open Government Partnership National Action Plans

With minor or bigger focus, especially for those NAPs that were developed during the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Western Balkan governments have drafted their NAPs with digitalization in different sectors set as a priority.

One of the main components within latest NAP 2020-2021 for Albania is digital governance centered around the expansion of e-government services, expansion of the open data portal and improving public service delivery in integrated services centers and service counters. When it comes to the first point, Albania has recently digitalized all of their public services and thus achieved the commitment, but has faced quite a few obstacles when it comes to practice, mostly because they abruptly closed the counters where citizens could ask for support. The digitalization of public services turned into an obstacle for marginalized groups with lack of skills and digital infrastructure as noted by certain members of the Roma community. Furthermore, due to recent cyber-attacks the Albanian National Agency for the Information Society has been forced to shut down the online public services and government websites.

Among other things, the latest OGP NAP 2021-2023 for North Macedonia features commitments related to transparency, accountability, proactivity and inclusiveness, preventing corruption and promoting good governance, delivery of public services, access to justice and environment and climate change. All of these commitments include a component of digitalization or digital transformation mostly focused on the design of new innovative digital solutions and mechanisms, open data, providing more e-services, etc.

Within the same NAP, the Assembly puts great emphasis on improving their ICT infrastructure, thus improving their accessibility towards the citizens. Among some of the Assembly’s commitments in this direction are the development of several digital platforms and solutions (new website of the Assembly, online portal for open data, a platform for proposals and initiatives from citizens to the legislative authority, a software solution for monitoring the legislative process by the public, opening the e-archive software to public search), procurement of the necessary digital equipment (cameras with accompanying equipment for internet transmission of sessions, a software solution to enable speech-to-text translation) and ensuring digital security through digital signatures for the MPs and the parliamentary service.

The judiciary of North Macedonia is also an integral plan of the NAP, focusing their efforts on improving the electronic court portal, the electronic system for basic and continuous training of judges, the public relations of the courts and the quality and availability of data and information for the functioning of the Judicial Council.

Same as the two previous countries, Serbia’s OGP NAP 2020-2022 also mentions digitalization as part of technological innovation initiative. Commitments regarding technology and innovation should improve openness and accountability through the promotion of new technologies that offer opportunities for information sharing and participation of the public.

Meanwhile, the new NAP for Montenegro is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year and is foreseen to enable citizens to have better access to public services, greater involvement in the creation of policies for public financing, as well as the inclusion of underrepresented groups in the creation of policies. The NAP is also envisaged to include activities in line with digital transformation within the public sector and e-services. When it comes to the previous NAP 2018-2020, at one occasion, the senior officer for research, OGP Independent Report Mechanism, Andreas Pavlou said that the efforts through it came through with limited results in the abovementioned areas.

Source: Open Government Partnership Kosovo Initiative

As Kosovo is not a member of this initiative, the situation on their side is a little different when it comes to the formalities, but their efforts in bringing the government closer to the people do not lack. In 2013, the Kosovo government decided to initiate the procedures for their membership in this multinational initiative, but received a negative reply. However, with the assistance of Open Data Kosovo, Kosovo created their own informative platform that provides all the important documents and other relevant information regarding their second attempt to become part of the initiative. They are also working on the creation of their own NAP 2022-2024 whose key pillars are anti-corruption, digital governance, data openness and civic participation in decision making. As the NAP is being developed, Kosovo aims to once again apply for membership in the OGP during the final months of 2022.

 

Civic sector (not) included in co-creation of NAP OGP

While in some countries the civic sector is largely and directly included in the composition and implementation of their countries’ NAPs, the same is not the case everywhere. The CSOs in Serbia are not directly included in OGP NAP activities, but follow the Government’s work and make reports on their activities, whereas in North Macedonia’s latest co-creation process of the NAP, 86% of the participants in the process were CSOs while the remaining 14% came from the side of the institutions. This co-creation process consisted of 3 online informative-educational meetings, 12 online meetings for identifying the needs and issues, analysis, prioritization, etc., and over 60 individual meetings. Metamorphosis Foundation and Rural Coalition as part of the ICEDA network committedly participated in this process and managed to intervene in several commitments ensuring a focus on open data, institutional openness and transparency, and digitalization of public services in different areas.

North Macedonia is also the only country with a special designed OGP-dedicated e-participation platform that enables the working groups to co-create the NAP, inform and get informed about the process and progress of each component from the NAP. This platform aims at presenting the process of realization of the commitments and achievement within the current NAP in an interactive and detailed manner, in order to enable a smooth monitoring of its implementation. It further provides a visual depiction of the NAP and description of the realization status based on the indicators of success placed for each achievement of the specific commitments in a specific priority area. This platform was prepared by the Metamorphosis Foundation under the Civic Engagement Project with the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Source: Open Government Partnership portal – North Macedonia

In Kosovo, the National Coordination Committee for drafting of Kosovo’s OGP NAP 2022-2024 consists of representatives from government institutions, CSOs, media and other relevant institutions. Open Data Kosovo as a CSO is a member of this committee and a contributor to the preparation of the NAP, where it provides input on topics related to the Digital Agenda.

One of the remarks of Andreas Pavlou for the Montenegro NAP 2018-2021 was that Montenegro met the minimum standards regarding cooperation between the Government and CSOs. To this, the contact person for OGP in Montenegro at the Ministry of Public Administration, Marija Janković, shared that there were many challenges in the implementation of the OGP NAP, stating that one of the challenges was the operational team and the dynamics of its meetings, visibility and how monitoring was carried out of the previous NAP. She shared that the operational team’s mandate of four years is coming to an end and the Ministry has launched a consultation on what the new operational team should look like, its structure, tasks, and how to have an efficient environment for planning the NAP, its implementation, monitoring and evaluation of effects. Janković also shared that the Ministry of Public Administration is organizing a series of consultative meetings with interested parties to define obligations for the next cycle of implementing the OGP in Montenegro and creating a new NAP.

 

Impact of the Open Government Partnership in the region

Membership in this initiative and the implementation of the OGP NAPs should not amount to a simple “checking off” from the list of activities, but should be built on a joint multi-stakeholder committed work in order for the efforts to bring tangible results that improve the lives of the citizens and bridge the gap between them and the institutions.

Among some the positive outcomes from the finalized OGP NAPs in the area of digitalization, Serbia notes 2 cases. During 2021, the technical development of the portal on e-consultations has been completed and the portal is active now. All citizens can follow and participate in public decision-making process. Another positive case was “I am protecting you” which is a system for electronic reporting, response and monitoring of violence involving children, as well as support for victims, which has been established and has begun to develop.

In 2021, in competition of over 100 applications for innovative tools, the commitment to more transparent municipalities in North Macedonia won the third prize at the European level for impact in improving people’s lives and the quality of democracy. The awarded commitment is a group of tools that were created and put into operation in the previous three years, which contributed to the improvement of fiscal transparency at the local level, enabled live monitoring of the sessions of 18 municipalities, as well as the direct involvement of citizens in the decision-making process in 24 municipalities. The activities were carried out within the framework of the commitment “Establishment of new tools to improve the financial transparency and accountability of the local self-government units”, whose holder is the Ministry of Local Self-Government. On this occasion, the then Minister for information society and administration, Jeton Shaqiri, publicly stated that the recognition of these results depicted through this Global summit award is „a true and honest recognition of the joint effort and partnership between the government, civic sector and donor community that provides effective and long-term solutions for the challenges that society is faced with.”

Aside from North Macedonia, other Western Balkan countries were also rewarded with this honour. In the same category, Serbia got the second place in the sub-category Europe for Public Services on ePAPER, whereas Albania got a second place in the category OGP Local Innovation Awards, sub-category: Europe, for their WhatsApp Counselor.

The Montenegro Transitional Results Report 2018–2021 also marks several successes in the OGP NAP implementation such as expanding the online public participation tools, improving access to government information and open data, improving budget transparency, and conducting a study on whistleblower protection. Other activities involved introducing an online national identification document, online fee collection, and online tax filing’, however, due to the political instability that slowed down implementation, and the report highlights that ‘’ Although the action plan included potentially impactful activities around online public participation (Commitment 2), access to information (Commitment 3), and budget transparency (Commitment 6), their limited completion prevented them from achieving noticeable results or changes in open government practice”.

For specific information regarding the latest OGP NAP of each of the member countries, please consult the links below:

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The project “Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Agenda – ICEDA” is co-funded by the European Union and implemented by the Metamorphosis Foundation, Open Data Kosovo (ODK), e-Government Academy (eGA), Partners for Democratic Change Serbia, Lëvizja MJAFT, and CSO 35 MM.

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