(Un)accountable communication channels: state bodies without websites or social networks, and with spokespersons “on vacation”

photo: Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

The level of transparency and accountability achieved by state institutions concerning communication with the public varies. Some of the Macedonian state authorities are listed high on the list of accountable institutions, they are even ranked the best in the region, and others are at the very bottom of the same list, almost completely inaccessible to the citizens. While some have developed entire communication strategies, others in the digital age we live in do not even have websites to share basic information. Some executive bodies do not provide access to public information, which is against the law, and do not even respond to journalistic questions.

The openness and transparency of the authorities are the key issues in the reforms of public administrations and the processes of European integration that lead the countries of the Western Balkans. Although the region is formally working on these tasks that should bring us closer to the European Union, there is a strong need for systematic regulation of openness and communication policies, which must be set on a long-term basis to have concrete and lasting benefits for communities and society.

Among the institutions of executive power in the region, the most open is the Government of North Macedonia, which fulfills 82.71 percent of the set criteria for openness. This is shown by the Assessment of good governance in North Macedonia and the region through the Openness Index published by the Metamorphosis Foundation, whose purpose is to objectively measure the open governance of institutions in the countries of the Western Balkans.

However, the data collected through the Regional Openness Index show that the open and transparent activities of the institutions exist only at the individual level and that there are no established long-term practices, i.e. there are rare examples of institutions that have established rules and procedures of public behavior.

Certain information about the work of government bodies cannot be obtained even when the law obliges them to publish it.

The government is ranked best among the 50 observed institutions in the country and the most open in the region for the third year in a row. The listing at the top as the most open institution corresponds to the efforts of the Macedonian Government to focus on the digitalization of the processes of the institutions to create efficient and effective systems of good management with increased transparency and accountability. The commitments, among other things, are the result of the pressure and conditioning of the country from the process of accession to the EU, notes the Assessment.

This year, the research through the Openness Index shows that the total score of the executive branch of power, including the Government, ministries, and executive bodies, reaches 60.93 percent. At the same time, the transparency indicators have the highest score (55.65 percent), while the accessibility indicators have the lowest score (51.09 percent). Accessibility indicators assess the extent to which the right to access information is guaranteed by law and in practice, as well as the quality of mechanisms for inclusion and consultation in policy-making processes.

As noted in the document, the lowest rating for the accessibility indicators of the executive authority is, among other things, due to the delay in the modernization process and the unification of the new websites of the ministries and the Government, which would provide new digital and modern tools to facilitate the proactive transparency of each institution.

 

Some of the institutions do not have their addresses in the Internet space

If you want to get information about boating permits in Ohrid, you will probably have to struggle to find a phone number where you can call and ask a question. The Port Captains Office, which regulates the relations of participants in an inland lake and river navigation, does not have its website, and when you type its name in one of the Internet search engines, the first link that comes up will take you to the website of the Ministry of transport and communications, which includes the Port Captains Office.

However, the website of the Ministry of Transport lists only the names and e-mail addresses of employees of the Port Captains Office, without explaining their positions and without phone numbers to any department. Therefore, if you need information about navigation permits, you will have to send an email to one of the addresses and hope that they are the right employee who has the information you need but also wait for a response in writing form.

Finally, you will probably be able to find the phone number of the Port Captains Office on the Facebook profile of this authority, but even there they are not “in the mood” to publish information. During this past year, from September of last year until today, the Captaincy shared only one post on Facebook – in January, when it announced the terms for acquiring the title of “boat driver”.

The Port Captains Office in Ohrid is one of the eight among the 33 observed executive bodies in the country that do not have their website. In addition to this authority, the Office for Spatial Information System, Administration for Development and Promotion of Education on Languages used by the Communities, Directorate for Seeds and Seed Materials, Directorate for Water Management, Directorate for Protection of Plants, the Administration for Spatial and Information System, Directorate for issues of fighters and war invalids and the Pedagogical Service.

Given that websites are, legitimately, the main source of information about the work of institutions, and are a tool for the fastest, easiest and safest access, executive bodies that do not have websites are at the bottom of the indicator fulfillment scale.

Even some of those institutions and authorities that have websites, do not use them to inform the public about activities and topics within their scope. There are examples of institutions and bodies that do not regularly update their pages with news and current events, for months or even years, as well as those that provide very short or almost no information about their work.

Infographic: Websites of executive organs/ Meta.mk

The idea of ​​unifying the websites of all ministries and government institutions and making them more accessible to citizens will probably have to wait, and the lack of money is cited by the institutions as the reason for the slow process.

“The idea of ​​unifying the websites of state institutions is something that should lead not only to all information being available everywhere in the same way, but we believe that with this work we will succeed in raising the general level of transparency and availability of information for all institutions. This process has been slowed down due to the economic and health crisis, which diverted the funds to another party”, noted the Secretary General of the Government, Metodija Dimovski, at the event where the Assessment was promoted.

All questions are sent to one address

The Office for Spatial Information System, which is part of the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning (MESP), is at the very bottom of the list of openness according to the percentage of fulfillment of the indicators. On the Internet, you can find information about this authority on the website of the Ministry of Education and Culture in the “Contact” category, but only one contact information is listed there – that of the director.

After only one general contact where citizens can address their questions, there are also other executive bodies, such as the Geological Survey, Directorate for Seeds and Seed Materials, the Metrology Bureau, the Directorate for Protection of Plants, the Directorate for Hydro-Meteorology, and many others. On the other hand, updated contact information for civil servants is missing in two ministries – the one for foreign affairs and the one for political system and inter-community relations, as well as in 13 executive bodies.

In addition, while the websites of the Government and ministries are evaluated positively for the regularity of updating their pages, some of the executive authorities are stagnant in this field.

All ministries, except for the Ministry of Health, publish the biographies of the ministers, while the executive bodies’ results are weaker – only 15 publish the biographies of their directors.

The majority of executive bodies, i.e. 70 percent, publish the organograms of the institutions.

Furthermore, half of the ministries published annual work programs, but at the same time, 43 percent of the ministries did not publish annual reports on their work. The result among the executive bodies is even weaker – 36 percent of them published annual programs, while only 24 percent published annual reports on the implementation of these programs.

Information on ministers’ salaries is missing from the websites of 13 ministries, although it is unclear why this has not been done when the data is publicly available on the Government’s website.

Furthermore, half of the ministries published annual work programs, but at the same time, 43 percent of the ministries did not publish annual work reports. The result among the executive bodies is even weaker – 36 percent of them published annual programs, while only 24 percent published annual reports on the implementation of these programs.

Information on ministers’ salaries is missing from the websites of 13 ministries, although it is unclear why this has not been done when the data is publicly available on the Government’s website.

The Parliament, as well as many executive bodies, have not published on their website instructions for submitting complaints and appeals, nor have they established a separate channel for electronic petitions.

Three ministries – defense, internal affairs, and finance, have published communication (PR) strategies. The Government also published a Communication Strategy for the period 2019-2020, which, contributed to the Government’s high rating according to the Openness Index. The Government’s Communication Strategy has not been updated since then, and when asked by Meta.mk if they plan to update it and when, ironically, we did not receive an answer.

 

Information is not provided, even when required by law

The Law on Free Access to Public Information provides a sufficient basis for promoting proactive and reactive transparency on its own.

With the amendments to this law from 2019, the list of information that the holders of information should proactively publish on their websites was expanded and specified. For information seekers to have a better overview, the holders will be required to publish on their websites, in one place, the entire list of information and documents that according to the Law are considered public information, says Slavica Grkovska, deputy of the President of the Government in charge of good governance policies.

“We asked all holders of public information, a total of 1,445, to make a list of the most frequently requested data following the Law on Free Access to Public Information. The subject of interest are questions from all spheres, applicants are interested in public procurement, employment, and the method of payment of wages. Our goal is to select the most requested information and oblige the institutions to publish it regularly without any prior request from the citizens. With that, on the one hand, the citizens will be timely informed at every moment, and on the other hand, the efficiency of the institutions will be improved and their more efficient functioning in all segments”, said Grkovska at the event where the Assessment was presented.

The Government’s website fully meets the criteria for exercising the right to free access, but the report notes a comprehensive weakness that can be seen in all the institutions of the executive power. This happens due to the inability to publish the answers with which they have already provided access to the information upon request on their websites.

The document recommends following the best international and regional practices regarding the waiting time for a response to a paper request for free access to information, which ranges between 7 and 15 days. It is necessary to intervene again within the period provided for in the Macedonian law, so from 20 days, the waiting time should be reduced to a maximum of 15 days.

To assess the waiting time after a submitted request to the targeted institutions, the Metamorphosis Foundation sent requests for access to information to all 50 monitored institutions. 46 percent responded on time.

Four ministries and seven executive authorities responded to requests after the legal deadline, while two ministries and seven executive authorities did not respond to requests for access to public information at all.

The Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Transport and Communications, Health and Political System, and Inter-Community Relations gave late responses, while the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management, and the Ministry of Information Society and Administration did not respond to the requests at all.

Some of the bodies, including the Assembly, still have not published contacts of the persons in charge of the citizens’ right to access public information.

 

Please wait for an answer, the spokesperson is on vacation

Another problem when requesting information from institutions is the failure to answer questions sent by journalists, which require urgent answers. In addition, the experiences of the Meta.mk News Agency shows that the answers from the institutions for some questions are delayed for several days, and quite often, they do not arrive at all.

Such is the example of our communication with the Ministry of Education and Science, to which we sent questions four times this past month, on four different topics and events, and we received an answer only once, but to receive that as well, in addition to the question sent by email, we had to contact by phone the person in charge of public relations, as well as the cabinet of Minister Jeton Shaqiri.

For the questions for which we did not call to remind, there is still no answer.

Regarding the non-answering of the questions, among other things, the institutions often a reason give the absence of the spokespersons or the increased number of work obligations.

However, the work cannot and must not depend on one person, according to the communicologist Bojan Kordalov. According to him, when the institutions communicate with the media, and therefore with the citizens, the question of whether the spokesperson is on vacation is irrelevant.

“Every institution indeed has a person in charge of public relations who will communicate with the media, and even if there is no spokesperson, every institution formally has departments whose work includes informing those who are paid by the institutions, namely the citizens and the companies. Hence, a simple system must be created – the media asks you, and you give answers immediately, in minutes. Not in hours, days or months” says Kordalov.

As the communicator says, today’s citizens have no time, patience, or desire to wait for information, because everything is available to them immediately.

“To order something online, you need one minute. To see what is happening in the most remote part of the world, you need seconds. But to get public information – for example, how much money was spent for a certain meeting or whether a water treatment plant will be built, etc., you sometimes, as a media, and therefore as citizens, have to wait for weeks. That is incomprehensible in the digital age. You are obliged as a department, as a service within the institutions, to respond immediately,” adds Kordalov.

Some state bodies do not even have social networks

Social networks also contribute to facilitating communication and interaction with the public, and their role in today’s global society is indisputable, especially when it comes to the exchange of information, raising public awareness of issues of public interest, and familiarizing citizens with the activities of institutions.

However, the Assessment notes shortcomings when it comes to online channels for rapid communication.

Out of the 50 monitored central institutions according to the Openness Index, 34 institutions have official channels on the social network Facebook, while only 11 have Twitter profiles.

The situation at the regional level is even worse – as many as 75 percent of institutions in the region do not use Twitter to inform the public about their work, and 43 percent do not use Facebook.

Infographic: Official profiles of Macedonian institutions on social networks / Meta.mkThe communicator Kordalov believes that the presence of institutions on social networks is a necessity, not a choice.

“Today, citizens do not run after information, but information runs after them – this is a very important rule in the digital age and it is something that institutions must learn because they are obliged to be everywhere where citizens are.” Therefore, I do not think that they have the right to choose where they will be, but they should be present everywhere, among other things because the numbers of public relations teams and the people they have hired in the institutions very often turn out to be too large. To justify that figure, they must be a service to the citizens, to provide information on all channels, especially the digital ones because that is the basis for the existence of the institutions”, explains Kordalov.

Although the conclusion remains that the practice of using only the personal profiles of officials as official social media is slowly being abandoned, such profiles are still richer in information than the official social channels of the institutions. The main problem with the personal profiles of the officials is that they cease to be used as sources of information and interaction with the respective institutions as soon as the official’s mandate ends, and as such, these profiles do not contain long memories of the events in the institutions.

Institutions are left with the recommendation to follow the positive examples from the region and the world to improve communication with the public and become more accessible to citizens. In the digital age in which we live, availability and accessibility to institutions are crucial for smooth communication and mutual understanding of those in power and those who elect leaders and expect good governance.

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Goshe

Nikolov

Journalist

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