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Serbia Transitional Results Report 2018-2020

The Open Government Partnership is a global partnership that brings together government reformers and civil society leaders to create action plans that make governments more inclusive, responsive, and accountable. Action plan commitments may build on existing efforts, identify new steps to complete ongoing reforms, or initiate an entirely new area. OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) monitors all action plans to ensure governments follow through on commitments. Civil society and government leaders use the evaluations to reflect on their progress and determine if efforts have impacted people’s lives.

The IRM has partnered with the European Policy Centre (CEP) to carry out this evaluation. The IRM aims to inform ongoing dialogue around the development and implementation of future commitments. For a full description of the IRM’s methodology, please visit https://www.opengovpartnership.org/about/independent-reporting-mechanism.

This report covers the implementation of Serbia’s third action plan for 2018–2020. In 2021, the IRM will implement a new approach to its research process and the scope of its reporting on action plans, approved by the IRM Refresh.[1] The IRM adjusted its Implementation Reports for 2018–2020 action plans to fit the transition process to the new IRM products and enable the IRM to adjust its workflow in light of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on OGP country processes.

Action Plan Implementation

The IRM Transitional Results Report assesses the status of the action plan’s commitments and the results from their implementation at the end of the action plan cycle. This report does not re-visit the assessments for “Verifiability,” “Relevance” or “Potential Impact.” The IRM assesses those three indicators in IRM Design Reports. For more details on each indicator, please see Annex I in this report.

General Highlights and Results

Serbia’s 2018–2020 action plan contained 15 commitments. Just fewer than half of the commitments (7 out of 15) had been fully or substantially implemented by the end of the implementation period, which is far fewer than the number of fully or substantially completed commitments in the previous action plan.[2]

Substantial or fully completed commitments often benefitted from being part of existing government programs or ongoing reform processes (such as Commitments 7 and 9) and/or because they were part of legal obligations (such as Commitments 8 and 9). The government point of contact (POC) mentioned that the successful implementation of commitment 6 benefited from implementing institutions that were experienced and familiar with the OGP process and that had accepted proposals civil society organizations had made.[3]

The COVID-19 pandemic led to the postponement of Serbian parliamentary elections until June 2020 (they had originally been scheduled for April 2020). In its Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions issued on 22 June, the OSCE ODIHR special election assessment mission concluded that the elections “were administered efficiently, despite challenges posed by the COVID19 pandemic, but dominance of the ruling party, including in the media, was of concern. Outside the state of emergency, contestants were able to campaign, and fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly were respected. The advantage enjoyed by the governing parties, the decision of some opposition parties to boycott the elections, and limited policy debate narrowed the choice and information available to voters. Most major TV channels and newspapers promoted the policies of the government and gave it extensive editorial coverage, limiting the diversity of views.”[4] The stop-start to the election period caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and time to form a government affected the adoption and implementation of legislation related to some commitments, such as 11 and 12 (on access to information) and 14 (on e-civic engagement). [5] Commitments 11 and 12 were assessed as noteworthy in Serbia’s IRM Design Report, but because of the delays to implementation (despite being carried over from the previous action plan), they have no early results so are not analyzed in Section 2.3. In fact, there was little substantial change in government practice for many of the commitments that were dependent on new laws and bylaws being passed.[6]

The COVID-19 pandemic also directly affected the limited implementation of commitments 3 and 13, as explained in Section 2.2.

Open data and fiscal transparency commitments in this action plan generally saw progress in their implementation, although commitment 1 on releasing the state budget in an open data form had not started by the end of this cycle. This is despite the Ministry of Finance’s reappearing as the lead implementing agency for this commitment since the 2014–2016 cycle and that ensuring financial plans and expenditures in an open format was one of the key IRM recommendations from the 2016–2018 cycle.[7]

Nevertheless, notable steps were made in access to information, as the government made available datasets on the structure of civil society in Serbia in a machine-readable format and saw a case of data reuse.[8] Furthermore, as a result of 2018–2020 Action Plan, the government requires that public authorities disclose more information about public financing of media, and the Media Register portal started displaying such details, which promises to increase transparency and enable better tracing of money flows in this sector. Finally, within the aims to improve the business environment, the government engaged with the business community and simplified, streamlined and digitized a number of frequent and complicated administrative procedures.

COVID-19 Pandemic impact on implementation

The COVID-19 pandemic inevitably affected the implementation of commitments, as the Serbian government introduced a severe state of emergency[9] and redirected resources to response and recovery. As a large share of the administration worked from home during the crisis, the OGP working group (which monitors progress of the action plan) reoriented towards online sessions, which helped sustain engagement in the process and implementation of activities.

The response to the pandemic delayed the implementation of some commitments. For example, the reallocation of human resources and unplanned costs that stemmed from government decisions to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic led to activities within commitments 3 (portal for reporting on expenditure of local funds for environmental protection) and 13 (joint trainings for civil society and public servants) being either delayed or not fully implemented.[10], The switch to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic gave some crucial institutions, such as the Office for IT and eGovernment, much higher workloads than expected on top of already being involved in five commitments from the 2018–2020 action plan.

The government undertook some activities in response to the pandemic that supported open government practices. The government published open data statistics daily on the COVID-19 situation in the country,[11] published information and hotline numbers on government websites, created Viber channels for informing and interacting with citizens,[12] and created an online portal to help the isolated or quarantined parts of population with information about free platforms for distance learning and free entertainment content.[13] However, civil society expressed strong criticism for the lack of transparency during the state of emergency.[14] Medical data and information on emergency public procurement were not publicly available.[15] Some institutions applied “strict confidentiality” or “business secret” exemptions to requests for information on procurement related to the COVID-19 pandemic.[16] Additionally, some media faulted the government for data manipulation, demonstrating that officially reported numbers of the infected and deceased did not match journalists’ insights into databases, especially during the pre-election period.[17]

More broadly, the government prolonged deadlines for conducting administrative procedures during the state of emergency, but this limited responsiveness to requests for access to information.[18] The government also issued a decision banning dissemination of information on COVID-19 by anyone except the core government crisis response team. Experts assessed the latter decision as a drastic violation of freedom of expression, freedom of the media and the right to be informed.[19] The decision was withdrawn shortly afterwards, but parts of the public remained discontented with the government’s overall crisis management.[20]

The national elections and disruption from measures to tackle COVID-19 (such as the prohibition on gatherings) meant parliament did not meet throughout lockdown and had no role in decision-making. The European Commission noted that, “the parliament only convened just over six weeks after the state of emergency was called, which limited its ability to scrutinize the executive during this period.”[21]

However, the government developed many technological solutions and digitized access to some public services (including health services).[22] The government also set up a national volunteer platform, engaging 7,000 citizens in 17 municipalities to help those in need.[23]

[1] For more information, see: https://www.opengovpartnership.org/process/accountability/about-the-irm/irm-refresh/

[2] Twelve of the 14 commitments in the previous action plan (2016-2018) were fully or substantially completed. See IRM End of Term Report 2016-2018, OGP IRM, https://www.opengovpartnership.org/documents/serbia-end-of-term-report-2016-2018/

[3] Interviewed POC, 20 November 2020.

[4] ODIHR Special Election Assessment Mission Final Report, OSCE ODIHR, 7 October 2020 https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/a/3/466026.pdf  

[5] The new Government of Serbia was formed after the end of the implementation period, on 28 October 2020, which was also more than four months after parliamentary elections.

[6] Commitments that incorporated or were dependent on some kind of legislative change included 3,4,6,9,10,11,12 and 14.

[7] See Serbia Mid-Term Report 2016-2018, available at https://www.opengovpartnership.org/documents/serbia-mid-term-report-2016-2018-year-1/ (retrieved in November 2020)

[8] See https://neprofitne.rs/

[9] The state of emergency lasted from 15 March 2020, until 6 May 2020. Measures included, for example, a mandatory curfew from Mondays through Thursdays 5 p.m. – 5 a.m. and all weekend-long curfews. For residents over 65 in urban areas and 70 in rural areas, a complete 24-hour curfew was in place except on Saturday from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. for buying groceries. See: OECD, “The COVID-19 Crisis in Serbia”, 2020, https://www.oecd.org/south-east-europe/COVID-19-Crisis-in-Serbia-archive.pdf (retrieved in May 2020).

[10] Fourth meeting of the special inter-ministerial working group for developing the 2020–2022 action plan, 18 November 2020, and Draft Self-Assessment Report 2018-2020 for Serbia, November 2020, available at http://mduls.gov.rs/wp-content/uploads/Kona%C4%8Dni-izve%C5%A1taj-samoprocena-o-implementaciji-AP-OGP-2018-2020.-FINAL-1.docx. (retrieved in November 2020), OCCS representative, additional response received on 13 January 2021.

[11] Available at https://covid19.data.gov.rs/. (retrieved in November 2020)

[12] For example, a Viber chatbot providing medical information, prevention measures and guidelines, or a Viber community “My school” to enable parents and students to receive school-related notifications.

[13] Digitalna solidarnost, available at https://www.digitalnasolidarnost.gov.rs/. (retrieved in November 2020)

[14] An example can be read here: Pavle Popović and Miloš Đinđić, COVID-19 Reminds Us of the Government’s Perpetual Communication Flaws, European Policy Centre (CEP), 20 May 2020, https://cep.org.rs/en/blogs/covid-19-reminds-us-of-the-governments-perpetual-communication-flaws/ (retrieved in November 2020).

[15] For example, information on the needs of health institutions, information on the procurement of ventilators and other medical equipment, how much equipment and medical supplies and at what price Serbia bought during the state of emergency, and how much did it receive in donations. See more: Transparency Serbia, “Javnost rada Vlade2019. i 2020. – šta je ostalo zipovano, a šta postalo nedostupno?”, May 2020, p. 8, https://www.transparentnost.org.rs/images/dokumenti_uz_vesti/Izvestaj_o_javnost_rada_Vlade_2019_i_2020_-_maj_2020.pdf (retrieved in May 2021).

[16] Centre for Investigative Journalism of Serbia, “Podaci o nabavci respiratora i broju testova – tajna”, CINS.RS, 7 July 2020, https://www.cins.rs/podaci-o-nabavci-respiratora-i-broju-testova-tajna/ (retrieved in May 2021).

[17] Natalija Jovanović, Serbia Under-Reported COVID-19 Deaths and Infections, Data Shows, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, 22 June 2020, https://balkaninsight.com/2020/06/22/serbia-under-reported-covid-19-deaths-and-infections-data-shows/ (retrieved in November 2020)

[18] The government issued the Decree on the Application of Deadlines in Administrative Proceedings During the State of Emergency (Official Gazette no 41/2020-3, 43/2020-3) by which timeframe for undertaking administrative actions, completion of administrative procedures and deciding on declared legal remedies (which also includes responding to freedom of information requests) during the state of emergency was delayed to maximum 30 days from the termination of the state of emergency. The Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights argue that many public authorities interpreted the statement welcoming the adoption of the Decree by the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance, to not require them to respond to requests until the state of emergency was lifted, thus in practice effectively suspending access to information. See: Katarina Golubović et al. “Ljudska prava i COVID-19”,  YUCOM, Belgrade, p. 13, https://www.yucom.org.rs/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Yucom_Covid_layout_SRP_all-1.pdf (retrieved in May 2021).

[19] Nenad Nešić, Struka upozorava: Centralizovanje informisanja je kršenje Ustava i zakona, RS.N1INFO.COM, 1 April 2020, https://bit.ly/3c5Mg0i (retrieved in November 2020)

[20] Patrick Kingsley, Serbia Protests Meet Violent Response in Europe’s 1st Major Virus Unrest, The New York Times, 8 July 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/08/world/europe/serbia-protests-coronavirus.html (retrieved in November 2020)

[21] European Commission, “Commission Staff Working Document: Serbia 2020 Report”, Brussels, 6.10.2020, p. 4, https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/serbia_report_2020.pdf (retrieved in May 2021).

[22] For example: online self-assessment of COVID-19 symptoms with further guidance; electronic scheduling of appointments for PCR testing and free automatic notification about the result via SMS or email; electronic scheduling for psychological testing at preschools; online enrollment in secondary school; distance learning platforms for elementary and high school students; e-greenmarket platform established to make supplies more accessible to persons in isolation and at the same time help small food producers.

[23] Office for IT and eGovernment, Preko 7000 volontera angažovano putem platforme “Budi volonter”, 23 April 2020, https://www.ite.gov.rs/vest/4947/preko-7000-volontera-angazovano-putem-platforme-budi-volonter.php (retrieved in November 2020)

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