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Faces of Open Government – Vuk Vujnovic

In this section of the OGP newsletter, we feature individuals from government and civil society, and ask them about their experiences. Here is what they have to say:

 

How does open government make a difference in people’s lives?

Open government brings democracy back to its roots and gives people a real say in how their communities and nations are governed. It’s about engaging citizens in the planning, design and implementation of public policies. But it is also about pooling together the skills and resources of entire societies and helping governments to create better policies, ones that are more in tune with people’s actual needs, expectations or concerns.

I strongly believe that the global open government movement is not a passing craze, but rather an irreversible process of gradually setting new democracy standards for today’s world.

 

How have you benefited from exchanging ideas with civil society?

In my experience, public administration can benefit greatly by being true to open government principles. For one thing, public authorities alone rarely have all the resources and skills they need for the most effective design and implementation of public policies. The resources and skills of the civil society and the engagement of individual citizens can help the authorities to perform better.

Furthermore, whether we like it or not, public authorities are not always the most credible source of information. Partnership with civil society and meaningful citizen engagement can, therefore, bring more credibility and greater public confidence in government efforts.

Applying the principles of open government has proven particularly valuable when introducing a policy that requires active citizen involvement, or a major change in people’s behaviour. Citizens, generally, have very little motivation to engage or change their behaviour when they are kept at the receiving end of traditional public awareness campaigns, where they have little or no say in what is going on. However, we have learnt that many people are willing to invest their personal time and effort and even dramatically change their behaviour, if their efforts can make a real impact and create new value in their communities.

 

Describe one OGP commitment from your country that you are proud of.

I’m particularly proud of the way the authorities and civil society in Montenegro have worked together to engage citizens and tackle one of the most pressing economic problems in the nation – the informal or grey economy.

Much of the problem was the broad public tolerance of informal economy and people’s traditional reluctance to report it to the authorities. For years, the authorities had tried with public awareness campaigns, promotional videos, educational programs, etc., but the effects remained very limited.

Eventually, in 2013, the government partnered with a civil society group – a group of students and professors at the Podgorica Faculty of Electrical Engineering, who had developed a mobile app and website called Be Responsible (Budi odgovoran). The app allowed smartphone users to take photos of different forms of informal economy, such as fake cash register receipts issued in bars and restaurants, black marketeering or violation of consumer rights in shops and supermarkets, and report them to the authorities.

In order to motivate people to engage and help the tax authorities to discover and tackle informal economy, the government decided to invest half of revenues from fines resulting from citizens’ reports in community projects that were proposed and voted on by citizens themselves.

In just one year, more than 5000 citizens (Montenegro has the population of only 620,000) reported cases of informal economy to the authorities, generating 1.1 million euros in fines. The government delivered on its promise and invested half of this amount, 550,000 euros, in 11 community projects, including procurement of medical equipment for a children’s hospital, renovation of an old people’s home, landscaping of a local park, renovation of day care centres for disabled children, equipping of public kindergartens, etc.

Therefore, by working together government and civil society managed to address a major economic issue, generate public revenues, raise public awareness, change behaviour and create social good in local communities.

 

How are you working to overcome challenges in opening up government in your country?

I feel that one of the often overlooked challenges in opening up government, especially in the so-called young democracies, is to avoid replacing one form of a one-way relationship between government and civil society with another one.

Traditionally, governments were creating policies behind closed doors and only informing the public at the end of the policy making process, without offering much opportunities for participation. Nowadays, there is a tendency of replacing this obsolete practice with a new form of a one-way relationship, where civil society organizations focus most of their efforts on requesting information and monitoring and evaluating what public authorities are doing, still without any real engagement or collaboration. In either of these cases public and civil sector are not really working together and are not engaging citizens.  

Although civil society undeniably plays an immensely important role in pushing for greater government transparency and accountability, I strongly believe that the global open government movement can only realize its true potential if it goes beyond this combative, yet complacent, relationship between government and civil society, towards real partnership and collaboration and, perhaps most importantly, empowerment and active engagement of citizens.   

In my view, the best way to overcome the challenges in opening up government is to work hard to build a critical mass of collaboration case studies that will clearly demonstrate the benefits of government and civil society working together to create added value in terms of building better policies and giving people more say in how their communities are governed.