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A hybrid regional conference “Citizens First” is taking place in Belgrade on Thursday and Friday (February 25 – 26, 2021). The event is organized by the European Policy Center (CEP), in co-operation with five other regional organizations from the Western Balkans within the Think for Europe network, including the Foreign Policy Initiative BH. The conference is a part of WeBER2.0, a regional project dedicated to empowering civil society and citizens to be prepared to monitor and control the process of public administration reform.

Hata Kujrakovic, a student from Sarajevo, had an opportunity to open the conference and send a clear message: “Let’s look around – what do we see? We see young, educated people leaving their countries en masse. This is a consequence of the problems we face. Research shows that corruption, unemployment, poor living standards and the lack of any prospects that this will change are the main reasons for moving abroad.”

She also said that young people are especially frustrated and discouraged when they see how the public sector is employed through connections. “It is very demoralizing when we see that all the money, effort, the time we have invested in education and personal development, the sacrifices we have made – are simply not enough because we do not have a “connection”.  Because of this feeling of despair, it seems that we have only one thing left – to leave,” she said.

Tamara Srzentic, Minister of Public Administration of Montenegro, said in her introductory address that “when the community comes together to solve problems, anything is possible.” She added that it sometimes happens that policy planning and implementation are not well “connected”. “Implemented policies can be compared to a car that is loosely connected to the wheels – you will not get where you wanted and you will hurt many people on your way,” said Srzentic.

Srzentic said that policies should be made “starting with users”, that is, to have them in the foreground. “The government cannot do it alone – if you are part of the community, which we all are, we can help governments create a society that benefits us all,” Srzentic said.

Milena Lazarevic, Program Director of CEP, drew attention to the fact that it seems that the governments in the region are carrying out reforms only “because of Brussels”, and not because of their citizens. “Through many cases, it can be seen that when laws are passed and policies are considered, drafts are sent to Brussels and international actors, but public consultations, which should be at the heart of the process, are often not held,” Lazarevic said.

Lazarevic pointed out that one of the ideas of the WeBER2.0 initiative is to promote “champions from the region”, administrations that work best in the service of citizens, as examples of good practice for others. She added that only when we come out of the crisis period brought by the pandemic, we will see whether the governments have progressed, or retreated, especially when it comes to transparency in decision-making and spending budget funds”, said Lazarevic.

“A well-functioning administration is one in which processes and institutions are created to meet the needs of society using the resources at their disposal”, said Myriam Ferran, Director for Strategy and Turkey at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR).

“We want to create a system based on a partnership that works in both directions – for both civil society and the administration. This relationship is sensitive because sometimes there are obstacles and sometimes misconceptions. Therefore, it is important to build trust between civil society and the administration,” she added, emphasizing that it is not easy to build. “Issues of working with the government, administration and improving the functioning of public administration, as well as the very importance of transparency and inclusiveness, is something that EU countries are constantly working on because it should never stop,” Ferran said.

Gregor Virant, Director of SIGMA (joint initiative of OECD and EU whose goal is to support the public administration reform of countries which are in the process of to the EU and former Minister of Public Administration of Slovenia, stressed that “expectations of the speed of progress on the road to the EU in the region are high”.

“We must understand that things will not happen overnight: reforms are a long process. We should not overestimate what can be done in two years, but we should not underestimate what can be done in 10 years “, concluded Virant.

Director of FPI BH, Anida Sabanović, presented the results of WeBER 2.0 research in the field of Policy Development and Coordination, where the practice of civil society dissatisfaction with work planning, transparency and decision-making, as well as the quality of consultations with civil society continued. When it comes to reporting, there is still no focus on performance across the region and it is activity-oriented.

“It is a devastating fact that only 13% of the surveyed representatives of civil society organizations at the regional level agree to some extent that the decision-making procedures by the governments are generally transparent,” said Sabanovic.

The conference is part of the Western Balkan Civil Society Empowerment for a Reformed Public Administration (WeBER 2.0) project, implemented by the Foreign Policy Initiative BH with partners within the Think for Europe Network and in cooperation with the Brussels-based European Policy Center (EPC). For more information about the project, visit: www.par-monitor.org