Increasing public access to information on local governments
Since 1995, when the Federal Law on Local Self-government was adopted, the development of local self-government in Russia has brought tangible results. The level of competence and responsibility of actors in local self-government has been defined, and local governments have became an independent branch of power. Though by nature this type of power presupposes the broad participation of citizens in the political and economic decision-making on the local level, in practice only few local groups contribute to this process. This is mainly due to, on the one hand, the lack of mechanisms and procedures for such participation, and on the other hand, the social passivity of local groups.
Following the financial crisis of 1998, local self-government in Russia has developed under the conditions of cuts in federal and regional funds. The perception that local self-government should rely primarily on its own resources is becoming stronger. As a result, the issue of citizen participation is critical to the majority of local administrations.
To ensure such participation, citizens should be fully and adequately informed on policies, programs and the daily practices of local governments. To be open and transparent before the local communities, local administrations need new approaches to the development and implementation of local information policies.
This research project will be based on my professional experience in the area of public administration reform. Since 1994 I have worked at the Eurasia Foundation, an American grant-making organization that supports economic and democratic reforms in the NIS. Since 1999 I have supervised the public sector programs implemented by the Moscow Regional Office of this organization.
From 1997 through 2000 I managed the Eurasia Foundation’s program aimed at promoting local government reforms in the north, north-west, and central regions of Russia. Seventeen projects were carried out to strengthen the capacities of municipal information centers in order to broaden the spectrum of services they offer to both the local administrations and citizens. My responsibilities included monitoring the implementation of grants and managing impact evaluations of these projects. In January 2000, together with the Institute for Urban Economics, I organized and conducted a final conference for program participants. The program and conference were well received by experts in municipal management and information technology.
The potential of municipal information centers to serve citizens as well as governments has not been fully realized. Local administrators consider the centers to be “closed units” addressing the exclusive needs and demands of administrators. However, the centers have the potential to become an effective and friendly supplier of information about the activities of local governments to citizens. They can also provide “a virtual space” for meetings and contacts between local administrators, local journalists and community groups. Finally, the information center facilities, both physical and virtual, can provide consultations to citizens on procedures of municipal grant competitions and tenders, licensing and registration, taxation etc.
In the course of my research, I intend to summarize the data from the local municipalities on technologies and approaches that have been used for the creation and development of municipal information centers. The potential of municipal information centers to increase public access to information on local governments will be analyzed. Based on data from 17 municipalities in the north, north-west and central regions of Russia, the existing resources of municipal information centers will be described and their availability for local communities will be researched.
To build an information bridge to local communities, local governments should also broadly use other information resources such as municipal libraries, mass media, municipal web-sites etc. All these components form a municipal information system. In practice, however, these resources have not been fully utilized. The Russian Foundation for Legal Reforms, with the financial support of the World Bank, has overseen a program to establish local centers of legal information, including that of federal and municipal level, within municipal libraries in the smaller cities of Russia. The project succeeded in those cities where the idea was fully accepted and supported by local governments. Within the last two years, the majority of city administrations in Russia launched city web-sites. In many cases, however, the sites are not informative, as they contain only general information about the city, and target at city visitors. Information on municipal programs, local expenditures and municipal services has been posted on a few sites. An interactive page to gather feedback from the local community, as a rule, has not been designed.
In the course of the research project, the components of a “model” municipal information system such as a municipal library, PR department, municipal web-site etc will be described. Recommendations on the format and spectrum of information services they should provide to adequately address the needs of local communities will be made.
Within these pilot local governments, I will identify the best practices on information transparency and openness before the local communities (through the use of municipal information system).
In many cases, providing public access to official information is not a sufficient tool to make the activities of local administration transparent as the official information is not always clear for local citizens. For example, local citizens can hardly understand from a local budget law where the local funds will go and how the local community will benefit from the budget plans. To be clear and understandable, budget documentation should be followed by publications such as, for example, a Mayor’s Message where the short-term priorities for the upcoming year are explained to the local population. Professional journalists should also contribute in making the budget processes more clear and understandable. However, usually these techniques have not been taken into consideration by local administrations.
The project seeks to develop a methodology for gathering, processing and disseminating information about local governments to make their activities more transparent to local citizens. A special focus will be made for budgetary information.
Increased public assess to budgetary information is crucial for improving the local budget process and making it more transparent. The attempts of NGOs to launch a public debate on municipal finances encountered a number of obstacles, both in municipalities where the budget is guarded as if it were a “state secret”, as well as in municipalities where the budget is publicly accessible, though few citizens are able to read and understand it. As a result, the population pays taxes without knowing where its money goes. The introduction of the new Budget Code of the Russian Federation in July 1999 can considerably advance efforts in this area. According to the Code, procedures for local budget review and approval are to be open to local communities. Approved budgets and information on their implementation must be published in local mass media. It is forbidden to limit public assess to budgets with the designation “For official use only”.
The project seeks to summarize the “best practices” on transparency of local budgets and analyze the techniques of gathering and supplying this information. Recommendations on each stage of the process – gathering, processing and disseminating information – will be done.
Using the research data and results, I will develop a policy paper on information policy of local governments.