Comments by National Network for Children – Bulgaria and For Our Children Foundation
The National Network for Children – Bulgaria (NNC) and For Our Children Foundation (FOC) welcome the Council of Europe’s commitment to issue Guidelines on Civil Participation in Political Decision-Making as we believe such guidance is sorely needed by Member States. We would like to express our appreciation of the consultative way in which the Guidelines are being developed and the opportunity to comment on the draft text. In November 2015, NNC and FOC took part in a consultation meeting organised by the Conference of International Non-Governmental Organisations, whose delegation was visiting Sofia, where we took the opportunity to present our position on the way civil participation in political decision-making happens in Bulgaria. Our overall impression is that the participation of NGOs in the decision-making process suffers from a range of problems and deficiencies and while there are legal tools for participation to happen, they are often ineffective and inaccessible. There are few NGOs that have the capacity and resources to properly understand and navigate the labyrinths of decision-making processes, and even those that do are frequently side-lined and their voices are not taken into account by decision makers. The overall effect of this is that the state is deprived of the extensive expertise of NGOs in a range of areas; there is no ownership of the decisions that are taken, which the public often sees as serving the interests of decision makers and not their own; and a widespread lack of interest and disillusionment on the part of both NGOs and the public in national and local decision-making processes as a whole. Thus society as a whole suffers heavily from the underdevelopment and deficiencies related to NGO participation in decision-making. We believe some of these problems are shared across Member States and we hope that the Guidelines will lead to an improved environment for civil participation.
Comments on the Draft Guidelines
• Paragraph 3, which defines the terms of the Guidelines, lists the documents and processes where civil participation in decision-making is relevant, i.e. in any “policy document, strategy, law, regulation, or in any process where a decision that affects the public or a segment of it is made”. We would suggest adding budgets to this list, as budgeting decisions are often made with the least transparency while having a large impact on the way policies and laws are implemented. Civil participation in budgeting should be strengthened through capacity building actions for NGOs and other actors to enable meaningful participation.
• Paragraph 5 lists the principles on which civil participation should be based. We agree with the listed principles but would suggest adding two more:
1) “Creating evidence-based policy” – it is very important for policy to be based on data and evidence from scientific research and from practice and for it to draw on civil society’s expertise accumulated expertise. NGOs are often the sole carriers of significant expertise and practical work in particular areas and they can be an important source of innovation. Their participation would thus make policy evidence-based and we feel that this element needs to be strengthened across the Guidelines, and not just in Paragraph 5, so as to ensure that Member State governments understand that participation is not an end in itself but a means to better policy-making and governance.
2) “Public support” – public support is key to the success and sustainability of most reforms and policy initiatives. Effective civil participation in decision-making can ensure that this support is in place and that people will understand and abide by the decisions that are made.
• It is of utmost importance for section IV (“Prerequisites for meaningful civil participation”) to make it clear that civil participation should be regulated with strict rules and procedures that are part of the legal framework, rather than just wishful thinking policies that are not much more than aspirational and do not impose obligations on public authorities. The risk for the policy not to be implemented is significant, as shown by the Bulgarian experience – in 2009, the Bulgarian government adopted Standards for Public Consultations and introduced a central website (www.strategy.bg), through which public consultations may be carried out. However, the Standards are not mandatory and the website seems to be used only by some public bodies and only for some draft laws and policies. We believe that the Standards for Public Consultations should be improved and updated, and more importantly, made mandatory at least in relation to the work of Parliament, government ministries and the major national public institutions in order to provide a consistent and legally-bounded framework rather than various random practices as is the case currently.
• Paragraph 21 lists the levels of decision-making where civil participation should take place: “access to information, consultation, dialogue, as well as of partnership and co-decision”. We would suggest adding another level of monitoring the implementation of already adopted laws and policies and ensuring that civil society can participate effectively in the process of reviewing them regularly. It is frequently the case that a particular policy document is adopted with civil society input but thereafter does not get properly implemented. Civil participation in the monitoring and evaluation of policies is key to their long-term effectiveness and ability to meet the needs of the people they serve. States should also mandate the inclusion of impact assessments of the laws and policies that are adopted, and these should have a specific element of investigating their effect on civil society.
• Paragraph 29 discusses the need for consultations to be inclusive and ensure that marginalised and disadvantaged groups are not excluded. We believe that special attention should also be paid to children and that the principles of child participation should be specifically included in a separate paragraph in the Guidelines, as children should not be pooled together with others as a marginalised or disadvantaged group but rather their right to participation in decision making should be underlined separately. An explanation of the benefits of child participation in decision making at all levels and the need to develop specific ways in which this takes place should be included in the Guidelines as a minimum; more optimally, a separate section of the document should outline the principles and offer guidance to Member States on how to do this.
• Paragraph 31 calls for “reasonable deadlines” to be put in place for input by civil society. We think it should be more narrowly defined what constitutes “reasonable” and what time periods policy makers should adopt. We would suggest a minimum of one calendar month or 20 working days as reasonable for civil society to be able to provide input effectively.
• NGOs should be supported to build their own capacity to carry out advocacy and take part in public consultations effectively, in addition to pushing for state institutions to build capacity of their own. NGOs capacity to carry out active advocacy and campaigning for mobilising community, media, business and other stakeholders’ support for NGO proposals should be also strengthened. The Guidelines should be more specific on how authorities should enhance capacity building and active civil participation.
We hope that these observations will be considered during the discussions that will take place at the European Committee on Democracy and Governance and the subsequent drafts of the text of the Guidelines.