Seminar on good democratic governance at local and regional level

Strasbourg, 17-18 June 2013

Initiatives to develop citizen and civil society participation at local level

Speech by Raymond Svensson Rapporteur on partnership between local and regional authorities and civil society, Congress of Local and Regional Authorities

It is a great pleasure for me to take the floor at this seminar, not least because I am quite passionate indeed about the subject of this session. Bringing together local and regional authorities and civil society is a crucial factor in increasing citizen participation at the grassroots in very practical and tangible terms.

When we are speaking today of the need for participatory democracy, for greater citizen participation in democratic governance, which cannot be limited only to elections, we inevitably conclude that the best way of achieving this is by introducing the elements of direct democracy into the representative democratic system.

Yet, direct citizen participation implies self-organisation of society, of citizens themselves, into action groups representing citizens’ interests and aspirations – which we normally refer to as civil society. Thus, interaction between the institutions of governance and civil society is a logical and effective channel of bringing citizens on board as we speak about their involvement in decision-making and governing processes.

This, in turn, can be organised in the most practical way at the level of our communities, through consultations with civil society organisations, through citizen councils and assemblies, in order to chart out future public action, tailor it to the citizens’ needs and receive constant feedback on the performance of local and regional authorities in implementing the agreed priorities.

In addition to regular meetings with the local population as a form of such consultations, new technologies offer great opportunities for ensuring a constant exchange between the authorities and citizens.

There are a growing number of examples of such practices at local and regional levels across Europe.  For example, a conference on local citizen participation, organised in April in Ludwigsburg, Germany, examined the relevant experience in particular of the Land Baden-Württemberg, where local consultations with citizens on future and on-going infrastructural projects are common practice and subject to specific allocations of municipal budgets. Specific procedures have been developed to organise such consultations which are carried out online, on a dedicated website.

Participatory budgeting is another form of civil society participation at local level. Under this innovative practice, the initiatives of citizens and civil society – many of which may have their own external funding – are included into local budgets according to municipal priorities.

This practice is gaining ground today in particular in Germany, Scandinavian countries and the United Kingdom. In Portugal voters are consulted during the preparation of the annual local budget to see which capital spending plans they consider the most important. I know that the European Committee on Local and Regional Democracy recently organised a seminar on the subject of participatory budgeting.

Yet another common practice of engaging citizens and civil society is through local referenda. A 2011 report of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities on citizen participation at local and regional levels in Europe shows that the local referendum – sometimes known as “local public opinion poll” – is the most widespread form of direct citizen participation today, being used in almost all Council of Europe member states.

Apart from local referenda, popular initiatives, different kinds of public meetings of local residents and, particularly in smaller municipalities, people’s assemblies are relatively widespread procedures. In a large number of countries, local citizens are consulted in various ways on specific issues prior to the final decision of the local council, and the popular initiative is also used for requesting and surveying the preferences and opinions of local citizens before a final decision.

The Congress’ report also points out that direct democracy is compatible with most constitutional frameworks in member states and that, while the broad principles of citizen participation are established by national law, their practical implementation is left by and large at the discretion of local and regional authorities. This is why, based on this report, the Congress has adopted a resolution and a recommendation aimed at establishing proper mechanisms to ensure such participation at the grassroots.  

The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities has always been convinced of the crucial need to promote and enhance the participation of citizens at local level, and we are very pleased that the European Committee on Local and Regional Democracy shares this conviction.

Our co-operation led to the adoption, in 2009, of the Additional Protocol to the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which deals with the right of citizens to participate in the affairs of a local authority and with the obligations of both national and local governments to provide conditions for such participation. It is heartening to see a growing number of member states signing and ratifying this Additional Protocol today. 

Coincidentally, but not surprisingly, also in 2009 the Conference of international non-governmental organisations having participatory status with the Council of Europe elaborated a Code of Good Practice for Civil Participation in the Decision-Making Process, which is aimed at engaging civil society at the grassroots and bringing together local and regional authorities and civil society organisations to foster citizen participation.

In June 2009, the Congress adopted an opinion in support of this Code, stressing that the participation of civil society in the conduct of public affairs is one of the democratic principles shared by all Council of Europe member states.

 Today, we feel that this Code is not sufficiently known or implemented at local and regional levels and needs a boost to be successful. The INGO Conference has also observed that, although well used by NGOs, local and regional authorities are not implementing the Code as extensively as they could.

This prompted me to propose a report in the Current Affairs Committee of the Congress on partnerships between local and regional authorities and civil society to foster active citizenship and citizen participation. At its meeting on 19 March 2013, the Committee approved this proposal.

This new report will:

- examine the obstacles to implementation of the Code at local and regional levels;

- explore how to adapt it to make it more accessible to local and regional authorities; and

- make proposals which will contribute to drafting a new authority-friendly version of the Code by the INGO Conference.

It has been proposed to establish a joint working group between the Congress and the INGO Conference to prepare the report, which will build on earlier Congress reports on the subject: on partnership between local and regional authorities and NGOs in Council of Europe member states, adopted in 2008, and on NGOs and local and regional democracy, adopted in 2003.

I would mention three other frameworks that have brought about good practices in engaging citizens and civil society at the grassroots. One is the revised European Charter on youth participation at local and regional level that promotes the engagement of young people and their organisations – which are of course part of civil society.

The practices proposed under the Charter – in particular the establishment of local and regional youth councils and assemblies – are becoming increasingly widespread in Europe, and the Congress is currently examining new ways of engaging young people in democracy, in particular through the use of new technologies and social media. This was the subject of a Congress report in October last year.

The second framework is the Council of Europe Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level, which calls for engaging associations of migrants and foreign residents and for setting up consultative councils of foreign residents at local and regional levels.

This is another practice that is gaining ground in Europe, and the Congress has produced a wealth of recommendations on the integration of migrants and foreign residents as well as on fostering intercultural dialogue at the grassroots, all of which call for the targeted interaction with associations of migrants and cultural minorities.

Last but not least, I should mention the European Local Democracy Week, an initiative which was launched in 2007 jointly by the Congress and CDLR and which is now into its sixth year, having become a truly pan-European event with the participation of hundreds of municipalities in more than 30 countries.

The Local Democracy Week, marked in mid-October every year, brings together local authorities and citizens to assess the priorities of local development and learn from each other. This year’s edition, coincidentally, is dedicated to fostering citizen participation at local level. We strongly hope that this initiative will spread further and will involve more and more local authorities each year.

For me, the central issue is to develop a democracy that is sustainable. This implies four things:

- an open, transparent society with public access to documents as a matter of principle;

- transparent decision-making procedures;

- good working conditions for our NGOs;

- a well-structured dialogue between local authorities and civil society groups. The Code of Good Practice for Civil Participation in the Decision-Making Process can be an important tool in this respect.

I would like to conclude by stressing once again that we consider non-governmental organizations and civil society at large as crucial partners of local and regional authorities in addressing the needs of citizens and in boosting citizen participation in democracy.

Partnership between civil society and public authorities is absolutely indispensable for participatory democracy to be effective.