Social Good Summit meet-up in Montenegro – Exploring frontiers of citizens’ participation

Oct 3, 2013

Sanja Bojanic, Democratic Governance Cluster Leader. Photo by: UNDP in Montenegro

Written by: Sanja Bojanic, Democratic Governance Cluster Leader

A panel devoted to the theme of “Citizens’ participation – using new technologies, social media and innovation to engage citizens in addressing development” was Montenegro’s contribution to a three day global quest for Social Good, the Social Good Summit. With panelists gathered from government, media, civil society, international organizations, university and private sector, an interesting discussion was instigated that I tried to sum up in five key messages.

1. Level of citizens' engagement depends on the trust in the system and response of institutions to civic actions/initiatives

It was obvious that much of the citizens' participation in Montenegro was still far from the real engagement. We are mainly at the level of informing and consulting the citizens with some ongoing initiatives attempting to get citizens more active in reporting grey economy, ecological issues, etc. The biggest challenge with the “reporting” engagement is institutional response. Where institutional response is weak, inadequate, already low motivation, caused by the citizens’ lack of trust in the system, is further reduced and citizens’ participation decreased ...Kind of a vicious circle that needs to be broken ... and the experience of the private sector confirmed numerous benefits of doing so. As our private sector panelist puts it "engaging clients results in better product/service, loyal and happy customer meaning increased value for both sides". Media representative had the same take on the issue and was actually using social media to engage citizens to "report directly, to create and verify the news as it makes citizens feel part of the process and subsequently more active and responsible".

2. New technologies and social media are tools not solutions; (off-line) engagement - motivation and readiness to engage are the issues to be addressed

It was also clear that new technologies, social media and innovation were not seen as the solution to the participation problem, but rather as a potential enabler or facilitator, as a tool that can speed things up and reduce costs. The challenge of motivating citizens’ to engage was recognized as well as the need to deal with it. NGOs in the panel underlined the need to increase off-line and on-line participation, pointing to the legacy of the socialist system and traditional society that both undermine the spirit of active citizenry especially in the case of youth (and I would add women). Recent study done by the UN System in Montenegro showed that 36% of young people in Montenegro think that important decisions should be made by adults, while 54% of them think that it is not possible to influence social and political processes in the country, and 40% think that young people should not be active in politics. Taking this into account it is not surprising that only 7.3% of young people participated in a public debate on a law, strategy, local plan, or other important local or national issue. Majority of Montenegrin citizens think that the biggest support for the young to become active participants in development of society comes from family (41%), which is followed by town (17.4%), their own initiative (11.4%), while state support is seen as one of the lowest (4.6%).

3. Development of both “supply” and “demand” side is needed for increased citizens’ participation

Increased citizens' participation will require to work in parallel on increasing “supply” and “demand”. Supply in a sense of opening more off-line and on-line channels of communication that would be not only information sharing and consultations but also real citizens' engagement channels as well as opening of the public data, opening of the institutions and their processes to public scrutiny. On the demand side, awareness of the public (especially youth it seems) needs to be raised about their rights and responsibilities, about their role in the society and the available channels for influencing issues from public policy to community development, etc. In that sense the experience of (with) the private sector related to client engagement can be precious while the role of the education system and media (and family I would add) in building an active citizenry is critical.

4. Values we impart in our children will determine how tools including social media will be used and what course the society will take

For some panelists growing twitter community in Montenegro, the way it is reacting to certain social issues and contributing to moving offline discussions on-line and the other way around, was seen as a potential catalyst of the activism and as such worth strengthening and building up on. Some people in the audience were warning about exclusion of those off-line and that it (twitter, social media in general) can be used to mobilize for “bad” as well as for the “good”. This brings us to the important issue of the ethics in social media and the conclusion that - like with the atomic energy, the gun powder and other inventions - it is not so much about what it is created for but about what we do with it. And for that again, values we impart in our children, in families and in school, have long lasting impact on the course that the society will take.

5. (Increased) openness and transparency are contributing to improved citizens’ participation, while capacities and attitude of administration may be a limitation for it

Government clearly recognizes the need to apply new technologies, use social media and innovation.  A web platform and mobile application developed (as part of one of UNDP projects) by a team from the University, supported by a journalist, is being used to fight grey economy; Government is planning to introduce 200 new e-services until 2016; E-petitions portal was launched last year (with UNDP support); Government has a twitter account… But, institutional response and openness to public scrutiny needs to be enhanced, more channels of communication and data opened, citizens’ trust in the system boosted for their motivation to engage to increase, both off-line and on-line. Capacities of the public administration are a limitation in relation to the current level of use of new technologies and social media but even more so in relation to the readiness for the (required) mind and attitude shift from being a state employee to being a civil servant.

Full video of the event and additional information can be accessed here.

Written by: Sanja Bojanic, Democratic Governance Cluster Leader at the UNDP in Montenegro

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