Conclusions and recommendations
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a collaboration meltdown in many of the case we investigated, CSOs provided flexible voluntary services even during this period. This disengagement happened despite the fact that municipalities had to establish strong, transparent and accountable measures to ensure proper funding allocation and regulation almost overnight. This phenomenon draws our attention to the resilience and sustainability of collaborative practices. Civic ecosystems have to identify and enforce baseline requirements for democratic governance, including remedies for the logistical and capacity constraints that contributed to the near shutdown of local governance mechanisms. Coming up with quick responses to unforeseen circumstances by involving and linking up local stakeholders is in everyone’s interest. Ensuring continuity instead of having to start from scratch again and again presupposes permanent links between the civic ecosystem and the local administration, as well as knowledge transfers and organic development between waves of mobilization, even in the face of occasional stagnation and dead-ends. Civic initiatives that reach maturity could serve as incubators for other initiatives that perform more specialized activities in different organizational formats (see the case studies “ULE – Hungary,” “Dąbrowa Górnicza – Poland”).
Several instruments are available for strengthening the internal coherence of a local civic ecosystem. Perhaps the most important element is the availability of public information. Local administrations must inform the public, provide regularly updated and accessible information about the policy process and share data to foster evidence-based advocacy and real-time public assessment. Local governments have to develop and adhere to transparent, user-friendly procedures in decision making to encourage civic participation. Strategic planning and policy programs are important tools for synchronizing public demands and political will. There will probably always be decisions that are made before those affected hear about them, leaving them with no option but to accept them, but this should be reduced to a minimum. Our interviewees often cited a lack of responsiveness to social inputs, a systemic lack of communication and a lack of honesty. One of the key elements of local governance that our research identified is the operation of local media. Media coverage is an important resource for advocacy groups, which is often unevenly distributed among the actors while favoring those who are close to the decision makers. While there are good examples of independent editorial work, most often the only possibility for CSOs is to create alternative coverage for their work. For example, whether or not a city grants an organization permission to post on its official social media page is subject to little or no formal regulation, with no possibilities of appeal. In such cases of deliberate exclusion, a coordinated action of various actors is needed. Even the formal institutions of the local civil society, such as CSO roundtables, which have been set up to provide for regular consultation with the local government and to act as a common lobbying platform for the whole civic ecosystem, strive to solve the problem of disproportionate media coverage.
Our respondents observed the same problem with regard to the distribution of local government funding, which led to the decision of several organizations not to accept financial or non-monetary support. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the financial aspect is central for many local governments when it comes to partnerships; and to some extent, civic independence is “compromised” anyway whenever a CSO is cooperating with a local government (see the case studies “C8 – Hungary” and “Gorzów Wielkopolski – Poland”). While any modification of the funding schemes is a potential source of conflict, a restructuring of the resources (such as grants, administrative services and other goods or services) is often badly needed to strengthen the civic ecosystem. As a general rule, a clear distinction should be made between project funding and the remuneration for public services, where different solutions compete with each other. Project funding plays an important role in improving civil society. As the diversity of available resources contributes to increased adaptability, a flexible and applicant-friendly grant distribution system should be combined with community organization methods. The funding system must put local outcomes first, rather than the reputations of specific organizations, with an emphasis on projects that strengthen the local civic ecosystem (e.g. to bridge the digital divide, involve marginalized groups, promote volunteering etc.). Local governments can serve this purpose also by other innovative means, such as co-funding local crowdfunding or participatory budgeting initiatives, where projects are implemented through ad-hoc coalitions. Likewise, CSOs can play an active role in organizing different groups to elaborate a proposal. Through involvement in budgetary processes, CSOs can monitor local authorities and public service delivery to create an enabling environment for engaging with citizens.
Finally, there is an urgent need for cooperation between local governments and local civil society to come up with joint advocacy initiatives for higher-level policy change. This is all the more important, since it is often higher-level regulations that make cooperation between the two sides impossible. While the trust of local actors in EU institutions is high, these institutions seem ill-equipped in terms of funding, capacity and tools to respond to the shrinking space for civil society, or to marshal the combined pressure of external and local actors in advocating for shared policy goals. A strong political or financial incentive from the donor community in the form of powerful campaign hooks that the local civil society could use would entail a major policy shift. Several respondents also raised the need to review the calls for proposals and tender procedures open to NGOs. While EU institutions and the embassies of Western countries continue to act as an engine for the promotion of democracy and human rights, it is quite telling that our interviews made no references to EU programs when it came to participation, involvement and partnership. Some respondents even claimed that the local administration is not prepared for the joint application for such project-based grants. In these contexts, the EU should increase support to CSOs to build their capacities for engagement with local authorities and local communities, with a view to promoting joint participation in policy-making. The capacity to foster such collaborations is an important asset when it comes to strengthening the democratic space and reestablishing trust in representative democracy in Central and Eastern Europe.