Background of the study
The relationship between local governments and civic organizations has always been a dynamic one, and it has witnessed several challenges in recent years. This is particularly true for local organizations and informal initiatives that seeking collaboration with the authorities, but at the same time adopt a confrontational strategy in their advocacy and interest representation activities. The present study provides an overview of cooperation between civil society organizations (CSOs) engaged in significant advocacy activities on the one hand and local governments in the Central East European region on the other. This report has been prepared by three partner organizations, one from each of the three countries, that share an interest in NGO-municipal collaborations, anti-corruption and community participation. K-Monitor (Hungary), ePanstwo Foundation (Poland) and Funky Citizens (Romania) conducted research in their respective countries and explored the experiences and difficulties of local partnerships. It is based on 64 interviews with representatives from 35 organizations in 35 different local entities (cities, towns or districts).
The aim of the research is to support bottom-up democratic reform by sharing experiences of self-organizing communities, to ensure oversight of local governance and to increase the capacity for developing democratic processes at the local level through collaborative practices of reform. The study was ultimately driven by the aim of fostering experiments in NGO-municipal cooperation, and of providing valuable insights into existing processes of trial and error in public participation, advocacy and civic technology innovation. Based on the results of this study, the CSOs involved will prepare recommendations and advocacy guidelines for local actors. To support bottom-up democratic reform, self-organizing communities must be strengthened – not only to ensure civil society oversight of political forces and to anchor democratic practices at the local level, but also to improve the quality of local governance, contribute to the emergence of the next generation of activists and politicians, and broaden this primary entry point for political participation and representation.
Rooted in our shared vision of a democratic future, where civic advocacy is an explicit component of the political process, we jointly elaborated a definition of cooperation between local government and civil society. Our goal was to map the most innovative cases of civic-municipal cooperation, with terms and conditions reflect the autonomous interaction of the parties involved, a process in which consensus and conflict are in dynamic tension. Therefore, we decided to narrow the scope of analysis to the topics of transparency, anti-corruption, citizen monitoring of public services, participatory urban planning, participatory budgeting, community involvement programs, civic technology collaboration, and – as a general principle – to any institutionalized, long-standing cooperation between local governments and citizens or NGOs in which actual power is shared with or delegated to social actors in the course of the policy cycle. We were looking for collaborations that are both substantial partnerships and lasting relationships, but we excluded cases of out-contracted public services, one-time collaborations or externally determined frameworks such as EU grants.
Based on the above description, the selection of cases took place through an iterative process of exploring existing practices in each country, starting with desk research of the fragmented landscape of such collaboration. We concentrated on settlements with more than 10,000 inhabitants, where collaborative relations are more formalized and less dependent on interpersonal relationships. Nevertheless, we also sought to include more peripheral cases that usually receive less media coverage. We used a snowball sampling method to reach out to relevant interviewees, focusing on collaborations that happened in the past five years. Instead of aiming for an all-encompassing overview of the whole spectrum of cases or a macro-level analysis reflecting the experiences of the majority of actors involved in collaborative practices, our aim was to arrive at a more profound understanding of the narratives that our informants use when they confront the recurring problems of local-level politics. The focus on their efforts to transcend the difficulties of their respective contexts helps to foster our understanding of how problems are perceived in these collaborations, especially regarding conflict-of-interest situations and role dilemmas. Further, the research sought to uncover how interviewees express themselves about topics such as democracy, sustainability, participatory governance, policy making, community building, advocacy or democratic deficits. Thus, instead of conducting research on innovative practitioners, we as researchers – but also as activists – aimed to engage in a dialog with them to test our normative assumptions about citizen participation.
After the preliminary desk research to map relevant examples of NGO-municipal collaboration, we followed a qualitative approach using semi-structured in-depth interviews. In order to be able to create guidelines for advocacy campaigns and improve local governance mechanisms, the interviews covered various issues. Overall, three main topics were discussed. First, we addressed general issues such as the history of the organization, the interviewees’ understanding of their field and network, and their motivation to pursue collaborative practices. Secondly, we explored the details of collaboration: how it came about, who initiated it, and how the dynamic changed over time. Thirdly, the interviewees were asked about the challenges they face and how they might be overcome. Between May and July 2020, we conducted around 20 interviews in each country (64 in total) with key experts, local government representatives and civil society activists, which have been transcribed for further analysis.