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Local governance under pressure

Horizontal Study

Same questions, different contexts

Local governments and civil society organizations doing advocacy work on local issues are unlikely friends. Having examined dozens of collaborations between them, it would be misleading to place too much emphasis on interpreting interpersonal elements as a form of friendship. Behind the human components of such relationships there are systemic-structural contradictions and risks that originate at the local, national and global level. To provide stable institutional solutions for mitigating and managing external threats, trust needs to be developed and nourished among local players. But it is equally important to channel distrust and civil discontent into an open dialog based on a shared description of reality. Emanating from peculiar social and political circumstances and taking shape between actors marked by very different logics of operation and cultural attitudes, these collaborations often do not presuppose anything like friendship or mutual sympathy. Working in the shared sphere of a local community, encountering each other as unavoidable peers, decision makers and activists are faced with having to harmonize their diverging interests and value orientations in order to create something common that goes beyond their respective domains. Cooperation and conflict are not two opposing modalities that either produce a positive or a negative relationship. Instead, their interplay creates a singular “other scene” that has the potential to transform its participants and the community at large.

Democratic backsliding, which has characterized the recent history of post-socialist countries, creates an even more peculiar context for NGO-municipal cooperation at the local level. Although government policies against civil society organizations in Central Eastern and South Eastern Europe have become an inseparable part of the region’s autocratization processes,[1] anti-NGO campaigns antagonizing critical initiatives are not directly relevant in local contexts. However, most of our interviewees referenced systemic changes that have led to a closing space for civil society. Financial cuts and arbitrary funding decisions, smear campaigns and dirigiste (top-down) policies leading to political dependency are increasingly making themselves felt at the local level. Civil society organizations thus struggle to expand their activities, to develop new partnerships and to reach a broader audience with their work. Facing centralized and clientelist power structures that demand at least passive political loyalty, civil society is increasingly deprived of the substance of its functional autonomy. State-controlled media, or the municipal media at the local level, does not provide the necessary publicity for civil initiatives. This limits the abilities of CSOs to shape the political agenda, seek recognition for the problems they perceive and influence the decision-making process at an early stage. The involvement of non-governmental actors is often determined by the power holders, which creates the illusion of an all-mighty paternalist political monopoly that is using its social constituency to legitimize the status quo. Such measures contributing to a shrinking local civic space are an everyday experience for citizens and activists alike, albeit to varying degrees in different countries.

The role of local governments also differs in the three countries.[2] The rampant influence of the central government in Hungary, likely to be strengthened by ongoing centralization efforts, shifts power from the local to the national level. In Hungary, local government is fragmented and exists in a state of symbiosis with a narrow, depoliticized segment of civil society that is at constant risk of being coopted by it. In general, cooperation between CSOs and local authorities has declined in recent years, but in certain areas where local governments face serious challenges, innovative collaborations have reemerged. Since the Hungarian authorities at the national level are unresponsive, local governments are seen by many as a counterbalance to the national democratic decline. In Poland, most CSOs receive some funding from municipal governments, encompassing a vast array of programs in different areas, most commonly in sports, education, culture and social services. Informal grassroots organizations and urban movements have emerged as challengers to political incumbents and represent different local networks and policy agendas. In Romania, EU funds are often distributed through local government authorities, which has contributed to a shift toward a technocratic approach to urban governance. However, this has not resulted in a greater significance of local initiatives. Accordingly, local governments are often perceived as the more important actors, shaping the environment for CSOs and dominating the field of civic engagement. According to comprehensive research conducted by the Erste Stiftung, CSOs have a slightly positive opinion on the role of local governments in their operations in Hungary and Poland, comparable to the impact of the media and of corporations. In Romania, CSOs see local governments as equally influential as the national government, but they also have a more neutral stance toward them.

Unlike the large share of civic society that sees funding from local government as a lifeline, the local advocacy groups involved in this research pursue a more independent approach toward local authorities. But unlike highly professional national-level NGOs that are able to secure funding and other non-material resources such as access to the media and partnerships with international networks, these organizations are struggling to find a balance between local embeddedness and functional autonomy and to avoid social and political isolation. If the partnerships with local governments, the media and the business sector break down, the impact of civil society engagement significantly diminishes. To better understand the causes of this situation, we present a brief historical overview before outlining the general patterns observed in the strategic interplays of collaborative local practices in greater detail. Finally, we scrutinize the conditions that either facilitate or hamper cooperation, and their potential role in a participative turn within a given local civic ecosystem. To put this into more practical terms, we also highlight some policy-level factors that our interviewees frequently mentioned as keys to substantive collaboration.

Population (2020)9.77 million37.97 million19.41 million
GDP per capita PPP (in U.S. $) (2019)[3]34,04633,89127,998
Percentage of internet users (2020)[4]88.9%78.6%74.8%
Number of CSOs[5]81,000 CSOs, 64,000 of which are active117,000 CSOs, 80,000 of which are active62,600 CSOs, 26,000 of which are active
Percentage of the population that actively participates in civil society (2015)[6]4.7%7.3%3.6%
Percentage of the population that agrees that the work of NGOs is important for the functioning of a democratic society (2019)84%85%62%
Number of local governments at town/municipality level3,155 municipalities (among them 23 towns with county rights) + the 23 districts of Budapest (two-tiered system)2,477 municipalities (302 urban communes, including 66 cities with poviat (county) rights, 642 urban-rural and 1,533 rural communes)103 municipalities, 217 other cities (for urban areas), and 2,861 communes (for rural areas)
Average population per local government entity[7] (median population[8])3,072 (815)15,322 (7,540)6,152 (3,110)
Participation in the last local elections48.58% (2019)54.90% (first round), 48.83% (second round) (2018)48.4% (2016)
Subnational government expenditure (% of GDP)6.3%13.3%8.7%
Percentage of the population that tends to have trust in regional or local public authorities (2019)[9]57.1 %53.2 %46.08 %

The regime change period: speaking truth to power

In post-socialist countries, citizens doing advocacy work are often seen, in both a positive and negative sense, as the successors of former dissidents. In his political essay “The Power of the Powerless” written in 1978, the Czech playwright, dissident and later politician Václav Havel depicts how the very nature of communist regimes can make dissidents of ordinary citizens. By “living in truth” in their daily lives, they automatically differentiate themselves from the officially mandated culture prescribed by the state, since power is only effective inasmuch as citizens are willing to submit to it. While the pre-1989 regimes were characterized by a subsumption of society by the state, social dissidence gave birth to a second society, a parallel polis of citizens. Speaking truth to power was a non-violent political tactic, employed by dissidents against the propaganda of oppressive governments. The always unsettling energy of speaking truth to power despite the possible negative consequences was the core of the identity of dissident civil society, confronting institutionalized power in an anti-political fashion.

But after the regime change, this intellectual strategy offered very little guidance for the behavior and strategies of actors participating in civic initiatives in these newborn democracies, except in terms of an undeniable amount of moral capital. This legacy is a heavy burden on the shoulders of critical activists, who are often denounced by their opponents as either shouting from the sidelines of normal democratic politics or as assuming a superior position to high-handedly proclaim what democracy is about. During the decades of heated political debates following the transition period, the emancipatory value resulting from the fact that dissidents remained independent from the state evaporated. Speaking truth to power from a position of splendid isolation outside politics was particularly incompatible with the deeply interconnected sphere of local politics, where it was difficult to say what being “below” or “outside of power” meant, when creating a democratic environment was an undertaking that needed the active involvement of each and every one. The reason for this was that the regime change brought about a local government reform that replaced the Soviet-style system of councils, which had a highly centralized administrative and bureaucratic structure.

Civic involvement in this transformation was not the abnegation of the dissident legacy, but rather the preservation of civic values like non-violence, self-organization, civility and plurality into the democratic era, and the invention of proper institutions that would perform these core values. The respective traditions of the Polish Solidarity movement and the Hungarian democratic opposition were particularly influential, while in post-totalitarian Romania, the civic patterns lacked such a tradition and the post-1989 processes and waves of protest thus had more autochthonous results. But in the midst of the economic and social crisis of the 1990s, the dissident legacy either faded away, was instrumentalized by politics or turned to professionalized initiatives that pursued their goals through formal and informal channels. While this first, post-transition phase of post-socialist civil society was impressive in terms of its size and diversity, its influence on policy-making has remained limited due to structural weaknesses.

The turn of the millennium: partnership or cooptation?

Many interviewees described the 2000s as a period of professionalization. This inevitable development coincided with administrative attempts to bring civil society under tighter regulation and control. The history of functional differentiation between the state and civil society has left its mark on what we call the civic space today. The imperfect autonomy it created went hand in hand with a blurring of the boundaries between the civic and the public spheres, which later impaired the independent voice and critical stance of civil society. This was due to the fact that the key driver in this process was international and state funding that directed CSOs toward “non-risky” activities (sports, leisure, cultural and social services) by outsourcing public tasks and contracting out the provision of services that the state was unable or unwilling to perform. This established a one-sided autonomy, guaranteed by contracts with the local government. Unlike real partnerships, these arrangements created dependency and emphasized the financial terms of the NGO-municipal relationships. These contracts were quasi-private, often informal, with no public claims to broader democratic legitimacy or justification. These collaborations sometimes became hotbeds for cooptation or even acted as legal loopholes to avoid bureaucratic regulations, for example by using associations and GONGOs,[10] which led to corrupt practices that further reduced the transparency of fund distribution. For organizations within these privileged arrangements, partnership meant dependency but also safeguards for future operation.

This elaboration of NGO-municipal relations rarely happened in the public eye. Public deliberation was substituted by an almost consensual “creed of civil partnership” that was utilized by the political elite. The rhetoric of partnership – steered by European institutions during the accession process as the preeminent form of state-civil relationships – took the rights and responsibilities of civic partners as self-evident. If partnership is understood as a contractual collaboration agreement between formally equal parties, less structured or established stakeholder relationships will inevitably be regarded as unequipped for cooperation. As a result, civic strategies and activities for exerting influence on the decision-making process that differed from these established partnerships were crowded out.

Local politics often used forced or fake involvement of actors from civil society to legitimize political aims, while formal institutions rarely served as actual places of democratic dialog. The autonomy of CSOs (or any kind of stakeholder) was acknowledged mostly in terms of their functional role, the effectiveness and appropriateness of the programs they implemented and the services they delivered. This caused fragmentation within local civil spheres, without any institutional mediation. Incorporated actors grew silent about local events, while actors in liminal positions were in constant tension between a value-oriented civic logic on the one hand and functional effectiveness on the other. With rapid globalization and marketization, local governments became conflict containers, overloaded by tensions originating from the upper levels, exacerbated by fiscal crises and further seclusion. The lack of real cooperative opportunities within partnerships for tackling new challenges and the narrowness of the field when it came to articulating democratic demands through deliberate dialog turned local initiatives toward NIMBY activism[11] and the avoidance of conflictual positions. In this risk-averse environment, any deviation from the politics of business as usual was hard to justify.

Many of our interviewees from civil society described local politics as little kingdoms in the city hall, isolated from their citizens as a result of impenetrable bureaucratic structures (see especially Bucharest, Romania). In the absence of civic traditions and positive social capital, society often organizes itself along mafia-style patron-client systems. At the same time, in milieus exposed to modernization pressure, new public management techniques and public-private partnerships appeared. Here, the slogan of participatory governance gained ground, often by bringing civic competencies in-house. But just as in “neo-feudal” contexts, where the mayor is the one who knows best, the framework of neo-liberal governance also gives a supreme position to technocratic managers who, in the name of effectiveness and modernization, pursue policy reform that cannot be questioned. While better coordination between the sectors and branches of local administrations may bring positive results (see the case study about city managers in Romania), it does not harbor any true democratic potential. This is due to the fact that the engagement of local stakeholders is hampered by a weak and domesticated civil society. New partnerships initiated by local governments in the 2000s with powerful local actors differed substantially from conventional participation models prescribed by legislation (such as public hearings), but they involved citizens only as a target group, and rarely included disadvantaged groups.

Thus, civic activism decoupled from official partnerships reappeared in the 2010s – to some extent as a reaction to the criticism outlined above – as expressions of solidarity and grassroot embeddedness, trying to transcend the distrustful and individualist attitudes, learned helplessness and scapegoating that contributed to the rigid roles of rulers and ruled in local politics. Although different norms and habituses continue to exist in parallel, this new stance toward civic engagement has proved to be more effective in tackling the problem of the weakness of interest articulation and advocacy. Such activists distinguish themselves from old-school civil society organizations, but their attitude is also different from people involved in social movements who tend to institutionalize their activity and strive for broader social change. New civic attitudes resulted in new forms of cooperation between local initiatives and municipalities that are less focused on institutionalized politics and resources but instead aim to act collectively to strengthen the community and build solidarity by exercising local self-government.

New localism: finding alternative forms of cooperation

Following the crisis-ridden period after 2008, not only a new generation of urban movements and activists appeared on the local scene, but a reappreciation of local issues and commons (from public services to culture and identity) also took place. This new localism brought back into focus the decision-making processes of local governments, by calling decision makers to account through social media, citizen journalism, public information requests and other kinds of watchdog activities. Many local decision makers also realized that it is in their basic interest to empower local politics to make decisions of better quality and greater legitimacy and – in the face of budget cuts and centralization efforts – to strengthen their position in multi-level governance frameworks. Instead of ignoring citizens’ input as disturbing interference, local governments appear more and more open toward public engagement. To some extent, this was also a result of the switch of EU policies from the regional to the urban level. As cities were turning into major targets of investment and catalysts for economic growth, they also needed to find allies for large-scale urban development and new ways of legitimizing urban interventions. Digitalization is another important driver for involving local citizens in determining and controlling the public services they need and consume on a daily basis. Today, cities cannot tackle social problems and economic imperatives without the involvement and participation of non-state actors. But the growth of the audience and of the consumer democracy in bigger cities, mediated through digital tools, often turned into mere political campaigning to manufacture political consent. Top-down participative restructuring proved unsatisfying in almost every context, where the social forces of new localism became vocal and critical either through conscious community-organizing efforts or through the spontaneous eruption of protests.

There is a characteristic pattern to the political contexts behind most of the successful collaborations that we examined in our research. It starts with grassroot social mobilization, very often around trivial demands, without any clear political dimension. Ambitions to achieve policy change require a political window of opportunity. This can be a political vacuum or a change in power, where new actors with an organic vision of and personal affiliation with public participation open the floor for change. However, these are preconditions for but not the decisive factors in progressive democratic reforms carried out by NGO-municipal cooperation. Intensifying and restructuring participatory mechanisms in a collaborative manner and ensuring that they are based on the equal terms of a substantive partnership is a long and exhausting process. Despite the best intentions, conflicts and dead-ends are part and parcel of building collaboration. Rapid delivery of positive outcomes often comes at the expense of democratic deliberation, which is only exacerbated by the erratic goodwill of those in power. Intensive cooperation, however, creates its own underpinnings by mobilizing the power of collective intelligence, turning conventional bureaucratic procedures into a discovery process. Public participation is not an end in itself, but a learning process that can help to identify new allies and possibilities by transcending the petrified roles of rulers and ruled. But the real peculiarity of civic-municipal cooperation lies in the fact that in addition to serving as a true creative laboratory for democracy, it also compels participants to create sustainable institutional solutions in line with the behavioral patterns of the community.

This discovery process often yields outcomes that can also prevail in contexts other than the original field of cooperation. Public engagement is inherently tied to the general life of the local community, since a shared interest in public affairs presupposes certain preconditions of acting together (e.g. the rebuilding of micro-communities, a strong local identity, mutual solidarity). Civil society organizations participating in collaborative practices with local governments are also agents advocating for a stronger and more active community, while the local administration is responsible for demarcating the boundary between local public affairs and particular demands that are beyond the control of the local government. In a social context marked by new localism, digitalization, post-materialism as well as an unbalanced relationship between the state, the market and local societies, these boundaries are constantly being renegotiated. As public participation is becoming fashionable, it is more important than ever to differentiate between real participation that expands the physical and discursive spaces where people can meet and practice their citizenship collectively, and bogus participation that opens only a narrow field to public engagement, while keeping it strictly separated from the “core activities” of the public administration. The strategic dilemmas described by our informants can be seen in the light of such contentions, as they strive to effectively activate the democratic potential of participatory and collaborative practices and to find their functional role in local governance.



[3] International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook (October – 2019)


[5] Erste report, p. 20-21

[6] EUSTAT 2015

[7] EUPACK 2016

[8] OECD, 2016


[10] Government-organized non-governmental organizations

[11] The term NIMBY (an acronym for the phrase “not in my back yard”) characterizes the opposition of residents to proposed developments in their local area.