Development of local democracy requires improvement of legislation and political will of communities’ heads – summary of the conference
On Friday, October 1, 2021, the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting (IER) held the conference “Public engagement in local democracy development” in the framework of the project “People for Democracy” financed by the EU and the International Renaissance Foundation.
In the context of COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine restrictions, local democracy instruments including personal contacts and public gatherings affected significantly: public hearings, gatherings, local initiatives such as signature collection, direct actions, and so on. At the same time, electronic tools and online formats (online appeals, electronic petitions, online meetings), according to a study by the IER, have gained new boost, and practice of using has expanded significantly.
Another equally important local democracy tool during the pandemic period was local elections 2020, which took place on a new territorial basis. Within the decentralisation reform, local authorities have gained more powers and opportunities, in particular, by engaging the public.
Speaking about communities, pandemic does not become an obstacle. Local authorities communicated actively with the community by using all possibilities. At the same time, some authorities limited communication, hiding behind the quarantine.
After the unification, there was a need to review normative legislation acts that regulate the involvement of the public to solve issues in particular. First, these are the statutes of communities, where all procedures should be prescribed. Moreover, today, the development of local democracy tools, in the united communities especially, depends on the political will of its leaders.
“Nowadays, community’s statute is not obligatory for the local self-government. If there is a political will to have such a document, it appears. It may include questions regarding local democracy development. However, it is not clarified about a format, how deeply and how accessible the local authorities create conditions for public participation. The statute presence must be enforced in the legislation,” pointed out Oleksiy Orlovsky, Democratic Practice Programme Director, International Renaissance Foundation.
Iryna Louk, head of the NGO “Space of potential” informed about the results of the research on communication between authorities and the public during the pandemic COVID-19 in Kyiv and in six Ukrainian regions. According to the research, in those regions where authorities normally interacted with the public before the pandemic, communication continued to be used during the quarantine. In communities where the authorities were closed, quarantine was used as an excuse to cooperate less with the public. “If authorities felt responsibility and acted independently, they had responded very well to the pandemic challenges”, observed Iryna Louk.
Olena Nizhelska, head of the crisis media center “Siversky Donets”, confirmed that communities that are committed for democracy development were not demolished by the pandemic. Those who promoted isolation in its work used the opportunity to take advantage of the pandemic restrictions. She also pointed out the problem with local self-government and public participation in military-civil administrations. In such regions, only personal receptions and actions of direct action are available to citizens, which were prohibited during the quarantine.
Olexiy Litvinov, head of NGO “Institute of Public Expertise” noted that those communities that do not have prescription regarding quarantine regulations in the statute did not manage to held meetings during the first part of 2020. Dmytro Gaponenko, member of NGO “Together to the civil society” informed that communities of Chernihiv region, which united voluntarily before 2020, had already formed certain ties, and the process of re-election was much easier than those communities, which were united “compulsorily”.
Oleksandr Solohub, head of SFERO Union, stressed out that situation with electronic democracy tools development in towns of Vinnytsa region is positive mainly, but there is lack of qualified personnel in small territorial communities. “Education and improvement of digital skills of employees should become a priority to public policy within the framework of territorial reform. Qualified personnel are few in small territorial communities”, resumed Oleksandr Solohub.
Maryna Potapenko, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Youth and Sport of Ukraine, informed regarding youth councils as an important and comparatively new to Ukraine instrument of attracting young people in youth policy issues making and regarding next steps in improving of youth councils and its new possibilities creating.
Youth regional representatives shared its own experience of creating youth councils in their communities. Julia Potipaka, head of Pryluky Youth Council, brought to the attention the fact that their organisation is studying constantly about legislation, always taking part in workshops and training. Julia Kovtun, secretary of the Youth Council at the Chernihiv village council, told about creating process of youth council and shared the experience of online resources usage in their work.
Dmytro Pronin, member of the Youth Council Board of Dnipro ODA, noted that today, youth councils are engaged in the organisation of events mainly, rather than in consulting the authorities. In addition, youth representatives, which only create a youth council or just join, do not understand the functions and tasks of authority itself. “One of the problems that youth councils are facing is absence of information about what they should do”, considers Dmytro Pronin.
Iryna Solona, head of Kherson Youth Council, also pointed out the problem of youth awareness regarding the aim and tasks of youth councils. Specifically, students and pupils because of the study process not always have a possibility to take part in the working process of the authority itself.
Yuriy Yuzych, Youth Policy expert, Reanimation Package of Reforms, stated that nowadays, the creation concept and functioning of Ukrainian youth councils muddle through with growth than European. Ukrainian youth councils are not able to represent the whole community of young people effectively, and there is a need to be more independent from policymakers in order to become functional. There is a need to improve legislation basis, to institutionalise youth councils, and to broaden forms of representation and engagement of young people.
During the second panel, representatives from youth councils and experts discussed the working process and development of Ukrainian youth councils. Youth councils are comparatively new instrument for engagement young people to the policymaking process. According to experts’ opinion, such a European-origin democracy tool needs to be finalised at the legislative level. At the same time, this is not an obstacle for its using widespread. Youth councils are local units of regional councils, local self-government bodies, and heads of communities, districts, and regions. The biggest problem of Ukrainian realities lies here: instead of a representative body that will take care of youth issues, youth councils often become “hands-on” without real possibilities of influence on youth policymaking.