Pazin (HR) builds mutual trust by involving its citizens in passing the budget

Mario Zulicek

By Mario Zulicek, on March 27th, 2018

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Here is a story about a city which began involving its citizens in setting and passing the city budget, educated them about how the local government functions, and consequently built mutual trust between the citizens and their local government.

It is a story about participatory budgeting, a process of democratic discussion and decision-making, which is a kind of participatory democracy where the citizens decide on the allocations of a part of the public budget. This enables the citizens to identify, discuss and prioritise publicly funded projects and gives them the power to make real decisions on how the money is being spent.

Beware of the Pazin Budget!” project began in 2014 with GONG, as project lead, and with the City of Pazin and Society “Our Children”, as project partners. The project was delivered in cooperation with the Institute of Public Finance and the Association of Cities in the Republic of Croatia. The aim of the project was a more active involvement of Pazin citizens and general public in the process of passing the city budget for the year 2015.

The project is delivered in several phases during the year. After an internal meeting of the local government, it publishes a call to citizens inviting them to submit proposals for smaller municipal public works projects which could be budgeted for. The local administration then analyses the proposals and establishes which of them are indeed smaller. They then go out into the field to check the locations and photograph them, and, following that, they estimate the cost of each project.

“The first thing we did was define the limits of the budget. In the first year the limit was 300 000 kuna (about EUR 40 000), which we distributed among the neighbourhood councils. In every neighbourhood the citizens had their own budget within which they made decisions. Smaller neighbourhoods had budgets of 30 000 kuna (HRK), larger ones had 50 000 kuna. We set clear boundaries and the citizens could propose smaller municipal projects.” explained Renato Krulčić, Mayor of Pazin.

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After estimating the costs, public meetings are held in every neighbourhood. Here all the proposals for that neighbourhood are presented together with the estimated costs for each proposal. Based on this and the budget allocation for their neighbourhood, the citizens vote for the municipal project which will be budgeted for in the next year.

Mayor Krulčić added: “Afterwards the proposals are presented to the city council as the budget draft for first reading. The city councillors then exercise their statutory right to propose amendments to the budget draft, and between the two readings we hold a public meeting on the budget proposal which passed the first reading at the city council. Here the citizens can get information on what else there is in the budget draft, what the nature of the budget is and what its direction for the next year is.”

Small municipal works projects which are budgeted for in this way are carried out in the first half of the following year, which is then followed by another internal local government meeting and another round of collecting proposals.

However, the real focus of the whole process was on the education of citizens: during the presentation of the submitted proposals in their neighbourhoods the citizens are educated on how the local government functions and how the budget is allocated, they are also informed about the plans and strategies for the city, and similar.

“In the first year we held public meetings for each sector, we talked about culture, sport, municipal infrastructure… That way we reached the conclusion that we had to deal with the system of public lighting in the city of Pazin more seriously. To me it sounded a bit strange – at the time when people usually want broadband internet, better traffic connections, etc., our citizens were mostly bothered by the lighting in our neighbourhoods. This resulted in a Master plan of the development of public lighting in the city of Pazin, which will be implemented in the next six months through a public-private partnership.”

An important factor in establishing the credibility of this initiative is the fact that the officials of the local government take part in all of these public meetings – heads of departments, clerks, municipal workers…

“In the beginning it was not pleasant to appear before the citizens who had no sympathies for the local government. We knew that this was their attitude towards government in general, but we were convinced we could change that by having an open and honest approach to our fellow citizens. It is clear to us that it is very important to make it possible for the citizens to ask us any questions they like; it is then our duty to provide them with exhaustive answers. As we have nothing to hide from our citizens, this is no longer unpleasant. This is the way we build mutual trust.” – says Maja Stranić Grah , Head of the Department for Economy, Finance and Budgeting of the City of Pazin. Ms Stranić-Grah was involved in the delivery of this project from the beginning and she says that a great improvement is noticeable in the citizens’ understanding of the work of the local government. “We noticed that over the years we started receiving better and more realistic proposals from our citizens. We believe this is the direct result of the education, dialogue and better relations that this project provided us.”

Pazin3In 2017, 189 proposals for small municipal projects were submitted, of which 44, worth overall 623  600 kn (about EUR 83 150), made it to the 2018 budget. This indicates the continued trend of increasing the resources for “Beware of the Pazin Budget!” project – from the initial 300 000 kn it grew to 500 000, and now it is at the level mentioned above.

Project delivery certainly called for additional efforts on the part of the local government.

“I have to stress one thing which is very important: for the delivery of such a project you have to have a truly committed and responsible local government, and a team which will not mind attending the public meetings each day for 12 days after their normal working hours, as the public meetings all take place after 18.00, when people have finished with their work and had a bit of rest.  Our local government officials attend all of the public meetings. I dare say they are the key reason this project succeeded. It is hard to explain how we managed to motivate our staff. I think there is no answer. I think that this is a characteristic of the environment we live in. Our staff are also people who live in this area and they themselves want to have some use of their local government and the taxes they pay into the city purse. This way they personally contribute to this initiative.” the Mayor commended his colleagues.

“What is very important is the external moderator who clearly shows to the public that he or she is not taking anyone’s side. We engaged moderators from a civil society organisation from another county so that we could be certain they were not biased.” added Ms Stranić-Grah.

The project grew over the years, so the same model was applied to much larger municipal projects.

“We raised the initiative to a whole new level when, during the presentations in all the neighbourhoods, we surveyed the citizens and asked them to tell us which two of the four proposed projects they thought were the most important to be budgeted for in 2017. They had to choose between renovating the watercourse of the river Pazinčica, building an extension to the primary school, building and renovating the central bus station, and building a retirement home for the elderly from the Pazin area. Their votes showed us that the retirement home and the bus station were the two key municipal projects that we needed to carry out.” said the Mayor.

As over the years a lot of small municipal projects were completed, the citizens’ proposals and needs have lately started to cross the boundaries of Pazin’s financial framework. Therefore Pazin now plans to adjust the project: the neighbourhoods are to be divided into two groups which would take turns each year to submit proposals for the budget. This way every two years each neighbourhood would have at their disposal double the amount of their normal budget, which would enable them to complete larger endeavours.

The only negative aspect of the implementation of this project is the fact that sometimes a degree of discontent can be felt among the members of the city council because someone else is making decisions on a part of the city budget. Additionally, the councils of city neighbourhoods lost the leverage of proposing small municipal public works projects. However, the local government claims that this is the result of these councils becoming detached from their citizens, while these councils were supposed to be the link between the citizens and the local government in terms of resolving the citizens’ problems.

“We were in a situation where from the neighbourhood councils we only ever received proposals for larger municipal projects, such as building the public lighting, new roads, new cemeteries, etc. – all of which are projects which require several years’ work in terms of urban planning, obtaining building and other permits, and resolving the issue of securing funding for such big endeavours. Through our project we showed the neighbourhood councils the right way to do things. Our aim is to get the neighbourhood councils to manage the proposal submissions and organise public meetings, while we, the local government, focus on education of citizens who do not yet have the right to vote – the students in primary and secondary education, children in kindergartens… This way we will generate citizens who understand the system and contribute to a better quality of life.” – mayor Krulčić explained.

Based on their experience, Pazin’s government explains what the key factors in this process were: above all they emphasise human resources capacity, that is, the staff of the local government, members of the civil society organisations and the volunteers which bear the biggest burden of project implementation year in, year out. No less important, in their view, is the communication of the process to the public and preparing for the public meetings. They stress the importance of providing accurate and concrete information, stating clearly accurate financial boundaries, and presenting all this to the public in an understandable way. This way you encourage their engagement, and most importantly – you build trust.

Pazin1Other cities are now interested in this project, so the representatives of the City of Pazin attended several consultations, and shared their know-how and methods. Everything related to the “Beware of the Pazin Budget!” project they published on their web pages in an open-source system so that the entire web page and the forum section can be used by anyone who is interested. In addition to that, they are available to anyone who wants to get even the basic information which could then be adjusted to circumstances in their own local government.

“In future we would like to extend this project to other segments of our work. In this way we want to contribute to the quality of the way the city is run, but also develop the responsibility of the citizens, because there is no such thing as rights without corresponding responsibilities.” – concluded mayor Krulčić

Translated by Iva Mandekić

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