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Naslovnica arrow English arrow Public debate in the coming month, a final draft by the end of the year
Public debate in the coming month, a final draft by the end of the year
Translated by: Karin Taylor. Author:Željka Mandić   
Četvrtak, 24 Studeni 2011

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Igor Vidačak
The participation of civil society in public decision-making is just one of the topics of research in the academic work of Dr. Igor Vidačak, President of the Croatian government’s Office for Cooperation with NGOs. This is certainly the most important of his interests, but other areas in which Vidačak is considered an expert include: interest representation and lobbying in the European Union, the influence of EU accession on structures of government, and paradigm shifts in public administration in transition countries. He has a wide range of interests, naturally stemming from a broad education. Vidačak has a Ph.D. from the Faculty of Political Sciences in Zagreb, as well as a master’s degree in European politics and administration from the College of Europe in Bruges and Natolin. He also has a degree in Romance Studies and Indian Studies from the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb. 

He has headed the Office for Cooperation with NGOs since 2007. The Office is responsible for producing a new national strategy for the creation of an enabling environment for the development of social entrepreneurship–a strategy seen as indispensable by civil society.  Until now, a single meeting has been held dealing with planning the strategy. Participants included public administration officials, civil society organisations and members of the academic community. What has happened since then? This is the starting point of our interview with the President of the Office for Cooperation with NGOs, Igor Vidačak. 

The first meeting, held in May, was an opportunity to evaluate the former strategy. Could you outline the conclusions? What were its shortcomings? What was good about it?

In the last five years, the implementation of the national strategy for the creation of an enabling environment for the development of social entrepreneurship for the period 2006 to 2011 connected some 30 state agencies, numerous local and area units of self-government, a large number of civil society organizations and representatives of the business sector and the academic community. From this perspective, I can say that we have seen both big and small advances in all strategic areas. Today, we undoubtedly have a much better and more transparent system of public funding for the programmes of civil society organizations, and in addition, the institutional framework for supporting the development of civil society at all levels has been strengthened. Also, conditions have been set to enable successful access to European Union funds allocated for civil society. On the other hand, in some areas like social entrepreneurship and education for democratic citizenship and human rights, we have seen that measures were too ambitious and sometimes lacking precision, and that the environment was not yet ready for the planned changes.

The strategy in planning is a five-year strategy. What are its priorities?

Firstly, we had a debate about the new strategy’s priorities on “NGO Day 2011” in Pula, where representatives of civil society organisations from across Croatia had the opportunity to put forward their proposals and visions of a developed civil society in five years time. On the basis of the conclusions of this meeting, as well as of the recommendations of the Council for Civil Society Development, the working group laid out an initial structure encompassing the following topics: the institutional framework for supporting civil society development, the development of democratic urban culture, the role of civil society in increasing social cohesion, regional development in development processes, as well as the development of civil society in an international context. Each of these areas will include a series of priorities, measures and activities, but also indicators of success. The new strategy will strongly emphasize the more precise definition of indicators showing the success of the implemented measures. I must admit that this was one of the main weaknesses of the existing document. We would like civil society organisations and representatives of the public to participate in monitoring the implementation of the strategy and evaluating its progress. A value-based foundation for the strategy is extremely important.  

Could you summarize for our readers what is meant by the value-orientation of the draft strategy?

The basic values of the existing, and I believe of the new, strategy rest on three columns: respect for the autonomy and independence of civil society, pluralism as a principle of free expression and practice of difference, and the transparent and open nature of all adopted and implemented public decisions.  All members of the working group and subgroups endeavoured to find a consensus on the values to be advocated in the new strategy before getting down to work, and this will be discussed in the public debates to follow.

How do you personally, but also in your function as President of the Office for Cooperation, see the social values of civil society in Croatia?

When I think about the values of civil society I think about the building where I live, the levels of trust and dialogue between neighbours, the degree of readiness to actively and responsibly tackle the problems we share with the rest of our district, the amount of time we are prepared to dedicate to others or in the interest of the community. Finally, I believe that a developed civil society must be based on the empowerment of citizens to live the values they believe in and through their own example display the positive changes they would like to see in society, irrespective of their occupation or profession. That is what no strategy can generate by itself, but we can certainly create the environment and conditions for such changes, and a return to such values is beginning to take place. 

What about aspirations to create an enabling environment for the development of civil society? This would need a sound institutional framework and means of funding. Could you give a brief assessment of the state of things and point out what needs to be done?

The Croatian model of institutional and financial framework for supporting the development of civil society is often promoted abroad as an example of good practice worth following. Without wanting to sound too modest, it can be said that numerous steps have been taken in the past ten years in the work of institutions, but also in improving the criteria for funding the programmes of civil society organisations. We went for a decentralized model of financing including a large number of state agencies on all levels. Along with numerous advantages, this brings the challenge of standardizing practices of funding in line with the Code adopted by the Croatian parliament at the beginning of 2007. A lot has been done to implement the Code for the funding of NGOs on a national level, on which we deliver a report to the public every year. But there are many obstacles in applying these accepted standards on a regional and local level. It is our intention is to create the conditions for the open and fair competition of good ideas and projects for aid from public funds on all levels, but we will have to do a lot more to ensure that every funded project produces concrete results and achievements.

When talking about civil society we should also talk about the role of citizens in forming public policies, and about civic education. Where is Croatia today in regard to this question? 

Here, we are talking about changes in democratic political culture which are perhaps slow to be perceived and require significant innovations in the educational system, the ways in which state authorities work, as well as the better ability of civil society organisations to mobilize citizens to participate in shaping public policies. According to recent research, only 17 per cent of Croatian citizens are active in civil society organisations, and barely seven per cent of citizens are community volunteers. So, there is still a low level of civic activism. The framework in which citizens can take part in decision-making on issues of public interest is gradually improving.  It is already almost two years since the Code on consulting with the interested public on the procedures adopted in new laws, other regulations and legal acts was adopted. The Law on Regulatory Impact Assessment has been adopted, which anticipates new perspectives in the inclusion of citizens in the earliest phases of legal decision-making, and in addition the framework for implementing rights to access to information has been improved. Despite all this, we still face a range of problems in practice, which we will try and resolve through the measures in the new strategy. I am sure that the support we have internationally will be helpful, in particular in the form of the numerous instruments and incentives offered by the European Union, and also in a range of international programmes including the new global initiative, the “Open Government Partnership”.  By opening up and promoting greater transparency in the work of government authorities along with making more use of information technologies to include citizens, we really can achieve a lot in the coming years.   

Developed civil society should not be allowed to tolerate social exclusion. How is the issue of social cohesion represented in the new strategy and what about the provision of social services?

This continues to be a high priority issue in the new strategy because, despite the efforts of the last few years, civil society organisations are still insufficiently recognized as reliable service providers of public interest. It will be vital to more strongly connect the activities they are carrying out in line with the strategy with those set out in the Joint Memorandum on Social Inclusion whose implementation is being monitored by a series of domestic, European and international institutions. The advantages of civil society organisations are innovation, creativity, flexibility, fast action and the inclusion of volunteers. On the other hand, there is still a lot to be done to reinforce and promote a system of quality control in the work of non-profit organisations so that state agencies on all levels can be sure that civil society organisations can be reliable and professional partners as providers of social services. 

To what extent are EU funds and international cooperation in general available for drafting this strategy and constructing a stronger civil society?

The development of civil society has been high on the European Union list of priorities and aid programmes for Croatia and the other countries of Southeast Europe for years. In the last few years, key international actors have shown renewed interest in dialogue with civil society, which has definitely contributed to increasing the presence and importance of this topic in domestic political processes. We are due to adopt the new strategy in a period marked by Croatia’s accession to the European Union, which will bring numerous opportunities to civil society organisations and also encourage us to reconsider a number of challenges we are bound to face in the new European environment. The amount of European funds at disposal will greatly increase and I am sure that civil society organisations will show their full potential in this area, based on the knowledge and skills that they have accumulated over the years through a series of domestic and international programmes. However, it is already clear that it is very difficult to successfully develop multi-level strategies of action in accordance with European and domestic institutions and at the same time keep up active and responsible relations with users  and the broad public. In short, the European Union is certain to bring civil society more participation, more money and more networking, while it is up to us to exploit these opportunities well as possible. I believe that a broad public debate, which we will initiate with the draft of the new strategy, will help us achieve this. What kind of dynamic do we have in mind? When should the strategy be adopted? We plan to launch first public debates about the strategy’s outline in October and November, and to prepare a final draft until the end of the year, which could be forwarded for adoption depending on the circumstances surrounding the establishment of a new government. Independently of deadlines and external circumstances, it is our priority to draft the best possible document to make the best possible contribution to the broad public.  

What are your personal expectations of the strategy – what changes do you believe it will really bring to civil society?

I expect that in five years time civil society will have much more space for participation in shaping public policies, educational institutions will be successfully implementing educational programmes on human rights and democratic citizenship, and on the other hand, the number of citizens participating in civil society organisations and voluntary initiatives will have grown. I believe that social entrepreneurship will become a widely recognized concept and that the network of entrepreneurs offering services to the community will expand significantly. Finally, I deeply hope that a growing number of young people will find rewarding career opportunities in the non-profit sector and that this will greatly help to increase the inflow of resources from European structural funds. Altogether, I think we have a very exciting time ahead in which we will see new dynamic relations develop in civil society, the state and the private sector, as well as among citizens in joint efforts to ensure general well-being.

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