The Challenge of Citizenship Empowerment

Local governments face a rapidly changing society, both in terms of speed and dimension. Some of today’s most striking issues are: (i) the economic restructuring as the former socialist industries collapsed; (ii) the impact that high rates of unemployment have on families and communities; (iii) the continuous growth of vulnerable groups, as division and differentiation within the society grows, and; (iv) a growing environmental concern, which is often related to the “wild” urbanization process. Nevertheless, the varieties of dimensions on which change take place makes it difficult to predict any future change.

However, the solution to many problems cannot “belong” any more to a particular department, organization or institution. Indeed, they derive from the interaction between many actors. The environmental issue, for example, has led to the aspiration of the concept of sustainable development, including challenges, like crime prevention, and community safety that nowadays concern the stability of the society. This interaction can also be noticed in the transformation of urban and rural areas.

The role of community leadership and development of collaborative capacity is becoming of critical importance for local authorities. This challenge is becoming especially important in the transformation of urban and rural areas, which cannot be handled any more by traditional patterns of management.

The transformation of cities and towns, as a consequence of the economic factors, raises also deep social issues and the need for respective infrastructure. In highly differentiated urban structures without the capacity for integration, such as informal settlements or low-income neighborhoods, there is a need for community leadership if problems of transformation and integration have to be solved.

The leadership of this municipality has been trying to promote community leadership in order: (i) to ensure elements of local accountability; (ii) to deal with emerging issues of rapid urbanization, and; (iii) to mobilize especially the coordination of government and not governmental initiatives.

Nowadays, a process of decentralization is clearly marking a political trend. Most of the key politicians and decision-makers see such process as a matter of obligation to the international community rather than a clear need coming from local communities. Furthermore, discussions are often concentrated on the perspective of communities as citizenry, and business-type logic is often not present. Nowadays it is becoming evident that without municipal financial sustainability, there will be hardly place to talk about citizenry at community level. Indeed, international experience shows that the logic of looking into communities as customers of municipal services, tend to make local authorities more responsive. It leads local authorities towards better understanding the community, to whom municipal activities are designed to serve. This helps local authorities both to learn from- and respond to communities, including informing them about the standards of service aimed at. In a few words, this means that the provision of services to the interests and concern of the public is given a greater weight.

From the other side, the actual situation calls for an attitude that goes beyond consumerism, aiming at strengthening citizenship. Consumerism sees communities just as customers of particular services in the market, but not as active participants in the process of government. For example, for many services there is more than one customer, and often they do not share the same interests. Schools have many different customers (children, parents, teachers, future employees, etc.) but during the process of education their interests have to be balanced. This balancing of interests is exactly the “golden key” of good public sector management. In real life the services are not always provided for one single customer. Often they are provided to meet public purposes, and are subject of public policy. For example, state schools design their curricula not for individual customers, but are a result of collective choice, made by the central government and approved in parliament that represent the public as citizens. So, local authorities have to develop their managerial capacity beyond consumerism because there is not only one single relationship between them and communities, but many ones.

Communities are citizens and customers at the same time. As citizens they have their opinions on the activities of local authorities, and can express these by voting. This means that effective local democracy depends on citizenship. Furthermore, as citizens, the communities are part of this local government, and it is another question if they can be passive citizens or active ones in strengthening local democracy. For this reason local authorities should bear in mind that their distinctiveness lays not in the provision of services but in their own basis of local democracy. It is local democracy the voice for expressing the needs and concerns of local communities that legitimates the local choices on the nature of activities of local authorities, and provides the basis for local accountability. But the quality of local democracy depends upon the strength of citizenship.

The growth of communities’ expectations requires from the local authorities more than a reactive response to protest. It requires especially a positive response when the expectations of the protest are based on realistic appreciation of the resources available. In return, this requires from local authorities a greater understanding of the community services expectations, because only if those expectations are understood, problems can be raised and faced. To lower expectations is not an easy task, as it requires from local authorities to find new ways of explaining the choices they have made, and even more by involving people in these choices.

Introducing urban management is beneficial first to politicians and the public administration because instead of controversy they can promote partnership, and mobilize local sources to complement the very poor municipal budgets. They can meet and satisfy much easier the increasing needs and demands of local people and communities. They can better manage expectations, and ensure social stability. They can promote a development process and civic values of democracy that in return will be appreciated by local population by voting them into another term.

In order to introduce urban management several changes should be made in the local public administration. This includes especially the improvement of legislation and well-trained staff with orientation and flexibility towards communities. Furthermore, municipal administration should be receptive and information flows from and to communities should be established. Opinions of residents should be taken into account and referenda might be needed for that.

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