In my previous post, I spoke about the importance of creating a democracy barometer, which would measure the level of democracy across countries to make comparisons easier. Instead of just identifying the need for this barometer, I wanted to explore how this may be implemented.
A democracy barometer uses the following premise – the overall quality of a society is largely a function of democracy. Bringing terms like “quality” and “democracy” together will often create a superior level for discussing the efforts for enhancing local democracy. If it has the support, a project like this would turn all local and central public institutions into reliable partners for the community to fulfil its needs. But the practices implemented through this project have to be agreed, accepted and largely applied.
My methodological proposal is based on some measurable dimensions chosen because they directly affect citizens, such as satisfaction towards institutions and satisfaction towards democracy itself. Its principal competitive advantages are:
- Relevance – because it measures in a complete / exhaustive manner
- Measurability – even when our information is qualitative it has to be compiled in a measurable form
- Availability – gathering data is accessible, easy to obtain.
In order to ensure consistency, research should be undertaken by measuring local democracy against a scorecard composed of seven composite dimensions, for example – Political Participation, Operation of local public institutions, Decentralization, Civil society, Freedom of the Press, Civic Culture, General information about the county and demographic information. The methodology will be developed according to the 7 principal measurable dimensions while giving deference to:
- standardized evaluation criteria
- the need for quoting sources and correction by an additional assessor
- blind peer review
- interviews and discussions in the local community
- third party sources such as National Institute of Statistics and Press, focusing on local mass-media, which captures some aspects of phenomena that are not necessarily visible in the statistics, so that selection of certain information discussed in the Romanian press and in the official news flow has been considered useful for this study – media monitoring.
Any study should be conducted by independent experts coordinated by NGOs, based on standard evaluation criteria, and blind peer review.
But our approach must overcome some classical assumptions about what we should measure within these dimensions. For example, to assess the civic culture at the local level in qualitative terms, we would have to exceed the standard membership as an indicator.The participation in various associations and foundations is not relevant to show a high civic culture. Instead, we would be primarily interested in the real number of meetings between members of the Parliament and citizens, or between local representatives and citizens. And it would be interesting to find out whose were initiatives – of representatives or citizens. A balance would show a refined level of civic culture.
Regarding the operation of local public institutions, we should be interested in indicators such as administrative rationalization – Do authorities provide online tax payment methods for citizens? Do they have citizen audience programs? Under what degree they consult with citizens regarding public affairs?
Another indicator is related to the degree of information from the citizens about the activity of institutions – Are there information offices for citizens? Do citizens understand how public money is being spent and how those decisions are made?
A new indicator is the level of complaints to institutions. How high is the number of complaints from citizens addressed to public institutions and how many of them were solved in favor of the citizen when he/she was right? In how many administrative trials is the City Hall involved or how many sanctions did the City Hall received from the prefecture because of inappropriate application of the laws? Relating to the operation of local institutions, the relationship between NGOs and the City Hall is also relevant – Do City Halls facilitate rental offices to local NGOs? Are there partnerships between NGOs and City Halls in important public projects?
As we can see, the quality of democracy is directly related to the effects the institutions have on the citizens and to the usefulness of institutions in favor of the citizen. Therefore, in the center of institutionalized communities lies the relation between citizens and authorities. It is true that the relation is built both ways but without the above mentioned minimal conditions, insured through the will of our representatives to make states better, we can speak about a formal democracy and not about a qualitative democracy. Politicians need to have the courage to be open to such evaluations and then support a plan to improve the quality of democracy in the community, by improving the relationship with citizens.
Let’s also not forget that democracy requires institutions to be responsive to citizens’ and the only evaluation of this should be such a barometer. Otherwise, surveys and research will consistently show us a low level of people’s confidence in institutions with fundamental roles in democracy and a low degree of satisfaction with the performance of institutions. How do we improve democracy if we don’t know its actual implementation problems?