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The levels of transparency and accountability of the state institutions in North Macedonia vary widely. Some of the state organs rank high on the list of accountable institutions, and are even among the best in the region, while others are at the bottom of the same list and almost unreachable for the citizens.

Likewise, some of the institutions in North Macedonia have worked out complete communication strategies, others don’t even have a web site on which they will share at least the most basic information. Some executive organs don’t even allow access to the public access information, which is sanctioned by law, and do not even answer journalists’ questions.

The transparency and accountability of the authorities is one of the key issues regarding the public administration’s reforms and the processes of European accession that are being implemented by the Western Balkans countries. Even though formally the region is working on fulfiling these tasks that should get us closer to the European Union, there is still a strong need for systematic regulation of the policies of transparency and communication, which must be set as long-term goals in order to objectively provide substantial and permanent gains for the communities and the society as a whole.

Among the institutions of the executive power in the region, the government of North Macedonia is the most transparent, meeting 82.71% of the transparency criteria. This is indicated by the Metamorphosis Foundation’s Assesment of good governance in North Macedonia and the region through the Openness Index. Its goal is an objective assessment of the good governance by the Western Balkans institutions.

However, the data collected via the regional Openness Index indicates that open and transparent activities by the institutions are just only on an individual level and that there aren’t any established long-term practices of behavior i.e. examples of institutions that have established rules and procedures of transparent behavior.

Some information about the work of the government bodies is not available, although it is mandated by law.

The government of North Macedonia was ranked as the best among the 50 monitored institutions in the country and for the third consecutive year it is the most transparent government in the region. The listing at the top of the most open institutions corresponds with the Macedonian government’s efforts itself for digitization of the processes in the institutions in order to create efficient and effective good governance systems with increased transparency and accountability. The efforts are, among other things, the result of the urge and the prerequisites of the EU accession process of the country, as was noted in the assessment.

This year, the survey by the Openness Index shows that the total score of the executive power, including the government, the ministries and the executive bodies, is 60.93%. The transparency indicators were marked the highest (55.65%), while the accessibility indicators were marked the lowest (51.09%). The accessibility indicators evaluate the degree to which the right to access information is guaranteed by law and in practice, including the quality of the mechanisms for inclusion and consultations in the processes of creation of policies.

As can be seen from the document, the lowest mark for the accessibility indicators for the executive government, among other factors, is due to the postponement of the modernization process and uniforming the new web sites of the government and the ministries, which in turn would have secured new digital and modern tools that would ease each institution’s proactive transparency.

Some institutions don’t even have web sites

If one wants to find information about sailing licenses for Lake Ohrid, probably one will have to put in a lot of effort to find a telephone number where one can call and ask. The Harbor Master’s Office that is governing the internal lake and river sailing, has no web site. Furthermore, when one tries to search for it on the web, the first link that will appear will lead to the Ministry of Transport and Communications’ web site, the Harbor Master’s Office being one of this ministry’s organs.

However, the Ministry of Transport and Communications’ web site only lists the names and the electronic addresses of the employees of the Harbor Master’s Office without  their job positions or the telephone numbers of any of the subdivisions. As a result, if one needs information about the sailing license, then he or she will have to sent an email to one of the addresses and hope that one of the employees that has the necessary information. Nonetheless, you will have to wait for a written reply.

You can find the Harbor Master’s Office’s telephone number on its Facebook profile. But even there the Harbor Master’s Office is not very agile in publishing information. In the past year, from last September until today, the Harbor Master’s Office has published only one post on Facebook. That happened in January, when it published the dates for taking the exams for boat pilots.

The Harbor Master’s Office in Ohrid is one of the 8 among the monitored 33 executive organs in the country that don’t have web sites. Apart from this organ, the following also don’t have their own web sites: The Service for Spatial Information System, the Administration for Development and Promotion of the Education in the Languages of the Minorities, the Administration for Seeds Management and Seed Material, the Water Management Administration, the Administration for Plant Protection, the Administration for the Combatant and the Disabled Military Veterans, and the Pedagogical Service.

Taking into account that the web sites, legitimately, are the chief sources of information about the institutions’ operations, and at the same time they are a tool for the fastest, easiest, and safest access, the executive bodies that don’t have web sites are at the bottom of the table of met indicators.

Even some of those institutions and bodies that have web sites aren’t using them to inform the general public about activities and subjects in their areas of work. There are institutions and organs that aren’t updating regularly their web sites with news and current events, in some cases for months or years on end. There are those that provide brief or almost no information about their operations.

The idea to make all web sites of all the ministries and governmental institutions uniform, thus making them more accessible for the citizens, will most likely have to wait. The institutions state the lack of funds as a reason for this delay.

“The idea to make the state institutions’ web sites uniform is something that will lead not only to making all information available everywhere in the same format, but, as we think, to raising the general level of transparency and availability of the information from all institutions. This process has been slowed down because of the economic and health crisis that has diverted the assets to other needs,” stressed the Government’s Secretary General Metodija Dimovski, at the promotion of the Assessment.

 

Sending all questions to one address 

The Service for Spatial Information System, which is a division of the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning (MEPP) is at the very bottom of the Оpenness list, according to the percentage of indicators met. On the Internet, information about this public body can be found on MEPP’s web page in the Contacts category, but there only one contact information is stated – the director’s.

There are other public organs that have listed just one general contact, through which the citizens can contact them, such as the Geological Institute, the Administration for Seeds Management and Seed Material, the Metrology Bureau, the Administration for Plant Protection, the Hydrometeorological Service and others. Two ministries also do not have updated contact information for the public administration – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Political System and Relations between Communities, as well as 13 public organs.

While the web sites of the Government and the ministries were evaluated positively in regard of being updated regularly, some government bodies are stagnating when it comes to updating their web sites.

All the ministries, apart from the Ministry of Health, published the ministers’ biographies, while among the executive organs the results are worse – only 15 have published the biographies of their directors.

The majority of the executive organs, i.e. 70% of them, published their organograms.

Further, half of the ministries have published the Annual Work Programs, but at the same time, 43% of the ministries haven’t published the annual reports about their work. The results among the executive organs are even weaker – 36% have published their annual programs, while only 24 have published annual reports about the implementation of these programs.

Information about the monthly salaries of the ministers is lacking on the web sites of 13 ministries, even though it remains unclear why this hasn’t been done, considering that this information is publicly available on Government’s web site.

The parliament, as well as many other executive organs, haven’t published on their web sites  instructions on filinig complaints and objections nor have established a special channel for electronic petitioning.

Three ministries have published their communication and PR strategies – the Ministries of Defense, of the Interior and of Finance. At the time, even the Government published a Communications Strategy for the period from 2019 to 2020, which contributed to the high mark in the Openness Index. The government’s Communication Strategy since then hasn’t been updated and the question by Meta.mk when it is going to be updated, ironically, we didn’t receive any reply.

 

Information isn’t published even when the law demands it

The Law on the Free Access to Public Information provides a foundation for promotion of proactive and retroactive transparency. With the amendments of this law in 2019, the lists of categories of the public access information was expanded and clarified, explaining which information the holders should proactively publish on their web sites.

In order to provide simpler and easier access to the citizens, the holders of the public access information are obliged to publish on one page of their web sites the list of information and the documents which have public character according to the law, says Slavica Grkovska, Deputy President of the Government in charge of policies of good governance.

“We requested the holders of public information, i.e 1.445 in total, to make lists of the most requested data, in accordance with the Law on Free Access to Public Information. The subject are issues of all domains, the seekers are interested in public procurement, employments, and ways of payment of salaries. Our goal is to select the most requested information and to ask the institutions to publish it regularly, even without previous requests by the people. On one hand, the people will be timely informed at every moment, and on the other, it will improve the institutions’ efficiency and will secure a more efficient functioning in all тхе segments,” said Grkovska at the presentation of the Assessment.

Government’s web site completely meets the criteria for facilitating the right to free access of public information, but the report notes an all-encompassing weakness that is evident among all the institutions of the executive power. Namely, they have failed to publish on their web sites the answers with which they have allowed access to public information upon filed requests.

The document recommends following the best international and regional practices regarding the deadline for the reply to a request in paper form for free access to public information, which is between 7 to 15 days. It is also necessary to intervene again within the deadline as stipulated by the Macedonian law, and from 20 days, it should be shortened to 15 days at most.

In order to estimate the waiting time after filing a request to public access information, the Metamorphosis Foundation has sent requests for access to public information to all 50 monitored institutions, out of which, 46% have responded timely.

Four ministries and 7 executive organs have responded to the requests after the legal deadline, while 2 ministries and 7 executive organs didn’t even respond to the requests for public access information.

Late replies were received from the ministries of foreign affairs, transport and communication, health, and political system and relations between communities, while replies to requests weren’t received from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Economy, and the Ministry of Information Society and Administration.

Part of the bodies, among them the Parliament, still haven’t published contacts of persons tasked for the people’s right to access public information.

You will have to wait for a reply, the press officer is on vacation 

Another problem when it comes to requests for information from the institutions is getting no anwsers to the journalist’s questions, which require urgent answers. According to the experiences of Meta.mk News Agency, the institutions’ answers about certain issues can be late for several days, and often won’t even arrive.

Such is the example of our communication with the Ministry of Education and Science, to which we sent questions four times last month on four different subjects and events, and we received a reply only once. In order to receive the only reply, apart from the question that was sent via email, we had to contact the press officer by phone, including the cabinet of Minister Jeton Shaqiri.

Regarding the questions we didn’t call by telephone to remind them they didn’t send, there still isn’t any reply.

Concerning the issue of failing to reply to emails, among other issues, the institutions often justify the act with the absence of spokespersons or increased scope of obligations.

But the institution’s work mustn’t depend only on one man, says communications expert Bojan Kordalov. According to him, during the communication of the institutions with the media and through it with the people, the issue of whether the spokesperson is on vacation is irrelevant.

“It is true that each institution has a person whose task is public relations and is communicating with the media, and even if there isn’t any spokesperson, each institution formally has sectors which works encompass informing those who are financing the institution i.e. the people and the companies. Starting from here, a simple system has to be established – the medium is asking you a question and you provide answers immediately, measured in minutes and not in hours, days, or months, but by minutes,” Kordalov says.

As he explains, today people have no time, patience, or desire to wait for information because everything is immediately available to them.

“You only need one minute to order something online. In order to see what is happening at the most distant location in the world, it would literally take a few seconds. But, in order to get public access information, for e.g. how much money was spent on a meeting or whether a processing station will be built or something similar, sometimes you, as a medium, and with it, the people will have to wait for weeks. This is inconceivable in the digital era. As a department within an institution, you are obliged to reply immediately,” said Kordalov.

Some state organs don’t even have profiles on the social networks 

The social networks also contribute to easing the communication and interaction with the public and their role in today’s global society is undisputed, especially when it comes to the exchange of information, raising the public consciousness about issues of public interest and informing the people about the institutions’ activities.

However, the Assessment objects to flaws regarding online channels for quick communication.

Out of 50 observed central institutions by to the Openness Index, 34 institutions have official channels on Facebook while 11 have profiles on Twitter.

The situation in the region is even worse – 75 % of the institutions in the region don’t use Twitter to inform the public about their work, and 43% don’t use Facebook.

Kordalov says that the presence of institutions on the social networks is a necessity, not a choice.

“Today the people don’t run after information, but the information comes to them – this is a very important rule in the digital era. This is something that the institutions will have to learn, since they are obliged to be everywhere where the people are. Consequently, I don’t think they have the right to choose where they will be, but they should be literally present everywhere. Also, a reason for that would be that the number of people engaged by the institutions often will show as too big. In order to justify these numbers, it is necessary for them to be at the service of the people, to provide information across all channels, especially the digital ones, because this is the reason why the institutions exist,” explains Kordalov.

Even though the conclusion that the habit of using only the personal profiles of the oficials on the social media, still, these profiles are still richer with information compareed to the institutions’ official social media channels.  The main problem with the officials’ personal profiles is that they aren’t used as a source of information and interaction with certain institutions as soon as their mandate ends, so these profiles don’t contain long histories of the occurrences in the institutions.

The institutions are recommended to follow the positive examples from the region and the world in order to promote communication with the general public and to become more available to the people. In the digital era we live in, the institutions’ availability and accessibility are the key for unobstructed communication and mutual understanding between those in power and those who elect leaders and expect good governance.