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Vyacheslav Zubenko: "Making local governments do what community wants"

Starting this year, residents of several Ukrainian cities (Kyiv - among them) will get an opportunity to directly influence the allocation of part of municipal funds. However, unfortunately, the public interest to the initiative was too low so the project’s deadline was prolonged. UNIAN spoke with the man behind the initiative, which gives ordinary people the opportunity to manage the budget.

In 2016, Ukraine introduced an online platform for ideas to improve urban space called "Public project". The program is funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) under the project "Municipal Finance Strengthening Initiative" ("participation budget "), allowing the residents of the cities and towns to offer officials their ideas on local budget financing to make their hometowns a better and more comfortable place.

UNIAN spoke with Vyacheslav Zubenko, Director of the Budget and Social Research Institute, which is introducing in Ukraine a mechanism for "participation budget".

In an interview with UNIAN, he said how many cities have already joined the project, how much money a community can get to implement its ideas, and what suggestions have chances to succeed.

Local initiatives in Ukraine are nothing new for Ukraine. However, only few of them get implemented. In any case, they gain national publicity extremely rarely. How is the Public project initiative different from any of those? What’s its main idea?

This project is funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Its main difference from other community initiatives is that all ideas within the "Public project" are formally declared. That is, if some other projects may or may not be implemented by local authorities, the projects of "participation budget" must be implemented within the framework of those resolutions, adopted by participating cities.

The basic idea of the project is for the municipal authorities to allocate a certain amount of money, for the citizens to present their vision of how these funds can be spent. That is, the citizens both put forward the ideas and also vote for them. The ideas with the highest number of votes shall be included in and financed from the city budget.

But I’d like to note that direct authors of projects do not receive funds. They are just the locomotives of ideas.

So, is this project a hint of the citizens to local authorities, where the money from the local budget should be sent?

Basically, you understand it correctly. This initiative is the desire of local authorities to hear from the community what it really needs to be done locally. Well, the city authorities cannot know absolutely all the needs of each neighborhood, each household, or every citizen. This is natural. So, by giving their ideas to improve life in the city, the citizens inform local authorities that a certain public service is needed in some specific location. That is, it is about a dialogue between the community and the local governments on the needs of a city.

Now there’s much talk in Ukraine about fiscal decentralization of its regions ...

In fact, I wouldn’t link this process with decentralization. On the implementation of ideas within the "participation budget", separate funds are allocated that cannot significantly influence the development of the city.

Who allocates the funds and what is the amount of money we are talking about?

The funds are allocated by the city. And each of the participating cities determines the amount individually. Someone sets a certain percentage of the assets of the local budget, while someone sets a specific amount.

I think, if the project will gain much popularity and we see that the citizens are active, while the government listens to their ideas, the amount will increase each year.

Who will control these funds and how? If the city doesn’t utilize the money, the idea offered by the community is not implemented, then the money will simply be written off, won’t it?

No. This is not about some specific funds. See, generally, when the city budget is being formed, chief manager submits requests to the budget, according to the needs of the city. Then this gets included in the budget and the money is spent in the following period.

Same thing here. Money for the implementation of the ideas of citizens is money from the local budget, allocated by the decision of the local authorities exactly for the "Public project". That is, these are the funds that would be included in the budget anyway, but without the participation of citizens.

In other words, citizens now have the opportunity to influence the allocation of public funds. At the same time, officials will not be able to choose, which idea will be implemented. That’s because it’s the citizens who submit the ideas and it’s the citizens who vote.

And how much money can be spent on the implementation of one such idea?

All projects submitted by citizens are accepted until it the amount of funds allocated by city authorities for their implementation is fully covered.

Are there any limits on how much money the city is ready to spend on a "Public project"?

Figures vary. Khmelnytskiy has allocated for this initiative UAH 1 million, but the mayor has vowed that, if the community shows interest, the annual funding will increase. In Lviv, if I am not mistaken, it was UAH 16 million. In Kyiv it’s UAH 50 million for a year.

But this does not mean that only 50 ideas can be implemented. For example, there are ideas, the implementation of which requires less than UAH 1 million.

In general, such a mechanism for interaction of local authorities with the community is used in more than 1,500 cities around the world. For example, San Francisco, New York, Warsaw – they all use this experience very actively. The initiative is very popular worldwide...

That is, the project enables the community to hold a type of a local referendum on some issue?

Something like that. But it is important to understand that no project can cost more than UAH 1 million. And that the funds will not be enough to cover major projects like a construction of a new bridge across the Dnipro river.

Imagine a situation when Kyiv needs to repair such socially important venue as the Palace of Sports. Is it possible that a number of citizens submit several projects regarding it – on roof repair, reconstruction of the square outside the building, and so on. If these projects rack up enough votes, will the city implement them all?

If the community votes for their support, each of these projects can be implemented. But it is difficult to imagine a possible symbiosis of ideas around a single site.

In addition, we are now only testing this initiative in the conditions that we have. And then, we'll see. I think that this is only the first step. If the "participation budget" initiative gains strong popularity among communities, then I think the local authorities will go for concessions and expand funding in the future.

And what if it’s a small project, concerning the small number of people, such as a playground? How can such projects compete in one poll with bigger ideas relating to more people?

Indeed, such situations may arise because the more people are targeted, the more votes a project will gain. But some cities are already offering to divide budgets within the "Public project" on the implementation of bigger and smaller ideas. We want to offer a 50/50 split of funds.

In addition, some cities, adopting their own rules for a "Public project", allow the citizens to vote for more than just one idea – up to five (like it is in Kyiv). Also, in some cities there are no restrictions on the number of ideas submitted by one author.

How will the implementation of ideas be controlled and the final result recorded?

How do you control the use of the city funds in other projects anyway? The public is a powerful driver. Especially when someone becomes the author, the creator of the project, they become very concerned that the project be completed.

Perhaps we will offer the cities to formalize it somehow, to have the author of the idea to be directly involved in the process of monitoring the implementation.

You mean, including them on some kind of audit commissions?

That’s right. Or, for example, having the acceptance certificate or any other document confirming the project completion be published, or have an approval of its author...

All the relevant provisions of the city council will be adjusted, they will be amended. That’s because all cities are different.

But how can someone submitting an idea calculate the cost of its implementation?

Our electronic system developed with funding from USAID contains a certain form filling algorithm. If the author of the idea enters the approximate cost higher than the city initially approved for one project, the system will just not record the application...

I mean, how can one understand that this project is worth UAH 100,000 or UAH 500,000?

The author may give an approximate cost. If they wish, they can submit a memo on how much certain services or materials cost in a certain city. After that, a special commission looks into it and figures out whether it is possible at all to implement the project.

For example, if a person offers to build a park on some piece of municipal land, the commission may to check it and say that this cannot be done here, as this land for example, is in someone’s private property. Or that a park cannot be built due to some adverse geodesic conditions. Then the project will be rejected.

However, the reasons for rejection should be reflected in the system.

If all goes well, the project has to be voted. People vote, and then it is submitted to the municipal administrations and forwarded to some department or directorate, where the experts assess the project directly. There the specialists assess the cost more precisely, while taking into account the technical nuances, and draft technical documentation.

We understand that people cannot be experts in all areas at once. People just submit an idea. It’s the specialists and experts, paid for by our taxpayers, have to bring this idea to life.

And if so happens that as early as on this stage you will see that the cost of implementation exceeds the limit? What is to be done in this case?

I believe that we will not postpone the implementation for future periods.

Actually, there are several options. For example, if the cost excess the limit within adequate figures, there can be some additional funding for the project from other sources. Or maybe the least popular project with the least votes will be excluded from the budget and the funds released will be allocated for the implementation of the ideas from the project above in the list.

On the other hand, even if some of the ideas gain few votes and at the same time present the ideology interesting for the city, then perhaps they will be forwarded for implementation through different mechanisms. For example, through the city council budget committee, in the process of drafting a next year’s budget.

How many cities have joined the "Public project"?

When we held this competition, we received entries from more than 200 cities. Now it’s down to 15 who have been invited. We took big cities like Kyiv and small towns like Berdyansk.

But the work is divided into two stages. In 2016, we are working with eight cities, and another seven cities join us in 2017. They have all developed and approved relevant resolutions of their municipal councils. Kyiv is still working through the mayor’s instructions, simultaneously developing a resolution of a city council which would set up a participation budget for next year.

After we complete the projects with our partner cities, we would like to accumulate all positive experience and share it further.

What is the deadline for the submission of applications?

It’s different in each given city. Now a process is underway of project submission and voting. In Kyiv, voting will begin on December 15, while Lviv has already voted and Berdyansk just started submitting ideas ... But by the end of the year, everyone will have already held the vote.

After that, the projects selected by the public will be included in the list of those to be implemented by local governments in the following budget period. That is, they will be financed and implemented in 2017.

Do you monitor whether the trends are different, or conversely, similar? Are there any similar projects filed by applicants from different cities?

I think that once the submission is over across Ukraine, we will try to conduct such an analysis. But, regardless of the size of the settlement, people are interested in similar issues, they are becoming more aware of their health, the future of their children. They want them to have fun at the playgrounds rather than face the mess of the streets.

Now most of the ideas presented in different cities have different infrastructure focus. But in the future, we expect there will be some more creative ideas appearing in communities. The ideas, which the officials can’t come up with for some reason… It so happens that the staff at local administrations is often overloaded, so they just follow the path of least resistance.

The project allows people to say, 'We want it!" They want to show what is it that their community really needs and to make the authorities do what the community wants. That’s what our initiative is about – not to wait for the government to finally find time for this but to make it do everything through this very mechanism.

Tatiana Urbanskaya

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