Offerman Consulting
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Bulgarian Portal for Public Consultation pivotal in policy-making process

Author: Adrian Offerman

Abstract

The Bulgarian Portal for Public Consultation aims to encourage cooperation between citizens, businesses and non-governmental organisations and experts in government institutions in formulating policy and drafting laws. It provides access to information on planned changes in Bulgarian policies and legislation. Currently, most of the bills at national level go through this phase of consultation.

All visitors can access all the information, documents and news on the portal. Registered users can also participate in public consultations, submit comments and make suggestions. Civil servants are encouraged to participate in these discussions.

Policy context

The idea for the Portal for Public Consultation arose for the first time in the discussion of a 2005 white paper on a modern public administration that involves civil society in governance and increases the activity of civil society in public consultations, says Iskren Ivanov, an expert at the 'Modernization of the Administration' Directorate of the Bulgarian Council of Ministers. About fifty NGOs and universities were involved in the preparation of this white paper. They all agreed on this specific intervention of creating a unique place for public consultations.

The creation of the strategy.bg portal was subsequently included as a measure in the 'Strategy for Transparent Governance and for Prevention and Counteraction of Corruption, 2006-2008' and in the programme budget of the Council of Ministers, i.e. the government's office.

It was decided that the portal would have three main sections: 'Public Consultations', Strategic Documents', and 'Today Society Decides'. Every important government initiative (both legislation and strategy) is published for public consultation.

Kick-off

The portal pays special attention to the voice of civil society in policymaking, Ivanov continues. It is the one place on the internet where you can find every strategic document in Bulgaria. Every ministry — the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Education and Science, and all the others — was involved in this project. And all the ministers and secretaries-general supported the idea.

The official kick-off was given by the Prime Minister in March 2008, together with the start of the first 'Better Regulation Programme'.

At the time, no new legislation was needed to facilitate the inception of the portal. However, parliament is currently considering new amendments setting an obligation for the ministries and municipalities to conduct all their public consultations via the portal. Another key proposal is extending the mandatory period for consultations from 14 to 30 days.

International support

The initiative for the creation of the Portal for Public Consultation was supported by many organisations, says Ivanov, including international ones. The UK Department for International Development and the World Bank office in Sofia, for example, also supported this initiative.

Representatives of NGOs contributed to the idea of creating such a tool. The project was backed up by the Bulgarian Centre for Not-For-Profit Law (BCNL), the Institute for Market Economics (IME), the Public Administration Department at the 'St. Kliment Ohridski' University of Sofia, and others. Several NGOs have the banner of the portal published on their websites.

Description of target users and groups

Under the Law on Normative Acts, administrations (including municipalities) are now obliged to upload their bills to their respective websites for a period of at least 14 days for proposals and comments, Ivanov explains. This is a great achievement in efforts to increase transparency and involve society in the decision-making process.

Currently, most of the bills at national level go through this phase of consultation on the Portal for Public Consultation. Municipalities usually don't publish their legislation for consultation on the portal, but it is technically possible for them to do this anyway. Until October 2015, the portal shows 13 public consultations that have been opened by the municipalities.

New amendments in legislation are currently under consideration that would oblige the municipalities to conduct all of their public consultations through the portal.

Description of the way to implement the initiative

The Bulgarian Portal for Public Consultation aims to encourage cooperation between citizens, businesses and non-governmental organisations and experts in government institutions in formulating policy and drafting laws. It provides access to information on planned changes to Bulgarian policies and legislation. Each topic is identified by an icon representing the institution responsible. The portal is managed by the Council of Ministers.

All visitors can access all the information, documents and news on the portal. Registered users can also participate in public consultations, submit comments, and make suggestions. There is also a discussion forum where debates on important social issues are organised. Civil servants are encouraged to participate in these discussions. All contributions are moderated for relevance by the institution responsible. Contributions are anonymised before publication; only the account name and date are shown.

Sections

Ministries have their own user accounts to access the portal. They can publish strategic documents and draft regulations in the Public Consultation section. This allows interested parties to obtain background information on planned changes and to participate in the improvement of proposed policies and legislation. The institutions are responsible for publishing the results of their public consultations and related discussions, as soon as possible after the consultation period closes.

The Strategic Documents section not only contains information from the central government, but also provides strategy documents from the major regional and municipal governments in Bulgaria. Although these decentralised authorities are currently not obliged to issue public consultations, all adopted strategic documents are available on the portal.

The Publications section allows institutions to provide background information like datasets, reports and analyses on the topics currently being discussed on the portal.

Technology solution

The portal platform has been developed by a commercial party through a public procurement procedure. The software is built on the proprietary asp.net framework. It is not available to others.

Main results, benefits and impacts

The Portal for Public Consultation was released seven years ago, says Ivanov. It is now widely known as the location where public consultations and impact assessments take place. The strategic framework and associated legislation make this a sustainable initiative. As a matter of fact, several legal information systems use the information on an everyday basis. The portal is in fact a decentralised system comprising thirty contact points, who are civil servants at the ministries engaged in publishing the bills.

On October 26, 2015, there were 1,850 public consultations (for draft legislations as well as new initiatives) published on the portal. The number of registered users was 2,654. All of them can participate in the consultations, submitting comments and proposals. It is currently not possible to automatically differentiate the users, Ivanov says. So we cannot provide more extensive information on the types of users, but they are individuals, NGOs and companies.

We have no report on the overall impact of the proposals submitted through the portal, but they usually do contribute to the quality of the final version of the bill or document. Here are some examples of proposals that were accepted by the government:

We do not track the percentage of the proposals and comments that are taken into account by the ministries or how much work is required to do this. But our experience is that considerable time is spent to analyse every single proposal and put it in the framework, depending on the policy implemented with the bill. And, of course, it also takes time to provide the reasons why a specific proposal was not accepted.

Return on investment description

Having a one-stop shop for public consultations is an important step in improving the operation of the public administration and making it more transparent, Ivanov says. It is very pro-active and useful for third parties too. The systematisation of the draft legislation and strategic documents into categories makes the website a reliable source of information for independent studies, research and articles. It makes the process of monitoring public policy much easier, and allows third parties to be part of the decision-making process. In addition, the portal is a good practice and a basis for various future projects related to open government, such open data and the like.

The most important outcomes are:

  • Coverage: all institutions at central government level are involved.
  • Networking: we have created an excellent working environment within the administration, and real relationships between institutions.
  • Transparency: we have created a transparent environment and platform to exchange ideas between the state, the private sector, the civil sector, and the media. We have stimulated civil servants to work together with civil society.
  • Better policymaking: the Portal for Public Consultation has a specific role in improving practices for making and developing policy. The activities of the state at all levels can now be analysed better. The existence of the tool has stimulated activities to improve the strategic planning system in Bulgaria.
  • Reduced time, effort and monetary cost for both society and the state to participate in public consultations. We have reduced the cost to citizens of staying informed, and the cost to institutions of conducting public consultations.