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Case study 1: Budapest: promoting a participative turn in governance through urban interventions


The changing local government landscape in Hungary: is there a place for civil society?

Case study 1

Budapest: promoting a participative turn in governance through urban interventions


  • Máté Lukács | Coordinator of Járókelő
  • Ádám Kobrizsa | Founder of Mindspace
  • Cili Lohász | Founder of VaLyó
  • Gábor Kerpel-Fronius & András Szeles | Deputy Mayor of Budapest & the City Hall official responsible for relations with civil society

The city and its context

In 1990, the Municipality of Budapest was divided into 22 districts (a 23rd was added in 1994), separating the city and its districts into equal entities within a two-tier system, although in a fragmented manner. For example, public transportation and infrastructure remained centralized powers in the hands of the Municipality of Budapest, while the distribution of resources became decentralized. The guidelines for collaboration were mostly informal during the 1990s, but in parallel with Hungary’s EU accession and the subsequent emphasis on partnership, Act 61/2008 (XI. 21.) of the General Assembly of Budapest formalized the contours of collaboration between civil society and local government in the city.

After the municipal elections of November 2019, the left-liberal opposition gained power in Budapest and promised to change the course the city had followed under the previous mayor, who was supported by the Fidesz party, which controls the national government. During the mandate of the previous mayor, between 2010 and 2019, the deputy mayors did not have any political responsibilities. This changed in 2019, as the new mayor put the three deputy mayors also in charge of political decisions. In November 2019, as a gesture of good will, around 90 civil society organizations (CSOs) were invited to City Hall to open up discussions on collaborative practices and to show that the municipality is willing to put its relationship with them on a new footing.

After the 2019 municipal elections, similar changes in power took place in many of Budapest’s districts, where the newly elected leaders proposed a more progressive policy environment, by employing “NGO-minded staff,” as Gábor Kerpel-Fronius, the deputy mayor responsible for smart city issues and civil engagement explains. A look at the past few years reveals that the decision makers had already been moving towards more participative mechanisms, irrespective of the election results, as some experts we interviewed noted cautiously. Even though participative mechanisms have become more popular in recent years, an urbanist we interviewed points to the ambiguous nature of such practices, which can be both a form of emancipation and a way of coopting civil society dynamics for political legitimation. However, the Municipality of Budapest and the new mayor have shown a much greater interest in CSOs and their ideas about the city, for example by actively participating in meetings and promoting inclusive governance mechanisms.

Bottom-up initiatives with a focus on the quality of public spaces

After the 2019 elections, CSOs that have been active for years finally had the chance to be in the spotlight. Interviewees from CSOs relate a common experience of City Hall finally initiating an open and trustful relationship with them. In one way or another, this has led to discussions and meetings about future possibilities of collaboration.

Járókelő (Streetwalker) is a Fix My Street-like online platform that operates in 23 cities and in each of the 23 districts of Budapest. Citizens can submit complaints about problems in their neighborhood, accompanied by a photo and a short description, which is then published on and sent via email to the responsible authority to highlight the problem. Járókelő, with the help of local activists, facilitates these procedures by sending the complaint directly to the competent local entity/organization (which is particularly relevant in the multi-level governance scheme of Budapest). The website has been operating in Budapest since October 2012. It added the first other city to its service in June 2014 and then released an Android mobile application. For its work in connecting citizens to municipalities and helping them solve local problems, Járókelő received the SozialMarie Award for Social Innovation in May 2014. The website has around 20,000 visitors per month and registers 30 to 50 complaints per day in Budapest alone. Járókelő tries to keep the relationship at a technical level, rather than directly appealing to the political level. It works with municipalities and local companies (those responsible for road maintenance, park maintenance, etc.) to improve road maintenance and solve public complaints more effectively. It thus encourages citizen participation at the local level and enhances the quality of communication with local governments. To avoid political conflicts and situations in which conflicts of interest might arise, Járókelő relies on transparency and fact-based communication, open data and open evaluations. When the platform was launched, the municipalities were unprepared for this type of engagement and how to deal with citizen complaints; they failed to fully understand the platform or how it could be beneficial for them. As many of the municipalities lack the capacity of innovation to make their services more efficient and user-friendly, Járókelő provides a platform that supports their work

it can create a mutually beneficial win-win scenario, by improving public spaces and building up trust between local governments and citizens. Some districts do not respond at all, while others answer by post, demanding that someone at Járókelő scan and then send the letter by email to the complainant and upload it on the platform. The lack of effective communication is also revealed by the fact that the local authorities frequently use patronizing and simplistic language in their replies to citizens.

VaLyó (Város és folyó – City and River) is an organization that aims for a better use of the Danube river in Budapest, by bringing it closer to citizens through various projects. It was founded as an association in 2014, but its initial activities were more informal and included partaking in different projects aimed at utilizing the public spaces along the Danube. In recent decades, the Danube has only been included in large-scale urban planning strategies, whereas the idea behind VaLyó was to initiate small-scale projects, to make the river more accessible to citizens, often by temporarily reducing car traffic. The creation of VaLyó was also driven by the fact that existing green movements lacked a positive message and only expressed criticism towards current practices and policies. Instead, VaLyó’s mission focuses on activities that show what could be done in the city, “even if it is only a two-square meter space,” as Cili Lohász, the organization’s founder, explains. All its members are part-time volunteers who do not receive any income from the projects. This is a deliberate tactic

in order to avoid constantly having to apply for funds to sustain the organization, which instead relies mostly on donations or organized fundraising events. As its founder notes, VaLyó tries to be different from “traditional” CSOs by relying mostly on contacts from local, more embedded members of civil society. It also has an ambivalent relationship with local governments, sometimes more collaborative and often confrontational, depending on the issue at stake. In general, the organization tries to approach local governments in a collaborative manner, but if the situation requires it, they will not shy away from criticism. Under the previous mayor of Budapest, the relationship was generally hostile, and VaLyó was “blacklisted” from receiving funds, as part of the political attack on the NGO sphere.

Mindspace focuses on issues related to smart city visions, education, the organization of conferences and the “gamification” of urban interventions. Active in the Central Eastern European region, it develops and implements the soft elements of urban interventions instead of engaging in more rigid planning procedures. The organization’s goal is to create a more creative bureaucracy, for which it fosters participatory planning mechanisms. Its approach is based on process design, from web development and graphics through to professional facilitation, in order to promote more effective and transparent bureaucratic procedures. Since it was founded in 2011, Mindspace’s financial situation has changed significantly. In the beginning, its work was largely subsidized by EU funds, but it recently started to have a contract-based relationship with local governments, based on the provision of facilitation services. Currently, Mindspace has two work agreements with local governments, one with the Municipality of Budapest and another with the city’s 8th district. As part of these projects, it is responsible for the implementation of the participatory mechanisms of the Integrated Settlement Development plans, for developing an online platform for the participatory design of public urban spaces, and for convening a group of subject matter experts for facilitated workshops.

Renewing the institutional framework for participation

The Municipality of Budapest has initiated a series of meetings with CSOs to renew the 2008 act that defines the framework of civic consultation processes with various stakeholders. The idea is to better institutionalize these mechanisms, instead of engaging in ad hoc collaborations. Until formal rules have been defined, this ad hoc format promotes subjective decisions and collaborations, which go against the aims of the new leadership. Nevertheless, for the time being, some progressive and more experienced NGOs have taken the lead to deepen their relationship with City Hall.

The Civil Society Relations Office already operated during the period from 2010 to 2019, but it only had two municipal employees, and CSOs were only included to legitimize decisions that the municipality had already taken. The tasks of the former Civil Society Relations Office were mixed and included matters that could not be dealt with by any other departments (such as the issue of minority self-governments). Now it already has a staff of five or six employees, with plans to expand it to 10 in total. The same office will also be responsible for the development of a participatory budget.

At the moment, three areas for civic-local government cooperation are in the making, based on a new umbrella model with three main focus areas: social/care, participation and environmental issues, with a working group dedicated to each in order to address particularly problematic issues (social/care will probably will be the most comprehensive, including housing, disabilities, drug use, Roma minorities). The Municipality of Budapest intends to create an open registration procedure to avoid personal preferences for working with certain organizations, and to open up collaborative processes to a wider group of dedicated civil society actors. For each of these areas, plenaries as well as more frequent meetings are planned that will bring together CSO representatives, municipal officials and political decision makers. The green working group was the first to be established, based on the suggestions of green CSOs, already in December 2019.

As the deputy mayor responsible for participation and the civic referent explains, a serious cultural transformation is needed: “in its normal, comfortable processes, the bureaucratic machine considers CSOs to be a nuisance,” which needs to change, he argues, emphasizing that local government employees need to learn how to do things differently. The deputy mayor relies on an active lobby of “single-issue” CSOs, as he explains, and it will be up to his decision which issues will gain more attention. By the end of the cycle, the municipality’s goal is to become a much more open institution, where CSOs “still look at politicians with a suspicious eye, but a normal discussion can happen.” The aim is to create an environment where disagreements are possible, in order to promote constructive and intensive dialog. For this happen, one of the main tasks is to create channels for facilitating communication.

Careful steps ahead

Half a year after the 2019 municipal elections, partly due to process of creating the new roles and partly because of the pandemic, fewer collaborations have been realized than initially planned. The original budget has been cut and broader participatory mechanisms have been cancelled or reduced. Nevertheless, the formation of the environmental working group is considered to be a positive outcome of the cultural change in the municipality, as is the approval, by the Budapest General Assembly, of a monitoring system aimed at preventing corruption and promoting transparency (known as the ”This is the Minimum!” program). The main goal is to formalize the relationship between civil society and local government, in order to reduce ad hoc collaborations. The municipality would like to see as many stakeholders as possible participate in the near future, not only a narrow circle of CSOs.

The emphasis of the new leadership is clearly on the cultural change that it could bring to the municipality. However, since the central government is reducing the responsibilities and the independence of local governments, it is becoming more difficult for the Municipality of Budapest to implement the original plans. It already had to cut the planned budgets for collaborative practices and cancel some of the meetings with CSOs. “We will have to be in touch with many organizations to carry out measures that have a low budget but a high impact,” as the deputy mayor puts it. The ultimate goal is to show the country that CSOs can be treated as partners rather than enemies. Reducing car traffic has been one of the main promises of the new mayor, and to this end, the municipality collaborated with VaLyó

to close the Danube embankment to cars on weekends during the summer. As Cili Lohász explains, VaLyó already has a decade of experience, and managed to find common ground with the municipality to formalize their relationship even in the face of the COVID-19 restrictions. The organization had to go back to its roots: working from a low budget, relying on its CSO network to manage projects and working in an uncertain environment. Meanwhile, Mindspace has experienced less of a setback in carrying out its projects, given that it largely relies on online platforms to reach out to citizens.

Barriers to making a difference

Although the pandemic slowed down the renewal of the institutional framework, under the new city leadership there is a general spirit of optimism among CSOs. However, the activists emphasize that “the old reflexes still work” and that they are currently waiting to see if things will go in the right direction. The CSOs note that in general, there is still a lack of transparency as to who is responsible for which projects within City Hall. The distribution of roles is not yet clear, due to the creation of new positions and responsibilities, and therefore the communication among municipal employees is not yet efficient, which needs to be improved in the future.

Moreover, the major issue related to these collaborations is to forge a more coherent network from the initiatives that are being pushed forward. This could work well in general, but there is a misunderstanding on the part of the municipalities: they believe that they only need to communicate with residents, but they should also help small businesses and CSOs to become more independent and financially stable. The municipalities have to understand that CSOs cannot always work for free, which is currently the case on many occasions. The work they do has to be better acknowledged, and if CSOs are to be part of a new governance model, the financial foundation of their collaboration with the local authorities also needs to be improved.