Case study 4
Bucharest – Opportunities and Closed Doors
Ana Ciceală | Bucharest Municipal Council
Daniela Popa | Deputy Mayor of Bucharest’s 1st District
Irina Zamfirescu | Active Watch
Diana Culescu | Asociaţia Peisagiştilor din România
Carmen Nemeș | Asociaţia ANAIS
Raluca Fişer | Green Revolution
With an official population of 1.9 million, Bucharest, the capital city of Romania, is also the country’s largest municipality with the largest budget. The city is governed by a municipal government (Primăria Municipiului Bucureşti, PMB) and six district councils (primării de sector), each with its own bureaucratic apparatus, which also share certain services and competences. For example, the same street may the responsibility of the district when it comes to waste management, but that of the municipality for matters related to fixing potholes in the road. Under this system, PMB should act as a factor of stability and cohesion, both within and outside the municipal system, since the districts have limited jurisdiction and are thus less appealing as collaboration partners. Moreover, the districts, whose boundaries follow a pie-chart model, are not only varied in terms of resources, but also combine neighborhoods with very different needs under the same administration. The 5th District, for example, brings together Cotroceni, a posh neighborhood, with villas and parks, and Ferentari, a disadvantaged area, known for poor living conditions that is sometimes referred to as a ghetto. There are even proposals to reorganize Bucharest under one central administration, to dissolve the current districts and to redraw them based on neighborhoods with similar needs, with the aim of putting an end to overlapping competences and promoting greater involvement and cohesion on the part of citizens.
While Bucharest has a significant scene of civil society organizations (CSOs) that are both resourceful and experienced, it lacks an effective dialog between citizens and their representatives. The previous mayor coined the phrase “good NGOs and bad NGOs”, while the current mayor simply denies access, censors opposing opinions and threatens lawsuits, citing defamation. Elected by 43% of voters on a low attendance of only 33%, Gabriela Firea (PSD) has not fostered collaboration with civil society. While her campaign platform specifically featured a chapter dedicated to better collaboration with civil society, representatives of NGOs complain that it is harder than before to work with the local authorities. Nonetheless, Firea’s campaign platform identified and defined a problem that was not subsequently addressed: “One can observe a condescending attitude of the local authorities when talking with social partners – they are simply tolerated; […] an honest desire for openness and constructive dialog is missing. […] Generally speaking, in Romania, local officials don’t know, don’t want to know and do not wish to support problem-solving through social dialog, considering that it is not important.”
Given this context, it is no surprise that – even after repeatedly requesting an interview with representatives from PMB and with the city manager – no answer was received. That being said, the following text features the opinions of people working with or within the municipal government, who were kind enough to share their experience for the purpose of this research.
Active Watch is an NGO that deals with human rights, with a focus on transparency and good governance, the promotion of freedom of speech, access to information of public interest, accountable and transparent governance practices and equal opportunities in Romanian society. Based on its history of exposing questionable PMB actions, such as limiting citizens’ access to public meetings and their right to protest, Active Watch has monitored the record of the current mayor, Gabriela Firea. The mayor’s personality is a central aspect of how the municipality is run, and her main concern is her public image. The mayor’s attitude towards CSOs depends on whether they are friendly (and accepted) or critical (and censored). Under the current administration, PMB went so far as to create its own NGO, “Asociaţia Municipală pentru Dialog,” the Municipal Association for Dialog, with the legal status of an NGO. The relationship PMB and CSOs has been characterized as downright hostile in some cases.
While generally being non-transparent and non-friendly towards civil society – in terms of denying access to meetings, lacking overall transparency and threatening lawsuits – a functioning collaboration was maintained between PMB and NGOs that provide social services. This exception derives from the fact that the local authority is not only more involved in social services than in other areas, but also because the partnerships in place have been successful. Nonetheless, this collaboration ended without prior notification when PMB decided to substitute the service provided by an NGO with an internal one, with no regard for the citizens that would suffer during the long transition period (for further details, see the paragraph about ANAIS).
Respondent Irina Zamfirescu notes that one cannot talk about cooperation with the Bucharest municipality, because the reality is closer to NGOs asking it to respect the legal framework while the authorities make minimal efforts to do so. The current mayor is also known to take legal action against NGOs, mainly for defamation, while the way she interacts with public servants within PMB was described as a “reign of terror.” The mayor’s image is equivalent to that of PMB, that it must preserve at all costs. Irina Zamfirescu describes the work of NGOs as that of a sewage worker tasked with cleaning a septic tank – cleaning up the mess and trying to keep things operational, without the time or the context to build anything. If the basic needs of transparency and public debate are not respected, how can we even start talking about real citizen’s involvement in drafting the budget?
In the particular case of Bucharest, the confusing distinction and divided competences between the city and district administrations can prove challenging. Even if Bucharest is rich in civic initiatives that could help with mapping the issues and mediating between citizens and the authorities, the latter lack an understanding of the idea of consultations. Respondents point to owners’ associations (each apartment building has one), which are not deployed to better understand the needs of citizens, but are sometimes mobilized for political reasons, by means of distributing flyers and other campaign materials.
Engaging in public consultations between citizens and councilors could help in changing PMB’s perception on collaboration – since it is often invoked that the councilors are elected and thus represent the people, the people should make their voices heard. This is even more important since the councilors are less well known and can hide within their group, thus avoiding responsibility.
Another especially important issue is that of councilors from new parties, namely USB (now USR), which started at the local level in Bucharest and then became national. Irina Zamforescu mentions that while the situation is better now, thanks to USB/USR councilors using their status to make documents publicly available and thereby contributing to greater transparency, there is much resistance within the PMB establishment that counterbalances any transparency gains. The most visible example is the current deputy mayor who often bullies other councilors during public meetings in order to silence the opposition. The respondent argues that if the current mayor and her team will be reelected for a second term, nothing will change; not only that, but the situation could become even worse, since a second term would prove that their approach is the right one and that all those opposing them are irrelevant.
An NGO dedicated to a more sustainable and healthy way of living, Green Revolution is especially known for its pro-bike stance and campaigns in Bucharest and in other municipalities. It has been active for 11 years and describes itself as an urban ecology NGO. When it entered into partnerships with PMB, the authorities did not get involved in any of the NGOs existing projects, but only wanted their name to be associated with them. Raluca Fişer of Green Revolution recalls that in order to organize BikeFest, she had to include the PMB logo and name in all communication materials despite not receiving any help from the authorities beyond the approval to organize the event. Raluca Fişer emphasizes that there is a visible divide between the administrative apparatus of PMB, where collaboration seems to follow a normal path, and the political level. She notes that one of the shortcomings of the local authorities, especially in Bucharest, is that weak points should be acknowledged rather than hidden or denied. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the administrative side is without its problems, as the different departments do not communicate with each other. This situation is telling for the larger picture in PMB – there is a major communication issue, both within and outside PMB. Some projects are not necessarily bad, but are not explained to the public, or are not contextualized and come across as dubious, since citizens distrust the authorities altogether. Furthermore, the respondent considers communication to be a significant issue of the CSO sector as well, given that NGOs fail to present themselves as a cohesive group with a professional take on issues – while some cannot wait to pick a fight with the authorities, others appear too humble; the respondent recommends that NGOs should be true to their goals and know how to get their point across. She claims that transparent, coherent communication, involving all stakeholders, is the way forward, citing the example of Green Politics, a group including Members of Parliament from all political parties as well as CSOs that was the driving force behind a number of environmental laws. Yet even in this successful format, the issue of inadequate follow-up remains.
While civil servants are usually helpful, their hands are tied by bureaucratic procedures. Mayors in general are not open to learning, and when given the chance to learn from other mayors, they rather stick to their narrative and act as they know best.
The person of the mayor is still the driving force behind any action within PMB; if the mayor favors a proposal, more effort will be put into it. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to place the entirety of the blame on Mayor Firea, since Bucharest has a municipal council that is responsible for the decisions taken. Most of the city councilors enjoy their status of anonymity vis-à-vis the wider public and would prefer it if they – alongside their activities – were not known individually.
Raluca Fişer cites her experience when she argues that the authorities avoid implementing beneficial measures if they fear that they could damage their popularity with voters, for example restricting traffic in the city center; she advises taking such steps at the beginning of the term, in order to deal with the backlash first and then to reap the benefits.
Asociaţia ANAIS, which is dedicated to helping domestic abuse victims, started its first collaboration protocol (an agreement that often includes financial support) with PMB in 2012, with the opening of its first dedicated shelter. Only in 2016 did ANAIS receive public funds for its work, and continued to do so for two and a half years. Despite the fact that the collaboration yielded positive results, it was abruptly ended by PMB.
It is widely known that the social services provided by non-profit organizations are the best solution to many pressing issues. Nonetheless, the collaboration was terminated when the municipality decided to stop outsourcing the service and to provide it through a local company instead. The PMB announced that it would offer equivalent services, but there was a year-long gap between the termination of the collaboration and the beginning of the newly launched services.
There was no explanation for the decision, other than that it was that the agreement with the NGO had been concluded for a limited period of time and would no longer be renewed. Furthermore, the department responsible for social services is now only able to cover the costs of counselling for victims but can no longer help to finance an emergency shelter. ANAIS representatives state that their main priority remains the wellbeing of abuse victims and that they bear no ill-will towards PMB, while being open to any future collaboration as long as it serves their stated objectives.
General Council of the Municipality of Bucharest
Councilor Ana Ciceală made headlines when she sued PMB for illegally founding municipal companies, as the voting procedure did not follow the applicable legal provisions. She was proven right by a court of law, but that did not stop PMB from continuing to pour money into said companies – and it certainly did not put a stop to the constant bullying that opposition councilors faced at the hands of Deputy Mayor Bădulescu.
Early in her mandate, the current mayor proposed a system inspired by other capital cities (including Vienna, an example she frequently cites), where the municipality has its own holding companies that take care of certain issues instead of contracting private enterprises, a model which is supposed to lower the overall operating costs. Because the legal voting procedure was not followed when this proposal was passed, the opposition councilors sued the mayor’s office and ultimately won. Councilor Ciceală remembers that, when the proposal was subjected to a vote, no budget was presented for these entities, just the minimal capital requirement, and that it took 18 months for the business plans to be submitted. Later on, the internal operating rules of these companies were changed to allow for even less transparency. Another questionable move was that their budgets were presented like those of an SA (Societate pe acţiuni, joint stock company), even though these companies do not have their own income, a prerequisite for being a SA, but rather get the vast majority of their budget from PMB and the remainder from other municipal companies. Their administrative boards were also filled with members from PSD and ALDE in a non-transparent manner. Ana Ciceală highlights the fact that the main objective behind this system, namely that of providing cheaper public services, has never been backed up by any evidence.
Speaking of the city’s budget: there is little public dialog on this topic, which makes it hard to trace what subsidiary institution received what amount of money. Moreover, the file format of the available documents is not open and machine readable. Whenever budgetary amendments are proposed (“rectificare bugetară,” which allow for funds to be moved, among other things), the councilors receive a non-editable proposal three to five days in advance and have to rely on expert support to “translate” the content for them. While the USR councilors hold meetings in order to come up with a strategy on each budgetary amendment, they have little chance to participate other than the final vote, because during meetings formally dedicated to voting, new amendments are proposed in a swift and confusing manner, using only the official codes for each budgetary item – while it is not hard to understand what they mean if you have the list of codes in front of you, it is hard to do so live. In the end, all amendments pass thanks to the PSD (pro-mayor) majority. This is even more detrimental as there may be one such budgetary amendment each month while the adjusted budget is only made available online months after the vote – which means that the latest version is almost never available to the public. Councilor Ciceală also mentions that for many years, methods have been in use that allow the initial budget to contain a large sum for investments, which is later moved to current expenditure while still being presented as investments for the image benefits this brings.
Consultations with CSOs are rare, and councilor Ciceală would not call this collaboration. One of the few areas where PMB previously invested in NGOs was the social sector, but this is no longer the case. The mayor of Bucharest lacks vision and thus changes things on the go; with a comfortable majority of councilors on her side, she can easily impose her vision and faces little questioning or criticism – and if she does, the critics are swiftly silenced, ridiculed and even sued for defamation.
1st District Administration
The 1st District, the wealthiest in Bucharest, covers the north-western part of the city; as is the case with all of Bucharest districts, it includes both wealthy and more disadvantaged areas. Deputy Mayor Daniela Popa responded on behalf of the district administration. The respondent shares responsibilities with the mayor and the public administrator (equivalent to a city manager), but she is mainly in charge of maintaining an open dialog with citizens, participating in public debates and communicating with civil society. She believes in a more transparent manner of policy-making that allows CSOs to get involved. In terms of collaborations, Daniela Popa states that initiatives come from both NGOs and from within the district administration. In line with one of the priorities of the current administration, there
is an initiative to create more community centers, dedicated to citizens of all ages, on which it would like to collaborate with NGOs. She lists some of the successful collaborations that have been implemented during her time in office (since 2016) – starting with the closure of a waste disposal facility; the partnership with ANAIS in order to better help victims of domestic abuse; a project with Frontul Naţional pentru Dreptul la Locuire (National Front for the Right to Housing) on social housing and contributing to rent costs; and work with other NGOs to map all energy-sustainable buildings in the district. Daniela Popa also mentions that the district’s cultural center is engaged in collaborations with many NGOs in the field, with excellent results. She takes pride in the fact that the current mayor agreed to continue projects that had proved effective, even if they were started under the previous administration.
Talking about professionalization, Daniela Popa states that it is important to shift the main burden from CSOs to public servants, since it is usually the CSOs that know more; she believes in the continuous education of public servants to better suit the needs of citizens. Furthermore, people working within the administrative apparatus have been resistant to change, but it is possible to challenge this. Daniela Popa says that sometimes this resistance does not even have a legal basis, but rather comes from “habits,” a certain way of doing things. Communicating with all parties involved has proved to be the most successful way of overcoming these issues. For instance, she was happy to see how involved public servants were in the participatory budgeting proposal.
Daniela Popa is thus certain that transparency is the main tool that local authorities have at their disposal when it comes to better collaborating with their citizens. Openness and continuous dialog can help to overcome preconceived ideas and to build stronger ties and partnerships. Last but not least, she believes that taking recommendations into account and listening to CSO actors is the only way to move forward.
Among all of Romania’s municipalities, Bucharest has the most opportunities when it comes to collaboration between CSOs and local authorities. Many of the issues present in other municipalities – such as a lack of active citizen groups, of professional NGOs and of diversity within the CSO scene – do not apply to Bucharest. In return, the main issue is a lack of transparency and of openness towards dialog on the part of the local authorities.
Since Bucharest consists of seven overlapping administrations, each with both individual and shared competences, it would be vital that all of them have a common approach when it comes to dialog and collaborations. This division makes approaching the district administrations a difficult endeavor for some NGOs, since it yields limited results while requiring a great deal of bureaucratic work.
A valid concern is that NGOs seem to be more reactive than proactive; nonetheless, under the current climate of very limited collaboration, effecting a change in paradigm is difficult. Ideally, proactive attitudes are built up in anticipation of openness and collaboration on the part of local authorities, attributes that the current administration of Bucharest lacks. This in turn makes CSOs more inclined to get involved in the delivery of services that should be provided by the state, instead of advocating for the state to implement appropriate solutions. While this results in a highly-skilled and professionalized civil sector, it creates unbalanced relations with both citizens and the state.
Promoting community-based solutions and educating citizens to help them understand where they stand could prove beneficial. Civic education efforts from CSOs and participatory budgeting by local authorities may help to inspire a sense of community through the citizen involvement that comes with it.
With a mayor who is more concerned about her image than the wellbeing of citizens, it is hard to imagine that critical voices will be heard. Since the change at the City Hall was cited as an issue, a possible solution could be to build bridges with public servants.
CSOs would also benefit from more collaborations between them, in order to present themselves as a united group. Their concerns and proposals should be presented in an unassailable manner, starting with adherence to bureaucratic rules, the provision of realistic solutions and the involvement of experts.
Communication is another area that should be improved, both by the local authorities and by the CSO sector. Consequently, there should be greater focus on following up on initiatives than is currently the case.
Digitalization may be a useful tool, but at the end of the day it is all about political will – without a change in perspective on the part of the local authorities, efforts to introduce greater transparency through digital instruments, such as open budgets or voting platforms for participatory budgets, will not be able to accomplish their true potential.