Summary | Public participation: Institutional environment and present practices

On February 19, 2023, the fourth round table discussion was held within the framework of
“Agora Conversations”. Experienced civil society activists Abulfaz Gurbanli, Aygül Jafarova,
expert Asiman Gocayev, researchers Kaklik Karimli and Javid Ibad participated in the round
table entitled “Public participation: Institutional environment and current practices” jointly
organized by Agora Analytical Collective and Article 54 Public Union. The following summary
of the public discussion was prepared based on the notes of the moderator (Najmin Kamilsoy)
and covers the following questions.
What is public participation, what are its main principles? How is the situation regarding
women’s participation evaluated? Are there participation opportunities and experiences in the
regions? What are the institutional and informal forms of participation, how does the
development of modern technologies affect participation? What good examples of citizen
participation are there in other countries? In what areas are changes needed in legislation and
existing practices?
Concept of participation and new initiatives
Although public participation is a concept related to the mechanisms of influence of citizens on
the processes and decisions that affect their lives, it causes little attention in the Azerbaijani
society. In recent years, new initiatives are trying to increase the awareness of citizens in this
area. One of those initiatives, the “Article 54” Public Union, named after the 54th clause of the
Constitution of Azerbaijan, promotes the increase of citizens’ participation in the adoption of
state decisions. The initiative works closely with local communities in 7 regions. It is considered
that the creation of opportunities for public participation is very important in terms of increasing
efficiency in management. Article 54 considers community building as a unique tool of public
participation and calls this mechanism “community participation”.
Institutional mechanisms
Communities can organize public discussion, hearings, and study public opinion based on the
rights granted by the law “On Public Participation” adopted in 2014. However, all of the
roundtable participants noted that public councils, the main institutional means of participation
created by the law, are not truly functional. Public councils, which have the status of advisory
bodies to state institutions, are not organized by civil society communities, but are organized top-down by the state and do not create any change. The agenda of the councils is pre-moderated, as a result the communities do not have a voice in public policy making.
According to the debaters, it is also possible to observe the tendency of conflict of interests in the activities of the councils. In this consultative mechanism, NGOs with more ties to the state are represented, which raises questions about the expression of public interests.

Gender aspect

One of the important principles of participation is gender equality. In the discussion, it was noted that the participation of women in Azerbaijan is very low, both at the level of communities and management. At best, only a quarter of decision-makers in various institutions are women. However, this indicator itself has a formal character and the goal is to ensure “quorum”. The minority of women in management has a negative impact on the position of women in community participation. The main obstacle facing this is deep stereotypes about the social status of women. Those stereotypes have led to a small number of active women, especially in the regions.
Regional aspect
A speaker who has experience working with young people in the regions stated that the situation has worsened due to the influx of people to Baku and abroad and the lack of interest of those who remain to be active in social activities. Also, socio-economic conditions and difficulties do not allow citizens to devote time to community building. From this point of view, it is considered important to promote awareness of participation from school days.
Another issue highlighted was local self-governance and strengthening the role of communities
in it. Since the establishment of municipalities in Azerbaijan is the result of international
obligations and not a social order, the central government shows a stepfather attitude towards
municipalities and their role is unknown. The reforms are aimed at increasing the power of the
central executive power rather than increasing the powers of municipalities in the form of local
Despite these, there are some successful non-institutional practices of community participation in the regions. In particular, it was noted that activity in environmental issues has increased in
recent times. For example, with the help of the Article 54 initiative, the regional community
established in Goychay launched a “clean city” campaign for household waste management in
the district, and at the initial stage local residents collected more than 1000 signatures. A public hearing was held with the participation of local government agencies and residents.
Environmental activity has been formed in the region, sensitivity to this problem has increased.
As a result, numerous waste bins were placed in different places, and a number of measures were taken by government agencies in the field of cleaning. It shows that increasing activism on simple issues that concern everyone can be the start of broader participation.

Effects of political system and new technologies
Researchers consider public participation as a continuation of political participation. That is,
participation opportunities arise from the issue of democratic governance and representation.
Indicators of democracy in countries also affect participation. For example, when there is little
interest and trust in elections, interest in participation in decision-making also decreases. In terms of political participation, in democracies there are opportunities for even small parties defending the interests of minority communities to enter parliament and participate directly in theprocesses. Although some authoritarian regimes close the mechanisms of political participation, they create conditions for public participation so that local problems can be studied.
Discussants also noted that regardless of the quality of the political system, modern technologies offer new opportunities for participation. Social networks enable citizens to create agendas and organize discussions. This forces managers to react. However, the manipulation of public opinion through state-organized mass trolls and similar means was also added as an example of some undesirable aspects of social networks. Nevertheless, the presence of independent media platforms on the Internet can have a positive effect on participation in terms of information provision.

Successful models
Although the decline of political participation is a global phenomenon, there are successful
models of local citizen participation in decision-making. If we do a comparative analysis of
industrialized societies, it becomes clear that public participation in the US context is more based on NGOs and civil movements. In most cases, the main goal of these movements is to achieve fundamental institutional changes on the territory of the United States (tightening of gun ownership rights, making medical insurance more accessible to the population, establishing the social and political rights of the African American community, etc.). Due to the two-party
system, a number of interest groups do not gain sufficient representation through these political parties.
On the European continent, public participation is mostly based on a multi-party system. If we
add to this reality the institutions of local governance with sufficient flexibility and broad
powers, it becomes clear that different groups of the society can organize around many issues
through party and municipal institutions. Basically, the aforementioned local governance
institutions have pushed for a number of radical changes in recent years. The reason for this, of
course, is the current climate reality and the acquisition of the leading role of cities as a
residential area in the 21st century.
In recent times, one of the main success stories in this direction can be cited as an example of
Paris. Over the past years, Paris municipality has integrated city residents in budget planning,
participated closely in more than 40,000 cities, in more than 200 projects, in discussions about
how to spend 75 million euros. This practice has been implemented in Amsterdam, Barcelona,
Berlin, Dublin and many other cities of the continent.

Researchers in the field say that the lack of opportunities for participation can lead to a gap in
state-society relations. In order to prevent this, it is important to have political will in the ruling
elite and take practical steps.The Constitution of Azerbaijan and existing laws provide for the organization of participation.
Article 54 of the Constitution states that everyone “has the right to participate freely in the
political life of society and the state”. For this to happen, both the country’s leadership and civil
society have certain obligations.

At the institutional level, the organization of public council elections should be more transparent and inclusive so that different communities and interest groups can participate and communicate with official institutions.
Also, in current practice, after the laws are prepared, they are presented to the citizens in their
final version. But citizens, experts and communities should have the opportunity to participate in the most diverse stages of legislation. For example, when we say budget participation, it is also meant to take into account different opinions at the budget planning stage.
Increasing participation is also a matter of education and awareness raising, in which civil
society organizations also have an important role. However, civil society organizations engaged
in the field of local community building and participation should not marginalize local
communities by moving their agenda to the regions, but on the contrary, they should try to learn the local agenda and conditions.
Both institutional and non-institutional opportunities for participation are available, albeit
limited. Learning and using these opportunities requires more systematic activity.