Breakdown in Communication Between Citizens and State in Provision of Public Services

Public services are the main point of contact between the public administration and the citizens of one country. While experts and civil society work with the issues of how professional the state administration is, is there corruption, are there regular assessments and trainings of civil servants, how does the accountability on different levels of hierarchy work, and how are strategies and laws made, for citizens, it is important how many times and how many different counters will they have to visit in order to get a document and realize a certain right. It is also important for them how long they will wait in a line and how the civil servants providing services treat them. And if it comes to citizens with reduced mobility, impaired hearing or vision, they will care about the possibility to physically access the premises where services are provided, will they be able to communicate with employees, and will the whole activity be carried out in a dignified way for them.

Serbia is one of the countries that in recent years, at least according to state leaders and media, pays great attention to improving the quality of public services and strives to simplify administrative procedures for its citizens. And indeed, the new LAP is adopted and being implemented (the famous Law on General Administrative Procedure adopted with a ten-year delay while in the meantime a decent, but with expired statute of limitations, LAP from nineties was being implemented), administration bodies have finally ceased to treat citizens as their couriers and have begun exchanging information from records kept ex officio. With the strong support of a special team at the Cabinet of the Prime Minister (so called “Delivery Unit”), innovative concept of pooling services based on life events has begun in 2015, and in this way babies in Serbia have finally become “welcome” for the state. The state shows its welcome to parents by enabling them to register a residence of a baby, its citizenship and health insurance, as well as to apply for parental benefits, all in one move, already at a maternity ward if they came up with a baby`s name at the time. The state sends parents a friendly welcome SMS and documents to their home address (the service was named “Welcome to the world, baby”).

However, what hides behind this bright surface? Are these innovations a reflection of the system or a result of individual reform efforts achieved by teams of dedicated people? Based on various analyses and researches carried out over the past year, it would appear that the system does not follow these modern solutions and that they work, not based on the system, but in spite of it.

Firstly, SIGMA (Program of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development which assesses public administration reform in the entire Western Balkans region) gives average ratings to Serbia in the area of public services. Indicators “Citizen-oriented Service Delivery” and “Fairness and Efficiency of Administrative Procedures” are valued “good” (3, on a scale from 0 to 5), while “Existence of Enablers for Public Service Delivery” and “Accessibility of Public Services” indicators are valued with a barely passing two. SIGMA points to weak capacities for monitoring public service performance, poor coordination of reform activities and uneven quality of registries on which modernization of public services depends on. Also, a complete lack of mechanisms to monitor the quality of public services and user satisfaction is criticized, as well as the lack of initiatives to involve users in service design. In addition, necessary data for monitoring accessibility to public services for vulnerable groups and its potential improvement is not collected.

Civil society projects further prove systemic problems. Research results within the regional project WeBER (, coordinated by the Center for European Policies, and implemented by partners gathered in the network of think thank organisations “Think for Europe Network”, show that only one third of citizens think that the state asked them for suggestions on how to improve public services in the past two years or that as users of public services they have the possibility to give their opinion on their quality. As much as 80% of citizens – both in Serbia and Montenegro – say they were not given a possibility to give their opinion on the quality of services they received from the state in the past two years.

Within the framework of another project “Partnership for Public Administration Reform and Public Services”, implemented only in Serbia, it has been shown that although most citizens are generally satisfied with the quality of the services provided by the administration, they are very dissatisfied with work organization, waiting in lines, poor system for making appointments and poor equipment of institutions providing them services. They also mind petty corruption (informal payments and gifts) and verbal aggression, and they are poorly informed about their rights and mechanisms to protect them.

Results show that 77% citizens believe that people use private contacts in order to get faster and more efficient services of primary health care, while two thirds of citizens think the same when it comes to issuing personal documents. More than half (52%) of citizens of Serbia believe that informal payment and gifts are necessary to be provided hospital services, while every third citizen believes the same about the services of the Ministry of Interior. According to citizens, the most common abuses are corruption and verbal aggression.

Regarding citizens’ information, the results show that citizens believe that they are either uninformed or minimally informed of their rights and duties in the area of primary health care services (Chart 10). Also, almost more than half citizens do not know who to address in case of violation of their patients’ rights (49%), and a majority (56%) believe they need a higher level of information. d more than half (58%) do not know who to address in case of derogation of rights in contact with the police administrative service, and this figure is even higher among young people (between18 and 29 years of age). Citizens believe that media should inform them of their rights, but also employees in hospitals, police stations and pre-school institutions.

Citizens’ satisfaction results in regard to services and their lack of information are not surprising if taken in consideration the way strategies and laws are made in the areas in which these services are provided. Ministries mostly do not use analyses and data when working on these documents, and feedback from citizens – like the one mentioned above – almost does not exist and is not used for designing new policies and services. Also, citizens and civil society are not systematically involved in drafting strategies and laws: even if public discussions are held (and they are often skipped), they come only at the end of the document preparation process, which drastically reduces the possibility to amend already prepared draft or proposal. When amending a law, the situation is even worse: they are done randomly, that is, outside of the settled processes and procedures for adopting new regulations, although they often make substantive changes in the way that a particular area is regulated. Of the three analysed areas, the greatest progress in recent years in regard to use of analyses and data, and holding of public discussions, has been achieved by the Ministry of Interior, which can be explained by the great attention given to this Ministry’s area of work in the process of accession to the European Union, which makes them far more exposed to external analyses and assessments (by the European Commission primarily).

All of these findings clearly point to one thing: a lot of joint work by the state and civil society is needed so that citizens can really be “in the center of attention” of public administration when it provides them with services they themselves fund.

Milena Lazarević
The author is Programme Director of the European Policy Centre from Belgrade

The blog was produced within the project “Civil Society for Good Governance: To Act and Account!”, implemented by the Institute Alternative, Bonum, Nature, New horizon and Center for Investigative Journalism, and funded by the European Union within the Civil Society Facility and the Balkan Trust for Democracy (BTD), a project of the German Marshall Fund of the US (GMF). The contents of the blog are the sole responsibility of the author and cannot be taken to reflect the views of the donors.

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