Reformist Leaders and Civil Society

A Reformist Leader Is No Guarantee

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 11, Issue 2, February 2009

Dragan Golubovic1

What innovations have worked, and what lessons have been learned, for civil society to enhance its engagement with the government when a reformist leader takes office?

Civil society needs to make a case that it has the capacity to contribute meaningfully to setting priorities in a reformist leader’s agenda and addressing those priorities—rather than focusing on having a government commit to pay attention to civil society. In the context of the Balkan region, this particularly refers to the capacity to work with governments in the areas of social reforms and European integrations. Civil society has demonstrated that capacity in various fashions. The first step in the process is usually establishing “credentials” with a government by proving to be a reliable source of pertinent information and a constructive contributor (or instigator, for that matter) of various legislative and other policy-related initiatives. Once the trust is established, the possibilities of collaboration are likely to expand.

Having a reformist leader in the office is no guarantee of a more productive relationship between the government and civil society, though. For example, the current President of the Czech Republic (and a former Prime Minister), Vaclav Klaus, is certainly a reformist, but at the same token not a great proponent of civil society, to say the least.

In the run-up to the election of a reformist leader, there is often an increase in civic mobilization. What are some innovations and lessons learned about sustaining civic participation over time?

Generally, chances of sustained citizen participation in public policy seem greater if there is an institutional mechanism that supports and encourages this process, as with a number of initiatives at the national and international level. For example, the Lisbon Treaty of the European Union (EU) proclaims representative democracy (i.e., the role of political institutions) and participatory democracy (i.e., the role of citizen participation) as fundamental values of the EU. Similarly, the Conference of International NGOs, which operates under the auspices of the Council of Europe, has taken on drafting a code of good practice in citizen participation. Various forms of networking and social mobilization that are emerging on the Internet, as well as efforts in many countries to create an “e-government,” are likely to significantly shape this process in the future.

What are some of the challenges that civil society organizations face when a reformist leader is elected?

One of the most formidable challenges is the drain of human resources, as personnel take on governmental and private business positions. This process is compounded by the fact that most prominent NGOs in nascent democracies are leader-driven, with poor corporate governance and weak institutional memory. Another common challenge is an inability to respond to new realities and social priorities, which oftentimes requires a significant shift in institutional policy and goals of an organization—or even a recognition that an organization has fulfilled its mission and perhaps should cease to operate or merge with another organization.

What are some lessons learned relating to the management of high (and sometimes unrealistic) expectations that can accompany the election of a reformist government, and how can civil society help hold governments accountable for pre-election promises?

This is what civil society (media included) should excel in doing by default. Civil society is meant to work with citizens and for citizens, and in this respect being vocal in public and keeping social networks is instrumental to keep the government in check. Clearly, new forms of networking on the Internet are going to play a key role and significantly facilitate this process in the future.

The current financial crisis has created challenges for governments, governance, and civil society actors. What advice would you like to convey to civil society actors in light of the financial crisis?

The current financial crisis is both a challenge and an opportunity in that it gives civil society a chance to contribute to the debate. Indeed, in many ways civil society is ideally positioned to lead this debate, since by default it operates with fewer political and institutional constraints than governments and other public actors. This will also require that a civil society take a hard look at itself and think of the transformative role it can play in ever-evolving modern societies.


1 Dragan Golubovic is Senior Legal Advisor of the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law in Budapest.