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Behavior and Delivery Lead to Citizens’ Participation and Trust in Local Government

The quality of a democracy is often judged by what is provided by the supply side (the government) and what is requested on the demand side (the population). The interplay between these two sides constitutes the path through which trust is instilled and democracy is consolidated.

On October 17, Macedonian citizens will head to the polls to elect their local decision-makers. While deciding which of the candidates to select for 81 mayoral and 1,347 municipal positions, citizens will reflect if incumbent mayors have earned their trust and delivered on campaign promises. Ahead of this year’s local elections, IRI conducted extensive focus group research, consisting of 21 groups with undecided voters in 18 municipalities in North Macedonia. The research sought to dig deeper into citizens’ thoughts on local government representatives and areas in need of change.

Responsiveness Matters

As found in IRI’s research, in municipalities where people find the mayors to be unresponsive, inaccessible, or uncommunicative, very few people if any participate in local government. Citizens have little-to-no motivation to engage, as they believe that the local government will ignore them. When asked if he had engaged with his local government, one ethnic Albanian student from Skopje responded that he had not. “It’s not that I don’t want to,” he stated, “but I am pretty sure that proposals are not taken into consideration at all.” These feelings also extend beyond geographic area, employment status, ethnicity, and other demographic factors. “It’s like science fiction to contact the mayor,” claimed one unemployed, ethnic Macedonian woman from Skopje, while a 29-year-old ethnic Roma said that he had received no answer when he had propositioned the local government for change.

On the other side is citizens’ experience with responsive mayors. Mayors who provide citizens with possibilities to communicate their issues create a more positive experience. They lead by example in urging the entire municipal civil service to remain respectful, responsive, and service-oriented. When these mayors are responsive, citizens are motivated and participate, as they feel encouraged to resolve problems that affect their daily life or to share their ideas for improvement:

“We, as an organization, had also made a youth strategy adopted by the Kochani council. But we had more demands for help with environmental campaigns, the construction of streets in the Roma community, and we always received help and positive answers [N.B. from the Kochani local government].”

~ Female, 40 years, employed, ethnic Macedonian, Kochani

It Pays to Deliver

According to these focus groups, one of citizens’ largest disappointments is when those with whom they entrusted their vote ignore them and fail to deliver on electoral promises. Candidates often promise much in local elections; however, the reality is that most mayors do not deliver on what they promised. IRI’s research found that 84% of mayors failed to reach their constituency’s expectations. When describing her local representative, one 40-year-old woman from Skopje claimed that he was “idle” and “inadequate.” “I say idle since we have not seen him doing something for this municipality that is visible,” she continued, “inadequate [because] I don’t think he is the right person for this position.” Another respondent offered similar thoughts on his own mayor, stating that he was very passive. “If there are 10 people from the municipality, seven out of 10 would not recognize him as their mayor,” he quipped.

Locations of 18 municipalities in North Macedonia where IRI’s focus group research was conducted.

On the other hand, citizen satisfaction is apparent and significant when mayors deliver. In the few municipalities where citizens recognize visible improvements in their municipality, they give credit to their local officials and mayors, labeling them as people “of action” who “get things done” and change-makers:

“I have to give credit to our mayor. I think that he has accomplished many of the projects he has planned. Years ago in our village, if we have faced an infrastructure problem, it was the villagers themselves taking actions to fix those issue. Nowadays, we can see that the municipality has really committed to improve the infrastructure problems.”

~ Female, 29 years, employed, ethnic Albanian, Bogovinje

In this research, citizens gave clear directions to the candidates for the 1,428 elected local government positions on how to gain their trust. These directions include:

  • Behavior: Mayors and municipal representatives should be open, responsive, respectful and communicate with citizens;
  • Policy Delivery: Mayors and municipal representatives should execute visible policy change and improvements in various areas such as infrastructure, environment, and municipal services. Essentially, the officials should generate change that visibly improves the quality of life in the municipality.