Levels and forms of participation
Initially, certain preconditions need to be met upon which the overall process of participation will take place, so as to make sure of a proper process and an enabling environment for the participation of the citizens. Specifically, there should be agreement from both parties – public authorities and civil society – on the rules of citizens’ participation, mutual trust that both parties commit to improving the lives of the citizens, accountability and transparency relating to the manner and the results of participation, as well as the right of CSOs to act independently and advocate stands that differ from those of public authorities.
There are four levels of participation, starting from the one with lower participation and all the way to the level with high participation: information, consultation, dialogue and partnership.
Access to information is the basis of each following step in the inclusion of civil society organizations into the political process of decision-making. This is a relatively low level of participation that pertains to the one-way flow of information from the public authorities and interaction or inclusion of the civil society organizations is neither requested nor expected. However, the distribution of information from the public authorities to the general public and especially to civil society organizations represents the basic precondition for the inclusion of the public. Without having the information that a public document is in the process of being drafted or reviewed, of course, no citizen or civil society organization can be expected to contribute in the process.
By assuming that the information that a certain public document is in the drafting or reviewing stage, consultation is a form of initiative where public authorities ask the opinion of civil society organizations on a specific field of policies or development, or for a certain public document. Consultation usually involves authorities that inform civil society organizations relating to the developments of certain policies or of the law and ask them for comments, contributions and suggestions. The initiative and the topic stem from public authorities and not from civil society organizations.
The initiative for dialogue can be taken by whichever party, and can be of an extensive form (general) or cooperative form (specific). Extensive dialogue (general) is a two-way communication built on mutual interest and potentially joint objectives which ensure regular exchange of ideas. This may be in the form of public hearings and all the way to specialized meetings between civil society organization and public authorities. Discussions remain extensive and are not related to any specific process of the development of policies. Cooperative dialogue (specific) is built on mutual interest for the development of a certain policy. This form usually results with some recommendation, strategy, action or joint legislation. This type of dialogue is more powerful since it includes regular and frequent joint meetings, from which the core of the political strategy is developed and usually results with conclusions that both parties agree to.
A partnership usually foresees joint responsibilities during each step of the political process of decision-making, starting from setting an agenda, drafting, decision and implementation of the political initiative or a of a certain law. This is the highest and most active form of participation, and may also include activities such as delegating specific issues to civil society organizations, i.e. providing services and up to participation forums and establishment of joint decision-making bodies, including allocation of resources to execute previously reached decisions etc.