Turning the Corner on Public Participation in Turkey
Dec 17, 2011
Turkey EU[1].JPG
EU accession alone can't bring Turkey more open government.

This past October, I had the pleasure of being selected for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Freedom House Turkey Legislative Fellows program. The program focused on public participation in the legislative process and I was able to spend a few days at the Prime Minister’s Office on Better Regulation.

As I spent a good deal of time in the office, it is clear that there are a number of innovative, forward-thinking individuals in the Turkish government. The experts in the Prime Minister’s Better Regulation group seem sincerely interested in bringing members of the public into te regulatory process on a regular basis.

This would be particularly innovative. Recent research (in a draft phase) carried out by WRI shows that very few countries have an across-the-board rule on civil society participation in what Americans call “rulemaking” or what Turks call “formation of by-law.” While there is a big difference between intention and implementation, perhaps there is a sincere effort to begin regularizing such processes. In fact, at least in terms of matters affecting the environment, when (or if) the Environmental Chapter of EU accession is passed and implemented, participation in regulation (at least for environment) will become mandatory according to EU directive.

But in my short time in Ankara, I glimpsed two factors that could slow implementation of such measures, or, given the current political climate, could even raise the risk of retrenchment should public participation pass. The first is a highly oppositional civil society sector. There is simply not the same history of collaboration as in other countries. From the official side, public participation is seen as a means of obtaining legitimacy or “modern practice”, rather than a means to gain useful expertise or a negotiate trade-offs such as who’s backyard gets polluted in. As a result, civil society may not be used to providing policy expertise at the same time that it advocates for policy-change. What for those of us in other countries may sound trite – “evidence-based advocacy” – may be a difficult path to tread for civil society in Turkey.

The second factor—and I don’t think this is unique to Turkey—is the culture of secrecy. The progressive members of government, those who understand that modern public administration is necessarily collaborative and relies on deliberation, face severe challenges from entrenched interests, some private, but many simply individuals used to doing things “the old fashioned way.” These are the individuals for whom expertise lies with government and government alone.

In order to overcome this, members of the government—especially those in charge of planning and regulation—will need to reach out and build the capacity of the public to contribute constructively to decisions. A good starting place might be through participation guides and courses on the regulatory process. Only when regulators recognize the need for civil society constituencies—allies—to pass difficult regulation and make other difficult decisions will participation become meaningful and useful. Only when civil society organizations recognize that the government is not monolithic, but filled with both champions and detractors, will they realize their potential to shape policy. This is true not just for Turkey, but is also something we must remind ourselves of constantly in every country.

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