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It’s official: municipalities that pledged to implement “This is the Minimum” became more transparent

iposfai // 2024.06.05.

Címkék: english ezaminimum

Prior to the 2024 local elections, investigative portal Átlátszó.hu, K-Monitor and Transparency International Hungary, the initiators of the “This is the Minimum!” programme, conducted an end-of-term transparency assessment of the municipalities participating in the programme, supplemented by the municipalities not participating in the initiative for comparability. According to the survey of the three organisations, the municipalities participating in the programme achieved on average 34% higher results than the municipalities that did not make such a transparency commitment. Budapest 8th district (Józsefváros) achieved the best results, ahead of the 11th district (Újbuda) and the 6th district (Terézváros). Among the surveyed municipalities, the lowest quality public data is available on the website of Budapest 5th district (Downtown). The most transparent countryside municipality was Baja.

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The original programme and its assessment

In 2019, Átlátszó.hu, K-Monitor and Transparency International Hungary launched a programme called “This is the Minimum!”, which outlined the 21st century baseline requirements of transparency and accountability in local decision-making based on and complementing the legal provisions in six topics: 

  • Transparency of the decision making process
  • Freedom of information requests
  • Transparency of the budget
  • Transparency of contracts and public procurements
  • Municipality owned enterprises 
  • Accountability of decision makers

 

The expectation was that commitment to improved disclosure practices would not only ensure basic transparency standards, but would have a strong anti-corruption effect and create the foundations for the introduction of participatory processes. Around 400 candidates pledged in 2019 to implement the measures of the program, if elected (in both the countryside and the capital) and over 200 of them took up offices as representatives, with 15 taking up office as mayors, including Gergely Karácsony, the mayor of Budapest. 

In 2021 K-Monitor and its partners developed the system of 42 criteria that would become the Municipal Transparency Index and conducted an initial assessment that was not published at the time. The first public assessment happened in May 2022, published as a mid-term review of the largest municipalities.

Leading up to the local elections of 9 June in 2024 we launched an end-of-term evaluation as well, beginning at the end of 2023 and completed in March 2024. We examined the disclosure practices of 29 municipalities, checking the availability of public interest information on their websites corresponding to the six categories of the “This is the Minimum” programme. Following the initial assessment conducted in November and December 2023, we have sent the preliminary results to the municipalities, providing an opportunity for them to upload missing documents and correct their disclosure practice. When provided with the opportunity to respond to the preliminary results, 16 out of 29 municipalities sent feedback, which was then incorporated into our final assessment published in March 2024. 

Out of the 29 municipalities 16 can be considered as signatories of the “This is the Minimum” campaign, all of them independent/opposition-led since 2019, even if majority in the city council has been de facto lost in two of them over the years. Among the sixteen municipalities, ten are district municipalities of Budapest, five are countryside cities of varying size and one is the capital municipality of Budapest. In order to have a control group in the analysis, we selected thirteen municipalities, out of which four are Budapest districts and nine are major cities (cities with county rights) of the countryside. Among these thirteen “non-signatories” there are five municipalities led by independent/opposition mayors and city council majorities, while eight are government aligned.

More transparency - with caveats

The end-of-term transparency assessment found that the majority of cities that made commitments, kept their 2019 pledge and took meaningful steps to increase transparency, taking into account suggestions from citizens. Signatories of the “This is the Minimum” programme achieved on average a 34% higher result than non-signatories. Nine out of the first ten municipalities have mayors who have signed up to the program with Szombathely providing the one exception. The first three positions belong to three progressive, opposition-led Budapest districts: 8th, 11th and 6th districts led respectively by independent, social liberal (Democratic Coalition) and liberal (Momentum) mayors. The best countryside result (5th) belongs to Baja, a smaller city with county rights in the south of the country, where the mayor won as a member of the liberal (Momentum) party, but has since left the party and leads the city as an independent.

 

 

 

For the top three municipalities, we identified 80-90% of the datasets and publication methods examined on their websites, which is an excellent result. Many municipalities, including the capital, achieved good results with a disclosure ratio of 70-80%, and the top three countryside municipalities, Baja, Szigetszentmiklós and Szombathely, also fall into this category.

Municipalities with below average results cannot be proud of themselves. Good disclosures practices are definitely lacking in many rural cities with county rights: Miskolc, Kecskemét, , Szeged, Debrecen, Nyíregyháza, Tatabánya, Hódmezővásárhely and Győr and some Budapest districts. This is especially damning in the cases of the municipalities where mayors or representatives have pledged to implement the measures of “This is the minimum!” - such as Tatabánya, the 1st and 7th districts. While the first two are the municipalities, where majority in the city council has been lost over the years, there is still a clear distinction between municipalities where progressing in transparent practices was a priority and where it was not. 

A somewhat surprising result belongs to Hódmezővásárhely, a significant city with county rights, led by independent Péter Márki-Zay since 2018, where transparency has been one of the number one agenda items for the past two elections, yet the municipality repeatedly failed to respond to the assessment and only complained about the results (and corrected some mistakes) in the press afterwards. The Fidesz-led 5th district of Budapest (Downtown), notorious for being the "economic" hinterland of propaganda-minister Antal Rogán, which scored only 30%, performed poorly both in 2022 and in the latest assessment – its website does not even meet basic legal requirements, despite the surrounding districts being among the most transparent in the country.

Despite the positive changes, no one has fully delivered on the 2019 commitments. Although there have been significant improvements in the disclosure practices of several signatory municipalities compared to the 2022 survey, there is still room for improvement, especially in the transparency of municipality-owned enterprises and the availability of asset declarations. The municipality-owned enterprises represent an interesting situation, since in places where the mayor managed to establish a more direct influence, improvement in the firm-level transparency elevated the overall result of the municipality significantly (e.g. 6th and 13th district), while in other places a greater disconnect can be observed between municipality and its firms (e.g. 8th and 9th district). 

 

Compared to the mid-cycle evaluation in 2022, the gap between the transparency performance of the municipalities that have made commitments and the other municipalities selected as controls has now widened noticeably. The biggest difference between signatories and non-signatories can be found in the transparency of the budget, contracts and procurements. Publishing databases with information on all contracts (even below the legally required threshold) and even publishing the contracts themselves required both political will and a significant investment (especially of human resources) - a great example of this were the 8th district and Baja. Another positive trend regarding the transparency of the budget is that more and more local governments (such as Budapest 6th district and 8th District) are publishing their annual budgets in a more easily understandable and accessible format, with the help of data visualisations. 

At the same time, the impact of the “This is the minimum!” programme was also felt in municipalities where the municipal leadership did not commit to implementing the programme - either through active local representatives, or when the municipality decided to respond to the preliminary results of the transparency survey. Such cases include for example the municipality of Szombathely, where they updated the list of sold real estate or Székesfehérvár, where they amended the contact information and task descriptions of certain decision makers.  

The initiators of the programme are confident that municipalities that publish more data as a result of “This is the minimum!” will maintain and improve their disclosure practices, and that their more transparent operation will serve as an example for other municipalities in the future. Overall, the programme has been successful in improving the transparency of dozens of local authorities, which together manage the affairs of millions of citizens, on the basis of voluntary compliance without any sanctions.

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Címkék: english ezaminimum

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