In January of 2019, Transparency International Lithuania (TIL) released its transparency index which revealed that in the past four years, municipalities in Lithuania have become more transparent. Thanks to the invitation by TIL, and a grant from the Baltic American Freedom Foundation, GovEx participated in a seminar held in Vilnius to discuss the results of the index, and share best practices and examples of good governance and engagement from the United States.
After the event, I spoke with Executive Director Sergejus Muravjovas about the index, the relationship between transparency and corruption, and his thoughts on the future. Below is a transcript of our conversation, while has been lightly edited for clarity.
Katherine Klosek: Can you talk about the transparency index and how it got started?
Sergejus Muravjovas: The index got started four years ago, we wanted to find a way to engage municipalities – local politicians and municipal workers – in a relatable way. We believe that transparency really is a habit, which means that you should be able to identify yourself with the challenges that someone like TI Lithuania proposes. If what we would do were too complex or completely unachievable, I believe it would be difficult to expect any municipality to take on our proposals or relate in any applicable way, in any meaningful way.
That’s how the index came about, that’s why the index is what it is, and what I’m happy about is now four years onwards we see that many more municipalities react when we send them the initial evaluation, they actually put much more information, much more data out there on their municipal web pages, and are keen to get more transparent, because the actions they can take actually are not that difficult.
KK: Can you talk about those actions?
SM: Yes, so for instance what I’m very happy about is that for the last four years many more mayors and heads of municipal administrations started to publish their meetings, at least some of their meeting logs, with representatives of business and nongovernmental organizations. If 4 years ago there was no such thing as meeting logs, now every second municipality actually has something, which is a start.
We also see that municipalities help people understand how they can get in touch, how they can perhaps bring to the attention of the municipality that something is wrong, that there is some kind of wrong doing taking place. However what is often lacking is a clear indication whether people can make an anonymous or confidential call and their identify would not be disclosed.
I’m happy to see that local politicians are not shying away from the issue of transparency, they increasingly understand that a good politician is a transparent politician, and what I’m also very happy about is that it seems more and more people understand that they can take on certain obligations or certain commitments, as long as those commitments are doable.
“I think that transparency is a habit, not only for those in power but for every single citizen concerned.”
KK: Does increased transparency mean decreased corruption?
SM: Not necessarily – that’s a very good question. As Justice Louis Brandeis once said sunlight is the best disinfectant and electricity is the best policeman – or police person in this case. However, this does not mean that our ranking is an anti-corruption ranking. Transparency in a sense is a subjective term, transparency is judged by guidelines that we all agree on. You could be transparent and corrupt at the same time. We certainly have not stood with a candle in the corner of every municipal meeting room and we haven’t looked at every single document that is out there. Municipalities in Lithuania often have issues with corruption. You have had mayors, deputy mayors that were investigated for corruption, just like anywhere else in the world, however in some sense municipalities in Lithuania remain one of the last bastions of the corrupt.What I’m happy about is that more and more citizens seem to be actively engaging, not shying away from asking questions, getting engaged with municipalities.
KK: So what is the role of citizens in ensuring transparency of their government?
SM: I think that at the end of the day if you and I know what questions we can ask, which questions we can see through and we do that, that’s already a victory. I think that transparency is a habit, not only for those in power but for every single citizen concerned. I know from my own personal experience that sometimes it’s difficult to write emails, it’s not easy to wait for answers. However if you start writing emails, if you start writing letters, you notice that your civic muscles, if I may say so, get stronger, it takes much less time, you know the tricks of how to write a quick email, you know whom to get in touch with officially, making sure that people follow up and all of a sudden you realize the conversation with municipalities, with your municipality, becomes easier.
In principal what we do is not so much the transparency index but the index of how friendly municipalities are because I think what often becomes an issue is this lack of information, understandable information, that you can preemptively understand things with that perhaps could help you answer your questions so that you don’t even need to get in touch with the municipality. And also of course when you have that information online, that helps municipal workers, local politicians, to kind of reflect whether what they do is the right thing because if you do something and it’s wrong and yet you publish it, that is a very risky way of behaving. I would expect that then you then think twice of any decision that comes out of your municipality.
KK: What’s the biggest challenge for municipalities to increase transparency, to improve transparency?
SM: I often hear that is lack of knowledge, however I have now come to believe that it’s also the lack of political will. Now, political will is a very strange term to me, it often means so many things. I think it all boils down to whether you want to become a good example or you don’t want to become a good example. So while it might sound very far from what you might do if you work in the field of anti-corruption and transparency, I think as a matter of fact what you often have to do if you work in an organization like ours is to help people understand how they can create a good example on their own, how they can actually do something that inspires others and would help help them build their own case for further success. That is why we stress that anything that you do should be achievable, and also measurable.
KK: You talked about cultivating champions and sharing strong examples – can you share your favorite example of municipal transparency?
SM: Yes, personally i’m very glad that Alytus municipality, a relatively small municipality in the south of Lithuania, is the first to experiment with participatory budgeting. I’m very keen to see what the results will look like. We were happy to lend a hand, although it was a very small part that we played in sharing our interactive voting tools from another initiative of ours that we had a few years ago. I’m also happy to see that others municipalities are getting interested in this idea. In a way, I am glad that we have made some mistakes along the way, or we have had some failures along the way. For instance, we tried to have a participatory budget initiative with Vilnius municipality but it hasn’t really happened so far. I know that quite a few local politicians are interested in that. Perhaps I will be able to share more good news come the second part of 2019.
KK: You’ve seen this increase from 20140-2018 – are you optimistic about the future?
SM: I am optimistic about the future, probably because I’m an optimist! I also think that we’re better at learning from our mistakes, and it looks like we’re also much more willing to discuss our failures, which is a good sign. I also see that people do not shy away from being seen as good examples when they are, and that is also a positive trend. I also think a lot of times we as T[ransparency] I[nternational] Lithuania are also more on point. What i mean by that is we are more ready to help our partners come up with doable initiatives, things that can really take root. And that is probably because we also better understand our role in encouraging change. We try to approach new partnerships with the mindset of social physicists. We know that we cannot do it all nor should we, and we are very happy when we can spend just some time with a particular organization or group of people, and help them understand what it is that they can do by themselves so that it makes sense to them, and do so in a sustainable manner.