Good morning. Thank you to everyone for being here today, especially the mayors for demonstrating your commitment to putting your citizens first. Your presence and partnership are an example for all government officials in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I have the honor of launching the U.S. government’s new Local Governance Assistance Activity. This project will invest $12.8 million over the next five years to support 30 local governments across BiH to improve municipal services, foster economic growth, and increase transparency and accountability to citizens.
Today I would like to officially welcome the first partner municipalities into the program: Gradačac , Lopare, Modriča , Petrovo, Šamac , Teslić, Tuzla, Vareš, Zavidovići , Zenica, and Žepče.
We look forward to working together with all of you to strengthen local governance for the more than half a million people who call your municipalities home.
I admit that local governance does not sound like the most exciting topic. But as a career public servant, I can tell you that few things are as important to the success and prosperity of a country than strong, citizen-focused governance at the local level. This is where government policies have the most immediate impact on citizens’ quality of life, and where citizens can most directly hold their political leaders accountable. Local governments that are responsive to citizens’ needs, and transparent in how they operate, are the foundation of democracy and the first line of defense against the widespread corruption plaguing this country.
Allow me to illustrate this citizen-first governance in real terms. Let’s imagine you would like to install solar panels on your house. You need a permit to do so, so you go to your local government’s website and fill out the electronic application.
Two days later, you receive your permit and can begin installation. The reason you are interested in installing solar panels is because your local government partnered with a green energy company, which they selected in a transparent public bidding process, that has hired local workers in return for government subsidies to help provide the panels to residents at a significant discount. The government also agreed to give people who install the panels a tax break to further sweeten the deal.
Now let’s imagine you know about this great deal because your mayor holds regular community meetings with citizens, local businesses, and interest groups to hear directly what peoples’ needs are and inform citizens of new initiatives that might interest them. Because of your government’s inclusive, transparent approach, you can afford these solar panels, which will reduce your energy costs and benefit the environment; you trust that your tax money funding the subsidies is benefiting the community; and the solar panel company feels confident that their investment will pay off.
Towns all around the world are practicing this type of modern governance, but it is not yet the norm here in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A recent survey found that more than half of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s citizens are dissatisfied with the basic services their local municipalities provide. Currently, local governance in Bosnia and Herzegovina is mired in complex webs of outdated and contradictory laws, regulations, and systems that frustrate citizens into inaction and leave room for corrupt actors to game the system for their own gain. Those solar panels you want to install likely require several trips to multiple municipal offices, loads of paperwork, probably a bribe here and there, and several other legal and bureaucratic hurdles that you may or may not overcome.
Bosnia and Herzegovina can do better, and that is where our local governance project comes in. We will work with the municipalities to strengthen the quality of the services they provide and reduce government bottlenecks. This means looking at local laws and regulations to make sure they are productive, not cumbersome, and reflect modern needs.
It means moving municipal services online when possible, so they can be provided efficiently and transparently. This is a win-win for governments and citizens. It saves time, reduces paperwork, and makes these services more accessible to all citizens, especially those who traditionally have been marginalized or underserved by old bureaucratic systems.
Efficient and transparent government also builds the private sector’s confidence that their investment in communities is sound. Good governance is good for business, and business is necessary for economic development. The level of financing needed for critical infrastructure and public works projects that improve lives, create jobs, and put Bosnia and Herzegovina on a sustainable, prosperous path cannot come from municipal budgets alone.
This is why, as part of the local governance project, we will help municipalities make it easier to start and run businesses by, for example, cutting red tape. And we will encourage private sector investment in critical projects, such as energy efficient public transportation.
To do this, we will facilitate public-private dialogue and partnerships, help municipalities attract new investors and funding for essential projects, and foster collaboration between businesses and local civic organizations that can help tailor these investments to the specific needs of their communities. By the end of our five-year project, we aim to mobilize $1.8 million in public and private sector investment in local development projects.
Key to all of this effort is putting citizens in the driver’s seat. Currently, two-thirds of BiH citizens believe they do not have the opportunity to take part in democratic decision-making processes at the local level. Through the local governance project, we will create stronger connections that enable municipal leaders to listen, consult, and engage citizens, and ensure citizens have a say when government officials are making decisions that affect their lives.
One way we will do this is by creating forums that bring together government officials, civil society, businesses, and citizens to discuss projects and plan development that is in the best interest of local communities. We have seen how effective such forums can be in improving the quality of life in several cities in BiH. We will replicate this success by creating Citizen Advisory Panels in each of the municipalities participating in this program.
Too often these days, the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are voting with their feet, drawn to the political and economic stability of countries that are already responsive and accountable to their citizens. Our goals for this project – improving municipal services, fostering private sector investment in local communities, and giving people a voice in their governments’ decisions – aim to help these municipalities transform into modern, citizen-centric administrations that will reassure people that their future is here, at home, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.