Democratic TransitionResearchPetitions in Municipal Action Plans: A chance to follow-up on the promises of participation?

Taking citizens’ inputs for local governance into consideration, depends on whether the new municipal councils will include past petitions in their future action plans.
Francesco Colin Francesco Colin21/02/202486837 min

Taking citizens’ inputs for local governance into consideration, depends on whether the new municipal councils will include past petitions in their future action plans.

 

Download article

 

Introduction

Citizens’ participation has had an increasing role in the institutional architecture of Morocco, and especially since the 2011 Constitutional reform, but the reforms on-paper have yet to produce a real change on the ground. Notably, the 2011 Constitution has been praised for raising the ‘democratic participation of citizens’ as a founding principle of the state as well as including concrete mechanisms for citizens’ engagement.[1] In this framework, the right to petition is granted as a tool to contribute directly to the agenda-setting process – both at the national and local level –, but important limitations persist.

After a slow start, an increasing number of petitions have been presented – and especially so at the municipal level. Local petitions are mostly related to the development of basic infrastructure, equipment, and to concrete actions to be taken by councils’ presidents. However, the limited information on the implementation of these initiatives is not promising. Arguably, the systematic lack of funding is the main obstacle of petitions’ implementation, but a closer look shows that the real issue is the fact that petitions are not fully integrated into the local governance structure. Specifically, citizens and NGOs have the opportunity to present their inputs on whichever prerogative of municipal governments’ councils, but the current governance system allocates funding mostly to the development of projects included in Municipal Action Plans (or PAC, following the French acronym). Plus, the need for a territorial coordination of larger scale projects such as the development of infrastructure – which remains the main demand at the municipal level – calls for a transversal implication of both national and local stakeholders in the process. This cannot always be taken for granted.

After the 2021 elections, the development of the PAC may create an opportunity to follow-up on the petitions that have been submitted to municipalities since 2015 and have yet to be implemented. In spite of complying with the criteria established by the law, a lot of municipal petitions did not see the light of day either because municipalities didn’t have the funds to implement them, or because they required the coordinated actions of other state institutions. Now, as the newly elected councils are developing their action plans for the six years to come, the inclusion of the subjects raised by petitions represent a fundamental opportunity to position citizens’ proposal in the broader strategic planning of municipal development and, especially, to provide the funding necessary for their realization. Furthermore, concrete measures on the medium-term have may exponentially increase the potential of citizens’ inclusion in local governance.

The use of local petitions so far

Contrary to the limited use of petitions at the national level, citizens have extensively exercised their right to petition at the local level. At the national level, the right to petition is granted through Organic Law no 44-14, while at the local level it is enshrined in the Organic Law regulating the decentralization of the Kingdom, no 111-14 for regions, no 112-14 for prefectures or provinces, and no  113-14 for municipalities. Despite the lack of data available on local petitions in the official web portal for participation, a 2019 report from the General Directorate of Local Governments presents some official data.[2] The report examines all the initiatives presented between 2015 and September 2019 to local governments (regions, prefectures or provinces, and municipalities), but further analysis on it is limited since there is no ‘raw’ data available and all the information needs to be extrapolated from the text. Nonetheless, the following graphs present some consolidated findings.

 

Source: General Directorate of Local Governments (author’s compilation)

 

After a shy beginning, graph 1 shows that the right to petition has been exercised increasingly over the years – and especially by associations. The difference between the exercise of the right to petition by citizens and associations is explained by the conditions to exercise this right: at the local level, associations do not have to provide a list of signatories to support the petition.[3] This makes the task substantially easier, as it avoids having to convince fellow citizens to sign the initiative. This has proven to be a central obstacle in gathering the necessary signatures, as citizens often remain wary of retaliation for actions that can be perceived as political.[4]

 

Source: General Directorate of Local Governments (author’s compilation)

 

As showed by graph 2, another important insight from the report is that the right to petition has mostly been exercised in municipalities. Between 2015 and September 2019, 73% of petitions has been presented to municipalities, against 16% to prefecture or provinces and 11% to regions. Being the closest level of government to citizens and bearing key competences in terms of local service delivery, it is perhaps expected that citizens and associations mostly focused on the municipal council to present their grievances in the form of petitions.

Finally, the report also provides some indications as to the topics of the petitions that have been accepted and the reasons for their rejection – as showed by graph 3 and 4 below.

 

Source: General Directorate of Local Governments (author’s compilation)

 

Overall, most of accepted petitions relate basic infrastructure and equipment. Their maintenance and/or development remains a central worry for both citizens and associations and the important number of petitions in this area speaks volumes to the need of intervention in this section. It can also be assumed that most of these petitions have been presented to municipalities, given their prerogatives in this area. Another interesting point relates to the number of petitions that demand action based on the regulatory authority of the presidents of the local council. As their powers have been increasing in the framework of the last decentralization reforms, many petitions demand a direct action from the president of the local council – reconsidering, updating, or taking a new decision. Lastly, associations have presented petitions on a wider set of issues, which is related to the fact that they have to present a petition in line with their wider goal in society. Citizens, on the other hand, have focused their grievances on the development of basic infrastructure and on concrete actions by local governments’ presidents. This points towards the assumption that citizens’ priority remain focused on the concrete measures, demanding either the presidents’ action or the development of local infrastructure and equipment.

Source: General Directorate of Local Governments (author’s compilation)

 

The final graph extrapolated from the 2019 report of the Directorate General of Local Governments concerns the reasons of rejections. It is immediately clear that the main issues that caused the rejection of petitions up to September 2019 are related to the form of citizens’ requests – rather than the substance. For associations, the nonconformity to legal requirements mostly relates to not being of at least 3 years old, not having an official récépissé, or to having presented a petition on a subject on which the association doesn’t work on.  For citizens, the nonconformity is rather related to the signatures supporting the petitions (not reaching the threshold for signatures, not providing all the valid supporting documents, not validating all the signatures, etc.).

The rejection of petitions due to the wrong format is an interesting case, as the right to petition has been granted in 2015 through the adoption of the Organic Laws on local governments, but the decree defining the form for the presentation of the petition has been adopted only in 2017.[5] If Organic Laws generally define the petition as “any written text,”[6] the decrees provide quite a rigorous layout for the text of the petition. All three Organic Laws specify that the form of the petition will be established through regulation, but the current format is effectively obstructing the participation of citizens. Plus, it must be noted that it is unclear whether these rejections precede the publication of the decree or not, as the report does not provide any clear indication on dates of the rejections.

The rejections motivated by presenting a petition outside the scope of competences and about a subject already discussed both relate to issues related to knowledge and access to information. On one hand, the need to raise citizens’ and civil society’s awareness on the reorganization of local governments’ prerogatives remains central. On the other hand, the fact that associations are making the effort to present petitions on subjects already discussed by local governments proves a deep-rooted issue of access to information. In spite of the fact that the publication of the minutes of councils’ meetings is foreseen by the Organic Laws, and that the Access to Information Law (no 31-13) also provides a framework to gain knowledge about the councils’ work, the inadequacy of information on local councils’ work persists. Notably, the proactive publication of information is proving to be long-term project.

The last reason mentioned for the rejection, the lack of funds, points toward a central issue that is otherwise absent from the report: the implementation of petitions. If the analysis of the official report provided key insights on the procedural outcome of petitions so far, it does not provide any data on the implementation of petitions. After being approved, what happens to citizens’ initiatives?

The implementation impasse: questioning the obstacles

Between February 2020 and December 2021, I conducted field research[7] on the exercise of the right to petition in Moroccan municipalities, which provided key insights on the actual way in which petitions are, and are not, implemented. Indeed, the approval of the petition by the municipal council does not ensure the implementation of the initiative – which mostly depends on factors external to the petitioners. An important disclaimer needs to be done in relation to the lack of information and communication concerning petitions, which does not allow to systematically follow-up the way in which petitions are being implemented.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the situation on the ground shows that the implementation of petition is very slow – if moving at all. Specifically, once the petitions are submitted, the administration needs to verify its compliance to the formal criteria established by the law. Then, if accepted, the petition is added to the agenda of the following session of the municipal council – where it will be discussed and voted upon. Multiple interviews with petitioners in small, medium and larger municipalities indicated that when petitions meet the formal criteria, they are often accepted by the council.[8] However, the actual implementation lags behind as municipalities rarely have the means to act  – especially as municipal petitions mostly relate to public service delivery and the development of key infrastructure. The lack of implementation is problematic not only because it neglects the concerns raised by citizens and the efforts undertaken to present the petition, but especially because it questions the overall value of citizens’ engagement through petitions at the local level. Said differently, why should citizens and associations present petitions if they are not implemented?

Budget limitations are the first and predominant obstacle that municipalities face for the implementation of petition. Municipalities often lack the means to engage with the complex projects that petitions presented to municipalities require. Indeed, their budgets mostly depend on central government transfers, which are heavily dependent on PACs and the (development) needs they bring forward. [9] This six-years programmatic document should be developed, monitored, and evaluated in a participatory fashion and in consultation with the population. However, municipal councils bear great autonomy in organising the process and ultimately, they tend to outsource its development to consultancy firms.[10] In this scenario, which insurances are there that citizens will be systematically and effectively involved in all relevant phases of the development, monitoring and evaluation of the PAC?

On top of the doubts on the extent to which the participatory approach is respected, the prioritization of the PAC as a tool to guide local development leaves little room for the spontaneous citizens’ participation through the right to petition. Simply put, this lack of flexibility does not allow to respond to citizens’ proposal effectively. In the current system, it seems that petitions are incompatible with how municipal councils work: they need to tackle municipalities prerogatives, which are mostly related to public service delivery and require substantial funding; at the same time, municipalities have limited fiscal autonomy and implement projects following rigid PACs. This creates an implementation impasse, in which the growing number of petitions presented (and approved) is not matched by the actual implementation of petitions.

Conclusion and recommendations

In the current context, a policy short-circuit prevents petitions to be effective: they may be validated and approved, but without appropriate funding, they will not see the light of day. The PAC is the pivot of local development, yet they are not designed to systematically engage with citizens’ proposals. In this scenario, which actions can be taken to effectively include citizens’ prerogatives in municipal governance?

The issues highlighted above can be tackled at multiple levels, including immediately implementable short-terms solutions, and medium-term actions that could substantially improve participation in local governance.

Short term solution: systematic inclusion of petitions in the PAC that are currently being elaborated

The issues raised through petitions can be included in the PACs that are currently being developed by the newly elected municipal councils. The time to act is now. This form of inclusion represents the main opportunity for providing the funding necessary for the implementation of petitions. Furthermore, it will also allow to integrate the issues presented by citizens in the wider strategy of territorial development, considering whether the issues raised by a municipality can be better met by actions at the prefectural, provincial or regional level – thereby exponentially increasing their potential impact.

The Ministry of Interior has already called for the activation of the advisory bodies at the local level,[11] and a parallel call for the integration of (accepted) petitions in the PAC could ensure the systematic inclusion of citizens’ priorities in local development. At the same time, the municipal councils that are outsourcing the development of their PAC to consultancy firms could demand that the petitions presented are concretely taken into consideration.

It is key to understand that the real value of petitions is that they are not just standalone claims. On the contrary, they can provide key insights to citizens’ needs at the local level and should be given adequate consideration by local governments.

Medium-term actions: improved municipal communication and increased access to information to deal with the implementation impasse

Beyond the actions that can be taken prior to the approval of the new PAC, the limits with the implementations of petitions will persist during the mandate of the newly elected municipal councils. However, the knowledge of these limitations hints to some medium-term actions that can be taken to limit the implementation impasse described above.

Above all, innovative solutions need to be developed to allow municipalities to systematically deal with citizens’ inputs. For instance, accepted petitions[12] can be used to nurture the monitoring and evaluation of the PAC, and help introducing novel issues that arise in time. Most of all, the systematic consideration of citizens’ inputs can be facilitated by improving municipalities communication with citizens and opening new spaces for dialogue at the local level. Municipalities can take concrete measures (such as increasing online communication, organising public forums, etc.) to improve the communications with citizens and show that they are hearing citizens’ voices – even if it may take time to actually implement their proposals.

Ultimately, increasing access of information at, and on, the local level should be a transversal objective of any action aimed at fostering citizens’ participation. The topic of local petitions, their results and the status of their implementation should be publicly available first and foremost for citizens themselves. This allows to learn from the experiences of fellow citizens, to avoid duplicating efforts and to federate the struggles around common issues – be it by coordinating actions on similar issues or by geographical proximity. Access to information on participation is also key also to increase the transparency of local governance and improve bottom-up accountability: citizens have the right to know if their participation is having an impact, and especially to hold officials to account if it is not.

 

 

Footnotes

[1] See also Zaanoun, A. (2021). The Role of Petitions in Strengthening Citizens’ Participation in Morocco: Stakes and Outcomes. Arab Reform Initiative, May. https://www.arab-reform.net/publication/the-role-of-petitions-in-strengthening-citizens-participation-in-morocco-stakes-and-outcomes/

[2] General Directorate of Local Governments. (2019). Démocratie participative locale : les pétitions déposées au niveau des collectivités territoriales comme exemple (in Arabic). https://www.collectivites-territoriales.gov.ma/sites/default/files/pnct/2021-07/Rapport_bilan pétitions__0.pdf

[3] This is not explicit stated by the articles regarding the right to petition of the Organic Laws on local governments. Rather, they simply avoid mentioning the signatures needed to support the petition in the conditions – contrary to the conditions for citizens, where it is explicitly stated. As an exception, associations that want to present a petition to the council of the prefecture or province need to justify at least 100 members.

[4] Colin, F. (2021). Institutional petitions in Morocco: opportunities and challenges of claiming rights in participatory arenas. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/13530194.2021.1981233

[5] Decree no 2-16-401 for petitions to regional councils, decree no 2-16-402 for petitions to prefectural or provincial councils and decree no 2-16-403 for petitions to municipal councils.

[6] The specific mention can be found in art. 119 for Organic Law no 111-14 (regions), art. 113 for Organic Law no 112-14 (prefectures or provinces) and art. 121 or Organic Law no 113-14 (municipalities).

[7] The field research mentioned is part of my doctoral research project at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS-EUR).

[8] Of course, there are important nuances on the differences between different localities and the factors that lead to the approval or rejection of a petition, but the scope of this article does not allow to discuss them in depth.

[9] Bergh, S. I. (2021). Democratic decentralization and local development: insights from Morocco’s advanced regionalization process. In Research Handbook on Democracy and Development (pp. 482–501). Edward Elgar Publishing. https://doi.org/10.4337/9781788112659.00039

[10] See, as an example, the case of Casablanca: Souleiman Ketti, “Nabila Rmili s’appuiera sur Inetum pour son Plan d’Action de la Commune”, LeDesk.ma, 14.04.2022. Available at: https://ledesk.ma/enoff/nabila-rmili-sappuiera-sur-inetum-pour-son-plan-daction-de-la-commune/ (Last accessed: 27/04/2022)

[11] Sellam Mohammed, “Le Ministère de l’Intérieur appelle les collectivités territoriales à activer les mécanismes de la démocratie participative”, LeMatin.ma, 4/10/2021. Available at: https://lematin.ma/express/2021/ministere-linterieur-appelle-collectivites-territoriales-activer-mecanismes-democratie-participative/365374.html (last accessed 10/03/2022).

[12] The same logic can be applied to the advisory opinions produced by the Instances d’Equité, Egalité de Chances et de l’Approche Genre (IEECAG).

Francesco Colin

Francesco Colin

Francesco Colin is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), with a research project that studies citizenship participation in local governance in Morocco.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *