In new democratic Libya, local governments build leadership & citizen trust
By Jillian Slutzker
The municipal offices in Libya’s northeastern city of al-Bayda are bustling. Nearly 100 citizens walk through the doors each day to talk to municipal government representatives. Online, 18,000 citizens follow the city’s Facebook updates.
This steady stream of communication between residents and the local government is new in this conflict-torn city, and it is paying off in the form of increased citizen confidence in their local institutions. Almost 73 percent of al-Bayda residents who have directly interacted with the Municipal Council reported a positive experience, according to a public opinion survey conducted by the Navanti Group in April 2016.
“The Municipal Council is more legitimate and more effective” than the previous Local Council, reported one teacher in al-Bayda.
Across al-Bayda and five other Libyan municipalities—Gharyan, Sabratha, Sabha, Tobruq, and Zuwara—improvements like these in citizen engagement by mayors, councils and civil servants, along with better service delivery and administrative capacity are resulting in stronger local governance.
This boost in governance capacity during the last two years has been achieved with support from the Libyan Local Council Administration and Legitimacy project. The project was funded by the U.S. Middle East Partnership Initiative and implemented by Creative Associates International with local partners the Libyan Transparency Association and the Libyan Policy Institute.
The changes are especially clear to members of civil society organizations, like Ayoub Karnaf of the Sabratha Youth Union, who rely on local government to help carryout activities and support policies that that serve their constituencies.
Karnaf says that before the project there was a basic level of interaction between the Local Council and civil society but no serious collaboration on projects.
But in the last year, he has noticed a “clear change.”
“The relationship between the Municipal Council and civil society organizations is very strong, with constant coordination. As evidence, most activities and programs implemented in the municipality were done through cooperation between the Municipal Council and civil society organizations,” he says.
Transforming the culture of leadership
Democracy is still new in post-revolution Libya, where in 2012 citizens voted in the country’s first election since 1965. Municipal governments and citizens alike are learning how to navigate their new roles.
“For the newly elected municipal officials, understanding how to build relationships based on trust between citizens and council while adapting to different roles and responsibilities that promulgate democratic principles was critical to the program success” says Deborah Kimble, Director of Governance and Community Resilience at Creative.
Local governing bodies in particular are working to improve their responsiveness to citizen needs, which is both a local priority and a key aim of the Government of National Accord.
“We know that municipalities are the tool for building citizen confidence in central government and for providing services. The municipality is our nation,” says Baddad Gonoso Masoud, Libya’s Minister of Local Government, noting that the national government seeks to support municipalities and build stronger coordination mechanisms between the central and local levels.
Through leadership seminars, municipal officials learned new approaches to governance through persuasion, consultation and engagement, rather than through coercion.
Workshops for local officials helped them to master topics like project management, human resources, budgeting and Libyan municipal laws and regulations. In workshops on Law 59 on Local Administration, elected representatives learned about their duties in office, as well as legislated procedures and functions of municipal administrations.
A running theme throughout the trainings was transparency and accountability in governance systems as a means of building trust among constituents and strengthening democratic governance, explains Kimble.
Ramping up communication
A key duty of elected officials is to represent their constituents and develop solutions to meet their needs. For newly instated local officials in a country lacking a history of a vibrant civil society, creating channels for communications between government and citizens was a new endeavor, say project implementers.
Through media and strategic communications training and citizen engagement workshops, the Libyan Local Council Administration and Legitimacy project worked to improve local government capacity to hear and respond to citizens’ concerns. By instituting regular town halls, for example, many of the municipalities created a venue for citizens to engage directly with officials and air complaints.
Mayor of Sabratha, Husayn Khalifa Dayab, describes the new channels of communication, including town halls and a special radio series, as “the most successful activities to engage citizens.”
“This communication with them was direct, which had a great impact on citizens. Direct communication with citizens is what made our activities successful,” he says.
With new communication skills, plus training in service delivery and municipal responsibilities, local officials were primed to step in to address the grievances they heard from constituents.
After citizens in Sabratha reported poor roads and lack of recreation services, for example, the Municipal Council teamed up with civil society organizations to fill these gaps. They established a new family park and inaugurated a road-paving program to expand access to rural communities.
In response to citizen concerns about recent outbreaks of violence in Sabha, the city’s mayor met with local elders to discuss their security concerns and make plans for a joint committee to help stabilize the community.
In addition to town halls and in-person meetings, the Libyan Local Council Administration and Legitimacy project helped municipal governments take their communications efforts online and on the airwaves.
Each city established a Facebook page where they regularly update citizens on city news. Some cities, like Sabratha, have initiated weekly call-in radio shows and e-government portals where citizens can submit queries.
The city of Gharyan now has more than 25,000 Facebook followers and Sabratha, with more than 18,000 Facebook followers, averages 75 calls from residents each week on its radio show. Al Bayda’s council even launched a smartphone app called “Al Baydaoui,” which allows citizens to keep informed on local news, provide input on city services and stay connected with the municipality.
Building bridges, building community
As each municipality improves its own operations and learns the best ways to communicate with and serve their constituents, they are also building connections with each other to share these best practices.
On a quarterly basis and with support from the project, the six mayors gathered to discuss successes and challenges in municipal administration. The cities have also taken their own steps to build bridges among other municipalities as well.
In February, for example, al-Bayda hosted officials of eight other municipalities for a discussion on shared security challenges and solutions. In March, Zuwara held a regional roundtable meeting of seven municipalities to discuss a regional coordination mechanism for security and basic citizen services.
While bridges get built among government offices, citizens and local government representatives are also connecting in meaningful ways.
Through their own funding and with support from project-issued peacebuilding and community action grants, each of the six municipalities has joined efforts with civil society organizations for joint community improvement projects.
“Recently we’ve noticed a clear change in the culture between the Municipal Council and civil society organizations,” says Muhamad Al Fathali, a leader of the Star of Sabratha for Development and Progress organization. “The work they do together is complementary, and they collaborate and meet frequently. This has led to a significant improvement of the relationship.”
In Sabratha, for example, the city teamed up with agricultural and environmental groups to plant 500 trees on national Arbor Day. In cooperation with local schools, the cities of Gharyan, Zuwara and al-Bayda all held community celebrations for Mothers and Children’s Day in March.
Among them, the municipalities have organized volunteer days, traffic safety campaigns, football tournaments, art exhibits, cultural festivals and more—all amounting to a surge in community morale, increased interaction among municipal officials and citizens and a subsequent boost in citizen awareness of and trust in local government.
Where just five years ago an elected government did not exist, there is now a budding and thriving culture of democracy emerging in these six municipalities. It is a transformation local officials are committed to sustaining.
“The impact of the [Local Council Administration and Legitimacy] program will continue to effect municipalities for years because it has contributed to the core of governance in Libya,” says Zuwara Mayor Hafed G. S. Bensasi.