Local government and public involvement is foreseen to be strengthening in the direct decisionmaking process, but since 1995 only a few changes were made in relation to the independence of municipalities. It is still not certain whether the promises made in public debates will be followed by laws that will decentralize the system.
The addition of spokespeople to disseminate information from the ministerial cabinet is a good sign toward open policies which will need to be established in the other levels, too.
The CEP has also undertaken some administrative attempts to provide access to information, including a public relations officer responsible for any kind of information addressed to the public and the library of information available to the public. The system for providing annual data has also been improved, although it still does not provide all types of necessary information. The guideline Regulation on the Environmental Information and Public Right for Information (No. 7, January 1998) should be acknowledged by CEP. It guarantees citizens the right to have information on the environment and on measures and activities that have or might have a negative impact on their health and environment. Such a right to information does not exist in any special law on information besides the Constitution.
It is encouraging to see that NGOs have taken the initiative in bringing the officials and NGO representatives together at different roundtable activities to discuss and evaluate the legal frame and legal practices in Albania. The same should be said for the concrete practices under development on some laws proposed by different NGOs both in the environment and social field. There have been more attempts recently to combine forces in the draft law initiatives together with other NGOs. On the other side, the government has said that NGO sector will receive more help in the future. The legal community has also helped provide informal advice to NGOs.
Finally, the new Civil Procedural Code, as well the Penal Code, has established standard procedures for conducting court cases. This has improved the ability to exercise the right to go to court.
The existing legal framework is also weak. Laws are very poor relating to the provisions of rights and duties of the parties, procedures and sanctions. The governmental institutions dealing with environmental issues as well as the environmental NGOs have not fully realized the obligations and duties coming from the implementation of the international instruments. Governmental bodies, aside from the CEP, know little about these instruments and their implementation in general is very superficial. Also, neither the government nor the NGOs have taken any direct initiative to evaluate the implementation of Sofia Guidelines.
The administrative system in Albania is still very centralized. Local agencies do not have the right to decide an issue if approval is not received from central bodies (i.e. the CEP). Even the decision to issue a permit is made by the CEP. Since there are no clear administrative procedures, it is common to wait for everything to come as an order from the central structures.
Recent changes in government and at the CEP appear to have helped the public gain access to information. However, as mentioned earlier, not all the necessary information is available through these governmental bodies. Specific information, like scientific data, is provided by the relevant institutions, which do not like to give it free of charge even though they are legally obligated to do so.
There are not all the possibilities to give information that might be required. This is mentioned even in the most recent Report on the Environmental Situation in Albania, published by the CEP in 1997. Private and entities and public institutions have failed to give the CEP all the information required by law.
There are no records or environmental data kept on the environment except the annual Report on Environmental Information. In addition, although all scientific institutions and the requested private entities are obliged to submit information to the CEP, it is difficult for individuals, NGOs and sometimes even the CEP to obtain additional information from these sources through a normal request unless it is secured by payment of sometimes high fees.
Private sector information flows rarely or not at all. One reason is that the state is still weak in controlling the private sector, not only with regards to environmental information but also concerning financial data. The only generally available information related to environment comes from the state bodies. However, there is no consistent method of providing information due to the quick and frequent changes in the public administration, the lack of internal procedures and the absence of an administrative law that could stabilize the internal operations framework.
There is lack of enforcement of the existing laws and rules caused by gaps in the laws and in the executive structures, too. Authorities have not shown the proper will to enforce the law because of the lack of the specialized personnel. Also, people do not care enough about the law. Instead, the public accept the fact that the person in charge often makes decisions without collegial consensus.
Due to lack of legal infrastructure and special procedures, together with a general orientation of public toward ownership cases addressed to the court, sometimes the denial of access to environmental information, failure to allow public participation and environmental issues are hidden behind the ownership issue. This is the main reason which make them difficult to be defined as specific issues, but on the other side the ownership case brings them as conflict to be addressed in the court.
There is no juridical process to deal with corrupt officials or judges, and everybody knows that in order to solve a problem in a state office in Albania it is common to offer a bribe. This is one of the main reasons that laws and rules are not enforced.
Informal attempts to follow the conventions should be developed in the future as good examples which must be transformed later in normal procedures together with the necessary changes in the legal and practical procedures.
On a regional level, the REAs need additional training to act not only as license providers for proposals coming from other bodies but to play an active role as a consultative body. In addition, REAs should be strengthened as part of the decentralization process. District-level regulations with respect to the environmental law are not developed at present, but changing this might be the best way to carry out the decentralization process.
It has been said the new Administrative Law will provide provisions on access to public participation and information, thus regulating the relationships between citizens and government on the basis of a democratic law. Once the draft is finished, the working group should organize open meetings with a wide audience of participants, including NGOs, before submitting the draft to parliament.
Improvements should be made in the way scientific information is treated. Both the CEP and the relevant institutions should introduce the contracting system for obtaining up-to-date information. Fines must be imposed when time limits for providing information are not respected or when the information provided is not relevant.
Another legal tool that would help secure the right to information is the possibility of a public interest test. This type of test currently is not provided for in the law or in practice, but adding it in the future would help the development of the democratic process.
Government obligations to actively provide information and/or environmental information could be facilitated by the establishment of regular contacts between the media and the ministry spokespeople, as well as better organization of the national and local public relations offices.
On the NGO side, current trends show that NGOs with better defined goals will be initiators in the future for networking and closer cooperation. They are also beginning to get more involved in giving input into law drafting. This is a new process with few past experiences, but NGOs are showing great inspiration despite the difficulties of missing legal concepts and of dealing with decisionmakers. There is a lack as well in building advocacy initiatives. Governmental bodies do not see NGOs as their partners in such initiatives even though there are attempts to encourage the NGO sector. NGOs could benefit from training on advocacy and on writing laws. The legal NGOs, which are primarily oriented toward the trade law sector, could help by joining in partnerships with their environmental counterparts.
In addition, the government consultative committee, which is called together in cases of emergencies or to prepare the sectorial or overall environmental policies, should involve NGOs permanently.
The government should adopt an administrative regulation that requires a list of individuals or NGOs to be regularly informed, and that list should be continually updated. With regard to information on law and policymaking, the informal practice of informing or inviting individuals and/or NGOs to participate as consultants or advisers should be institutionalized in the future.
Also, a formal NGO lobbyist mechanism must be established. This practice was fully unknown in the past and it still is not regulated by law. As a result, NGOs do not understand the importance of the lobbying process. That is something which should be strengthened in the future by providing training and assistance to NGOs.
General training for governmental officials on public participation issues should also be developed in the future. Perhaps the most important factor in promoting public participation would be proper implementation and enforcement of the current existing laws.