Ladislav Briestenský is teaching local governments throughout Slovakia to make their practices more transparent and more democratic. He aims to involve local constituencies in their own self-government, and in doing so, strengthen democracy's appeal from the bottom up. Ladislav understands that the relationship between local government and civil society is one of the most important links in any nascent democratic order, and that Slovak democracy cannot fully succeed without reforms in this area.
The New Idea
Ladislav Briestenský, a former city government official who was quickly frustrated by its bureaucracy, is convinced that if democracy is to succeed in Slovakia, independent local governments must develop new and creative ways of involving citizens. From his own experience in local government, Ladislav knows that the new generation of Slovak officials are well-meaning and often creative, but that they also frequently lack both the experience to implement new ideas and the communicative channels through which to encourage the public's involvement. As Ladislav has witnessed, this disconnect has stunted the growth of local governments throughout Slovakia and limited the political participation of citizens.In response, Ladislav has founded a training and consulting service for local officials which introduces them to innovative, democratic solutions to the problems they face. To complement the training services, Ladislav has developed a literature that he circulates to local governments throughout Slovakia and a media campaign that he directs at citizens to encourage their involvement in political processes. Together, these efforts help align the interests of local citizens and their governments, and open wide channels of communication that will help them tackle future problems.As there are currently no other programs of this sort in Slovakia, Ladislav feels that he must popularize his ideas aggressively, and to that end he has also begun forging connections with NGO leaders throughout the country and plans to expand his staff.
Slovakia's transition from communism is far from complete. Although democracy's formal structures are in place, the habits of self-government are all but absent. For decades, local governments were simply the outer branches of an authoritarian state; their function was to implement decrees from above. Their relationship to the local constituency was simply authoritarian, and did not encourage any mutual dialogue between citizens and bureaucrats.
The residual influence of long-standing bureaucratic habits cannot be underestimated: despite the gush of enthusiasm for democratic reforms, many local Slovak constituencies have proved unable to work effectively with local governments. Many don't know what such cooperation would mean: governments display a persistent inability to reach out to citizens, gauge their interests, and involve them in local projects; citizens, meanwhile, do not know how to capture the attention of local officials and have little grass-roots determination to take control of their own communities. Old stereotypes regarding politics and politicians still prevail, and these sustain feelings of civic hopelessness, apathy, and a widespread rejection of politics and political engagement.
Such attitudes are not only destructive to the practical objectives of democratic governments, but also make citizens susceptible to nationalist demagogues who promise fast results and strong initiative. As democracy's luster is clouded by the people's alienation from government officials, the most dangerous of political solutions start to seem attractive, even necessary. Slovakia's brief history as an independent state suggests that, of all of the Visegrad countries, it has perhaps the most to worry about in this area.
Ladislav has founded an organization called EQ ("Ethical Quotient") Club. Its purpose is best expressed in the Slovak root-word "samo," which expresses several concepts including independence, self-governance, and clarity. These three ideas correspond to the EQ's main goals: to promote innovation within government, to build the knowledge and skill-base of public policy officials, and to increase public awareness of democracy, local governments, and citizens' rights.
With help from the local Soros Foundation in Slovakia, EQ has begun to survey local governments throughout the country and catalogue the various public participation strategies that have been piloted, their successes and failures, and their costs. This large-scale information-gathering project is the first element of EQ's strategy, and it requires a great deal of travel on the part of Ladislav and his small staff of volunteers. In educating themselves about the range of alternatives available to local governments, Ladislav and his colleagues increase their credibility among public officials and gain something of an authoritative voice in public affairs.
Ladislav graduated from Law School and worked as a lawyer for a private enterprise. After the administrative reforms of the early 1990s, he became the head of the local government in his town. He soon began to experiment with different forms of public involvement in county politics that were hitherto unheard of in Slovakia, such as public hearings, which became an integral operational component of his office. He became well-known among local government professionals for his innovations and was elected chairman of the association of heads of local governments.
Ladislav was always active and involved in the community life of his hometown. As a young man, he coached basketball in local children's leagues. He mobilized his community to establish a community foundation, one of the first such community foundation in Slovakia. Ladislav loves music and writing. In the 1980s, organized and played in a well-known pop band, and he has written the text for songs performed by many popular singers in Slovakia.