5 leading mayors explain how they are tackling corruption

In Europe and Central Asia, 1 in 3 citizens rate corruption as one of their country’s main problems. We spoke to 5 mayors who are hard at work to change that.

UNDP Eurasia
Jul 5 · 11 min read
Left: Vadym Gaev participates in public cleaning on Environment Day in the Novopskov ATC, Ukraine.

The global scale of corruption remains worrisome. Estimates show that businesses and individuals pay an estimated $1.5 trillion in bribes annually, and the developing world loses enormous sums in illicit financial flows, totaling over $1 trillion.

Approximately 5 percent of the world’s annual GDP is lost to corruption. This figure is estimated to be 10 times the amount of official development assistance in developing countries.

We spoke to five mayors who are pioneering anti-corruption initiatives in their municipalities. Their answers below have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Left: Ace Kocevski, planting trees in Veles. Right: Valentina Casian speaks about the importance of transparency.

Can you tell us broadly about the work you do at the municipality? How long have you been serving as the mayor?

Valentina Casian: I am the first woman mayor in the history of Straseni, Moldova. I have been a mayor for two consecutive mandates here, since 2011. My work is focused heavily on promoting measures of integrity to break the chain of corruption at the local level, making the most of emigrants’ resources for local development, improving the quality of our local services and strengthening the capacity of our institutions.

Ace Kocevski: Managing a municipality is a big challenge for anyone, as for me. I was a mayor for two mandates from 2000 to 2009, and just started my third mandate in 2017. In the area of transparency and new city management trends, we are already leaders. We are one of the few municipalities in North Macedonia which managed to pay back most of the municipal debt and transparently manages its budget. We managed to implement a lot of important infrastructural projects, which made Veles a better and more beautiful city for its citizens. It helps that I am a civil engineer by profession and I can contribute to the implementation of infrastructure projects.

Vadym Gaev: I have been serving as the mayor of Novopskov ATC in Ukraine since 2015. I have a business background, so even prior to my election, I was always thinking about possible ways of improving the quality of people’s lives. At the moment, we are trying to upgrade the infrastructure of our region. At the same time, we have to win the trust of our citizens as public officials of the local municipality.

Nino Tvatzvadze: From December 2017, I took the position of deputy Mayor of Kutaisi municipality, the second largest city in Georgia. Since then, I have been coordinating social issues, tourism development and international cooperation of the city. Being responsible for the social welfare of citizens is very demanding and interesting at the same time. Meeting them every day gives you a good sense of the situation and the major problems we need to tackle.

Diana Gasparyan: After the revolution in Armenia, the ex-Mayor of Echmiadzin resigned on 17 June 2018 and I was appointed as an Acting Mayor by the Decision of the Prime Minister as of 25 June. Later that same year, I was elected as the Head of the Municipality, receiving 51,5% of votes among 12 candidates. I find those elections historically important because it was the first time when a woman was elected mayor in Armenia. My role mostly relates to the policy issues surrounding the development of the city.

Left: Diana Gasparyan, on the day of the citizen of the Republic of Armenia. Right: Vadym Gaev, opening of the first mural “inspiration” in Novopskov, Ukraine.

All of you have done pioneering work to tackle corruption in your cities. Can you tell us what kind of measures you have taken which have worked?

Vadym: One thing that worked for us is an initiative we call “Participatory Budget.” This takes a certain amount of funds from the local budget to implement small local projects initiated by the community. People are able to tell us via email, mail or phone what their needs are, and we take these into account. So far, we have used these funds to construct playgrounds and recreational areas with benches, and organized parking zones. Our citizens can monitor through our website all of our agreements, contracts and bills for services delivered to our community. Every citizen can also track our revenue sources and expenditures.

Nino: In February 2018, the city of Kutaisi adopted the Anti-Corruption strategy and Action Plan, thus becoming the first municipality in Georgia to have this kind of document. The strategy is based on an innovative methodology Islands of Integrity, implemented in the cities around the Black Sea region with the support of UNDP.

We created a web platform for receiving proposals from citizens, and the initiative with most votes was funded by the municipality. Citizens of Kutaisi now have the opportunity to apply for social programs without coming to the office, as well as pay local fees electronically. We have also made the permission and license granting process more transparent and citizen friendly. With UNDP assistance we were also able to purchase body-cams for inspectors and security cameras for social department which helped our effort to increase the transparency of the municipality.

Islands of Integrity is an innovative anti-corruption methodology, implemented in the last 10 years in more than 30 cities across Eastern and Central Europe and Turkey.

Valentina: We have worked very hard to improve transparency in Straseni. For example, through our City Hall webpage, we have made public our annual procurement plans, procurement notices, tenders and award notices. In terms of accountability, we publish reports on low-value public procurement contracts and summary of all public procurement contracts on line. Additionally, with UNDP support, we now have a live conferencing system in the municipality City Hall premises which enables citizens to access public hearings online.

Ace: We introduced the first local Anti-Corruption Action Plan in the country. We were among the first to adopt a code of ethics for elected officials, and to measure potential corruption-prone points. To that end, we adopted a quality management standard with procedures for improving efficiency of our services as well as accountability and integrity of our municipality. Our website makes all information — such as those relating to public procurement, operation of departments and strategic documents — publicly available. Citizens can use our e-services to learn whom to contact for which service, whether they should pay administrative tax, what the deadline is for receiving responses to their requests, et cetera.

Diana: The first thing that I faced at my job was that the staff, including people who held high positions, had low levels of motivation. Along with low salaries, most of the staff had not been involved in the decision making because all decisions were made solely by the Mayor. So, the first thing I did differently was holding the members of the staff responsible for the fields they regulate, giving them more space to initiate things, express their points of view, make decisions and be responsible for those decisions.

Nino Tvatzvadze visits children on the autistic spectrum at the day center Open House.
Left: Tournament of renowned handball players organised by the Municipality of Veles.

As a result of your efforts towards tackling corruption, have you seen an impact on how citizens engage with your services?

Ace: Certainly. It is not by accident that we are recognized as one of the most transparent municipalities in our country. Since 2005, our budget is planned with inputs from our citizens through public debates. It is adopted in two phases: draft and budget proposal. We also have a local community council, which has representatives from NGOs, and a local economic council which has representatives from the business community. These two bodies regularly review relevant issues for municipal development and provide recommendations.

Nino: We can say for sure that more people are now engaging with us. We are receiving comments from people with disabilities, for example, who are grateful that they can approach us without coming to the office. We are going to conduct a baseline survey to indicate the level of accessibility of services.

Diana: Using modern technology and social platforms is key. The number of followers to the official Facebook page of the Municipality has almost doubled which is a clear indicative of the increase of the interest towards its activity. My official Facebook page, where I share the news and projects, has over 13,000 followers, which keeps many people informed of the processes. We have also started to do public hearings concerning massive projects in the city so that community can be part of decision-making. Finally, every Thursday I have an open-door policy where citizens who have expressed a wish to see the Mayor can come and raise their issues.

Vadym: Modern tools make it possible for citizens to play an active role in community decisions. For example, when we had to determine the symbols of our territorial community (emblem and flag), this was a collective decision which included broad public discussions and a participatory decision-making process. Anyone could vote for one or other draft of the emblem or flag. It was a democratic and transparent process. So in a way, our municipality’s emblem and flag is a representative of the collective work we are doing with our community.

Valentina: We can see very clearly that the level of citizens’ trust in the mayor and civil servants has gone up. In the 2015 local elections, the Mayor was elected in the first round, gaining 74 percent of votes. We owe that to the work we have done on transparency. For example, our citizens are able to report any unauthorized/illegal constructions and unlawful trade.

Left: Painting together with children who have Down syndrome in Kutaisi. Right: Nino Tvatzvadze visiting the day center — bridge for inclusive education.
Left: Meeting with children in Veles on Municipality Day. Right: Independence Day of Armenia.

What are some changes you’re proud of in your city?

Diana: I would like to underline our extra attention and care towards kindergartens. We have obviously improved the level of the service in the pre-school educational institutions, including the menus and portions of the food served to children, improving the conditions, and supply of interactive game and educational materials and much more.

Vadym: It is somehow uncomfortable for me to recall that in the past, the streets were unlit, there were no sidewalks, and no playgrounds for children. Now, for example, we provide subsidies for energy efficiency, so called “warm loans”, for community members to use energy-saving technologies for their houses. Many sports and cultural events (cycling, winter skiing, skating, football matches, powerlifting, weightlifting, creative workshops for amateurs of all ages, artistic festivals) promote community cohesion and healthy lifestyle. For me, I see the appreciation of our work the most in the evenings whenI observe how many people are enjoying our Aidar park. All levels of the population, both young and old, are happy to rest and walk in the park. It’s comfortable and well lit, equipped with benches, playgrounds, sports grounds and sidewalks.

Nino: One journalist asked me: why did you adopt the Anti-Corruption strategy, does it mean that you recognize the existence of corruption in your city? For me the answer is in the methodology: the key word here is integrity, not the corruption. The question gave me the opportunity to explain that our work is oriented in prevention. But it also made me recognize that maybe some cities are afraid of having an anti-corruption document, exactly because of this attitude some might have.

Valentina: At first, in 2011, I carried out anti-corruption actions on my own, with no external help. Soon I realized that I will not be able to perform on my own in a totally corrupt system. A civil servant earning a salary of 2000 MDL cannot manage immovable and movable property worth millions. I decided not to dismiss them, but to engage them in identifying the areas most prone to corruption and drafting of an Anti-Corruption Action Plan. Since 2016, thanks to UNDP, Straseni Municipality is the first and only locality selected in the programme to implement the Islands of Integrity methodology in Moldova.

Ace: We have much to be proud of. For example, the improvement of the urban landscape in the city in order to create attractive areas and parks for recreation; amenities such as sporting facilities, a refurbished library, an art salon, the small bridge; and infrastructure upgrades, such as roads, water supply and sewage systems in the city and in the surrounding settlements. I am also very proud of the Citizens Service Center, which the EU highlighted as a good practice in 36 municipalities in the country.

Left: Mayor with members of women’s organisation from Veles during humanitarian sale of souvenirs. Right: Visiting the Novopskov school in Ukraine.
Left: Exhibition of students of Fine Art School of Echmiadzin, Armenia. Right: 50% of Straseni councillors are women.

It’s extremely important to build the capacity of municipalities for strengthened integrity and accountability in urban governance. The UN foresees that by 2050, 68% of the world’s population will be living in cities. With this expanding urban population there is increasing pressure on local governments to deliver on a high quality of life for their residents. Local governments stand closest to the population as they are mandated to solve the most urgent needs of citizens.

Tackling corruption remains a long journey, but it doesn’t have to be so — with technology and innovative approaches, the path to corruption-free municipalities is closer than ever.

Mayors of municipalities, especially those of smaller ones in the past have been faced with a double burden — gaining trust as public servants in places where corruption is perceived to be institutionalized; in the midst of tight networks of power, weak accountability systems and non-transparent operational procedures, leaving in this way a small room for public servants to impact to the community.

That’s why UNDP, supported by the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, works with the local governments, civic activists and media, including in the above 5 municipalities, to identify corruption risks and design integrity action plans, and most importantly, to support in their practical implementation. Projects highlighted above show breakthrough examples, where the use of technology and innovation brings forth positive change in efforts to tackle corruption. Some of the small innovative acts, such as open access to municipal documents for the public interest, online (e-) services of the municipalities, and online availability of participatory budgets, which the citizens themselves can decide how to use, not only that increase the transparency of the municipalities, but also help to build public trust in the public servants.

The latter, building municipal capacities and trust, remains the most important pillar to strengthening integrity and accountability. While eradicating corruption is impossible, taking small steps during the road, may bring positive outcomes in the near future, and along the way create a greater involvement for the exponentially growing population of the cities.

You can find more information on corruption risks on local levels and how to mitigate them in our Online Guide to Corruption-Free Local Government.

Editor’s Note: Irakli Kotetishvili and Zana Idrizi contributed to this piece.

UNDP Eurasia

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