We sat down (via Google Hangouts) with NDI’s Asja Kratovic, Resident Program Officer in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), to discuss the recently released Imate Rijec website. Based on the Issues DemTool, the site brings together the voices of politicians and citizens on some of Bosnia’s most pressing social and political issues. Check out our Q&A with Asja below:
Q: What is Imate Rijec and how was the idea for the site first born?
A: Our inspiration for the site came from a desire to create an open space for two-way, direct communications between citizens and politicians in real time. That type of space is what Imate Rijec (which means “The Floor is Yours”) provides. Featuring video responses from more than 20 different politicians from nine political parties, as well as videos from citizens in three of the largest cities in Bosnia, the platform highlights the stances and positions of a wide variety of people on a series of relevant and popular political issues.
Other teams around NDI have pursued sites like this before, including the team in Belarus with their ePramova.org project. After speaking to the Belarusian team about their platform, we decided to move forward with a regional nonprofit called Dokukino to customize and develop NDItech’s The Issues DemTool to fit our needs.
Q: Why Bosnia? What makes makes it a good “use-case”?
A: NDI has been working in BiH to advance constructive, issue-based political dialogue, helping parties and elected officials to communicate with citizens on issues they care about. This has included aiding parties to undertake an inclusive policy development process; conducting public opinion research to raise citizens’ concerns directly to parties and officials; and holding debates and town-hall forums, among other activities. Citizens want more direct access to their elected representatives and party officials, and The Issues DemTool was another tool to make this happen and build public engagement on issues.
When you look at stats for the number of people using social media in Bosnia, it’s about 1.6 million out of the four million in the country in terms of Facebook accounts. A lot of youth in particular are using the internet, but these same youth are often not interested in politics. Recognizing this gap, we wanted to create a space to bring politics more openly and effectively to the online sphere, for regular citizens to get involved in these political conversations, and to push politics to the youth of the country and push the issues that are important to them.
Q: How did parties and politicians themselves react to the idea of Imate Rijec?
A: When thinking of who to involve party-wise, we decided to start the platform in cooperation with nine political parties, to which NDI is concurrently providing assistance and training on policy development and constituent relations. [Editor’s note: NDI has been working in Bosnia since 1997 supporting the country’s first post-war steps toward a democratic political system.] Luckily, all the parties were very interested. Just as you have a lot of youth online, you also have a lot of politicians online. Most politicians have a website, some use Twitter, and some use paid Facebook ads, so NDI saw this project as an opportunity to present them with a new way of communicating. Most are used to just going to conferences, round-tables, etc. to speak to citizens, so this was a new opportunity for them to connect with the citizens.
Q: What issues or topics are highlighted on the site?
A: We identified five issue areas, each with one specific question, that we thought were important to ask to everyone. Those topics were Economy (plans for lifting Bosnia out of difficult economic times), Corruption (views on current whistleblower laws), Women’s Rights (standardization of maternal rights), Youth (obligatory student internship legislation), and a question on LGBT rights. We weren’t sure if some of the politicians had ever even been asked a question about LGBT rights before, but six of the nine parties responded to that question, which was encouraging.
After speaking with both politicians and citizens, it appeared that they mostly wanted to ask and answer the same types of questions. As a result the response rates, even though no one was obligated to reply, were very good. We initially set a goal of 12 videos at the outset from the parties, but after recording took place for about 1.5 months, we ended up having nearly 50 videos. Twenty politicians from the nine different parties, as well as individual citizens in Sarajevo, Mostar, and Banja Luka participated in recording the videos.
Q: What strategy have you all taken to promote the site?
A: About 1.5 months before the site launch, we started using a social media strategy with teasers about the website using the Imate Rijec (“The Floor is Yours”) brand. We also set up a YouTube channel, and you can find all the videos from the site on Facebook. Now, in the post-launch phase, we are mostly focusing on a Facebook advertising strategy. There is a dedicated social media consultant with our partner Dokukino, and we also now have other, outside NGOs and politicians that are using and sharing the videos.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge of the site so far?
A: The most important challenge was (and is) to build the mentality among the citizens and politicians around this platform as their tool for conversation with one another. So it is challenging to attract people to comment, ask questions, and raise concerns, but also to push politicians to answer these questions and communicate with people. Although getting the parties and politicians to buy-in to the site went fairly smoothly, it wasn’t and isn’t an easy process.
Another big, more technical challenges was translations. We needed to work with the three official languages - Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian - and this posed a huge challenge for programmers. Finding minor differences in the three versions of the site was time consuming.
Q: Looking ahead, any predictions on what role Imate Rijec might be able to play in the Bosnian political sphere?
A: We think that what we’ve done so far is only the first step. The hope is that partners recognize this platform as their own tool that they can use to promote their own work, and also as a space for them to actually approach voters and citizens without even having to move from their computer or phone. NDI and Dokukino will now be working a lot to further promote the site, and this will play a very important role in the site’s future. The goal ultimately is to keep including new topics, and new parties that are not necessarily even partner parties of NDI.