Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. April 2005

2.3. Media and cultural aspects of civil society
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Zrinjka Peruško (Zagreb)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

The role of civil society in the policy-making process: Examples of cultural policy-making in Croatia

Nina Obuljen (Zagreb, Croatia)(1)



Policy analysis recognizes, amongst others, two opposing approaches to decision-making: the rational approach, which assumes that decisions emerge from the decision-maker’s search for the most effective means of achieving policy goals; and the incremental approach which presupposes that a compromise must be achieved between different actors who often have conflicting goals and priorities. (Hague, Harrop, Breslin, 1998) Depending on the approach adopted, the role of civil society representatives differs. Still, in contemporary democratic societies, it is hard to imagine any form of decision-making process that does not take into consideration opinions and notions from the civil society, expressed either through individual involvement or on an institutional level.

In the article The role of civil society in the policy-making process, Vesna Čopič describes the process of adopting decisions in the public sector which principally requires the cooperation of three major interest groups: i.e. politicians, officials (administration) and producers of public goods. (Čopič, 2000) Even though politicians obtain their mandates directly from voters at elections and therefore, in theory, can make decisions without necessarily consulting with interested groups, Čopič correctly points out the difference between legal and legitimate decisions - an issue particularly interesting for the field of cultural policy.

Decisions taken by those authorised to do so are by no doubts legal but are they legitimate? While democracy is ensured by elections, testing the quality of this democracy is another and more complicated issue. It is linked to the existence of public institutions and structure that are capable of a more comprehensive reflection and synthesis, meaning the transformation of individual interests into a general interest. (ibid)

Moreover, she insists that the process of decision-making should be synergetic and not entropic, and that ignoring one of the partners in the decision-making process may lead to mutual obstructions and a non-productive situation that then turns power into impotence. She concludes by stating that the participation of different actors in the process of reaching cultural and political decisions may primarily be considered not a value issue but a functional matter related to the efficiency and effectiveness of actual policies. (ibid)

Similar arguments can be found in Christopher Gordon’s article about the different roles that cultural organizations, administrators and artists, can play in the policy development process. He highlights the role of the so-called "third" and cultural sectors that need to lobby and influence policy at all levels. Not only directly in the democratic political process, but also by harnessing the support of the public, the audience, and the private sector - which can all have a crucial influence on government attitudes. According to Gordon, "policy models which reflect the realities of civil society are more likely to be effective than something which is imposed from the centre. The holistic and ‘horizontal’ (bottom-up) model is much more likely to succeed than the ‘vertical’ (top down) one, which will always be more vulnerable to sudden unexpected change, or even to the whims of particular politicians when in power. (Gordon, 2001)

For former socialist and communist countries, one of the indicators of their successful transformation into democratic societies is the development of civil society, its role in influencing the decision-making process as well as its capability to participate in the implementation, and effective monitoring of the consequences and results of different public policies.

This paper will give some examples and analyse some aspects of the decision-making process in the cultural field in Croatia and also assess the role that the civil society plays or could play in that process. Still, at the beginning it is important to remember that cultural policy is somewhat specific in comparison with other public policies, because the effective implementation of the majority of cultural policy measures generally depends on the civil society. This specificity is a consequence of the reality that the decision-makers (ministers of culture) have a very small number of institutions on which they can have a direct influence. This was well articulated by Charles Landry and François Matarasso in their reflections on the most important strategic dilemmas in cultural policy.

The culture minister deals with a field which is inherently changeable and often seen as marginal to the government’s central objectives. While health and education ministers have thousands of hospitals and schools, and millions of public employees under their control, the culture minister typically has few directly managed resources. The development and management of cultural policy is therefore one of the most complex areas of modern government, a kind of a balancing act, not so much between competing priorities as in other areas of policy, but between competing visions of the role of culture in society. (Landry, Matarasso, 1999: 7)

Through some examples of cultural policy-making in Croatia, this paper will show that there are still great disparities in the level of the involvement of civil society and while some institutional involvement existed well before the early 1990s and the democratic changes, at the same time the informal process of consultation with civil society has not yet been adopted as the most effective way for making important strategic decisions in the cultural policy field.


Civil society and cultural policy in the Republic of Croatia

Different authors have quite differing views on the history and tradition of civil society involvement in Croatia, particularly in regards to the period of socialist government. While some authors claim that the last decades of the socialist regime did allow a certain degree of pluralism (Stubbs, 2001; Zakošek, 1991, 2000) others tend to analyse and describe the development and support for civil society initiatives as a new phenomenon linked with democratic changes that occurred in the early 1990s, since during the communist period the civil society was marginalized and ignored, even though the situation in Croatia was somewhat better than in other communist countries (Bežovan, Puljiz, 2000)

Gojko Bežovan, one of the leading contemporary theorists of civil society in Croatia claims that all relevant Croatian institutions established at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century were created as a result of civic engagement. (Bežovan, 1998) Still, regardless of this fact, he thinks that the civil society in Croatia does not have a strong tradition. And unlike other countries in transition, in the first period after the democratic changes and partly because of the war, Croatia did not immediately proceed with stronger support for the development of civil society(2).

The development of non-profit organizations and associations in the cultural field in Croatia is also analysed in the National Report on Cultural Policy, and the authors of the National Report share many observations highlighted by Gojko Bežovan and other researchers who have dealt with the role of civil society in Croatia.

The development of civil society in the cultural sector has proceeded in Croatia in much more difficult circumstance than in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The war has considerably reduced the interest on the part of foreign endowments and foundations, as well as of public bodies to invest in this sector in Croatia. Still, some NGOs and alternative art projects have been receiving funding and support from foundations such as the Open Society Institute. Despite some delays and obstacles, there is a visible trend of an increase in the of new cultural institutions, the majority of which have been founded as non-profit organisations. Still, one of the issues remains the question of the level of involvement and participation as well as the number of active members of different organizations which represents a challenge in determining their legitimacy. (Dragojević, 1998)

When analysing the role of civil society in the cultural field it is important to emphasise that there are at least four groups of organizations with quite differing goals, objectives and ways of operation. On one hand, there are numerous amateur arts’ organizations that are promoting local dancing and music, amateur theatre groups, brass orchestras, etc. Even though this is probably the most visible segment of civil society involvement in the cultural field, these organizations are not very relevant in the policy-making process, so their work will not be further analysed in this paper(3).

The second group consists of arts’ organizations established by professional artists. This is a very flexible form of organizing artists that enables them to efficiently seek funding and execute different artistic projects. A special law regulates the rules for establishing and operating arts organizations. Artists and professionals are continuously lobbying for improvements and adjustments to this law and other laws that effect their everyday lives and activities.

The third group of organizations includes different professional organizations which mostly act as advocacy organizations with a broad membership, including independent artists, artists employed in public institutions and/or professionals working in different cultural fields (i.e. archives, theatres, museums, cultural heritage). The role of professional organizations is recognized in that they are specifically mentioned in several laws that regulate different segments of cultural life, and will be further elaborated in this paper.

The fourth group of civil-society organisations include "all other" groups, from local branches of existing international non-governmental organizations (i.e. ICOM, ICOMOS, etc.) to different Croatian non-governmental organizations which are not exclusively involved in artistic creation, but also operate in other segments of cultural life either as advocacy and lobbying organizations, research and study groups or managing grass-route projects in different areas such as cultural tourism, regional development or the environment.

The National Report on Cultural Policy brings some reflections on the role of civil society in cultural policy-making in Croatia. According to the finding of this report, non-governmental organizations, cultural institutions and individual artists exert a strong influence on the formulation and implementation of cultural policies (Katunarić, 1998) which includes their autonomous creation of arts’ programmes and also their influence on the decisions taken by governmental bodies and the bodies of local administration and self-government. This is achieved by influencing public opinion on matters of culture and art through the participation, in an advisory capacity, of individuals and non-governmental organizations in decisions made by governmental bodies and through different forms of lobbying. (ibid)

Still, this report recognizes that the actual influence of non-governmental organizations and individuals depends on numerous factors such as the authority and reputation of the people acting as consultants, the willingness of senior officials in governmental agencies to accept advice, the type of problems under discussion, the possible existence of conflict of interest between organizations and individuals participating in the decision-making on cultural policies, etc. It is indeed quite difficult to determine the real strength of the non-governmental cultural sector and its ability to influence decision-making processes, because there is a great disparity between proclaimed and abstract goals of cultural policy and the actual reality of the decision-making process.

To illustrate some of these issues this article will analyse three different aspects of civil-society participation in cultural policy making: the general legislative framework for the involvement of the civil society in cultural policy making, attempts to decentralize decision making(4) and advocacy and lobbying


Legislative framework for the involvement of the civil society in cultural policy-making in Croatia

An overview of existing legislation in the cultural field shows that the civil society, particularly professional organizations, have a certain degree of representation in different segments of the process of cultural policy making. Their responsibilities lie mainly in those segments of policy making, where there is a need for setting up or monitoring professional standards - such as determining programs and requirements for "expert exams", monitoring the professional and artistic standards of public and private cultural and arts organizations and institutions, etc.

Some of the provisions in these laws have been in existence even before democratic changes in the early 1990s, showing that there was a recognition of the need for a certain degree of pluralism even before a multi-party system was introduced in 1990. According to different provisions of the Law on Archives(5), Law on Libraries(6) and Law on Museums(7), the Ministry of Culture establishes consultative bodies responsible for the implementation and monitoring of certain provisions in these laws. These councils are primarily responsible for the establishment of professional standards both for the functioning of institutions and for setting the minimal requirements for employees and professional staff.

The Croatian Archival Council consists of eleven members, but the Croatian Archives Association, a non-governmental professional organization that represents professionals in this field, appoints only one member to this Council. The Croatian Association of Librarians appoints three members to the Council for Libraries. The Croatian Museaologist Association appoints three out of seven members of the Council for Museums. The Croatian Council for Cultural Heritage(8) has a president and eight members. The Minister of Culture appoints three renowned experts from different professional organizations without obligation to consult any of these professional organizations.

Representatives of professional organizations and some important cultural institutions also participate in the work of the Committee for Culture, Education and Science of the Croatian Parliament and they are invited to participate in different ad-hoc committees, especially when the Government is in the process of drafting new laws.

A rather high degree of civil society involvement is envisaged in the execution of the Law on the Rights of Self-employed Artists and on the Promotion of Cultural and Artistic Creativity. Based on their artistic merits and achievements, according to this Law, self-employed artists have the right to health, pension and disability insurance. These contributions are, under certain conditions, paid out of the state budget. The Commission, which decides on the artists’ requests, consists of one representative of the Ministry of Culture, one representative of the Association of Self-employed Artists and one self-employed artist. This law puts self-employed artists in a somewhat privileged position compared to artists holding permanent jobs in public institutions or other self-employed individuals in the Republic of Croatia, but the Law is particularly interesting for this analysis, because the artists and professional organizations have an almost exclusive right to decide which artists will be granted this status. In practise, ministers of culture, even though they had the right to approve or deny the Commission’s decisions, have not exercised this right and have never overturned the decisions taken by the Commission. The Ministry of Culture has also delegated some of its responsibilities for implementing this law to the Association of Self-employed Artists. The Association of Self-employed Artists decides which professional organizations will have the right to send representatives to the Commissions for each specific cultural sector.

The Law on the Rights of Self-employed Artists and on the Promotion of Cultural and Artistic Creativity probably represents the highest possible degree of civil society engagement in influencing cultural policy making in Croatia. Still, in the next section of this paper, through the example of some disputes concerning changes in provisions of the laws affecting self-employed artists during the past two years, it will be shown that there are still many weaknesses and that there is a lack of proper communication between decision-makers and representatives of the civil society, even when there is a legislative framework enhancing exchange and communication.


Decentralization of decision-making: the role of cultural councils

In order to overcome the challenges of highly centralized decision-making, and with the aim of including civil society representatives in cultural policy-making, in 2001 the Parliament adopted the Law on Cultural Councils. This was supposed to be one of the most important reforms in the cultural policy decision-making process in Croatia as well as a major shift from the existing practices of financing culture to a more democratic process.

In the Strategy of Cultural Development this process was described as a process of "professionalisation" and "de-etatisation", where the decision-making would be detached from the direct control of the Ministry of Culture, because the Culture Councils, consisting of independent experts, would have decision-making power. In the programme of the Ministry of Culture for the period 2000-2004, Cultural Councils are described as a "new centre for decision making" which will help in transforming the Ministry of Culture into a coordinator of the "cultural co-deciding process". (Katunarić, 2001)

Culture Councils, of which there are 11, are in fact, semi-arms’s-length bodies that propose goals of cultural policy and measures for achieving them, offer professional assistance to the Minister of Culture, work out the long-term national cultural programme and propose annual financial plans. With the introduction of this Law, the existing councils for museums, libraries and archives mentioned earlier in this article became Cultural councils for their respective fields. The Law prescribes that, if the proposal of the Cultural council is rejected, the Minister must explain in writing the reasons why. At present the Councils only exist on the national level, but the law also allows their foundation on county and town levels. The Cultural Councils can be described as semi-arm’s-length because they are independent in making decisions about the distribution of funds, but it is the Ministry of Culture that then manages and distributes subsidies(9). (Katunarić et al 2002)

Members of the cultural councils are appointed by the Government that selects seven candidates based on recommendations from relevant art and cultural organizations and associations. According to the provisions of this law, chairpersons of each cultural council are members of the National Council for Culture - a body that adopts the National programme for culture, coordinates work of cultural councils and assists the minister of culture in determining the priorities of cultural policy.

With the adoption of this Law, the civil society representatives gained a new role in cultural policy making in Croatia, however, it is important to stress here that this initiative has not yet resulted in a deep reform of the decision-making process. Cultural councils, even if they have the authority to make decisions, do not have the necessary capacity or resources for their work. Also, the Law did not include any monitoring or evaluation procedures, so it is impossible to assess the real impact of the new method of decision making. The biggest obstacle in achieving a higher degree of independence is the fact that councils do not have an independent budget. They do not receive funding for their work and moreover they are not distributing grants related to decisions made, which seriously limits the level of their independence(10).

The Law on Cultural Councils was an attempt to reform cultural policy decision-making in Croatia and bring it closer to the decentralized system which exists in many European countries. Still, in order to give the necessary legitimacy to the work of the councils and to establish a true partnership with the civil society representatives, the Law on Cultural Councils will need to be amended or changed.


Civic engagement: advocacy and lobbying

Advocacy and lobbying are surely the most visible and common ways a civil society influences the policy-making process in all sectors of public policy. Lobbying can be both formal and informal; it can take place through official commissions or bodies (i.e. cultural councils, statements from assemblies of professional organizations, formal requests from renowned cultural institutions, etc.), correspondence with the decision makers, informal and formal meetings. However, if the civil society representatives feel that their opinions and interests are not taken into account, they can organize rallies and demonstrations and even use their artistic expression to attract attention to the issues they think should be treated differently.

There are many examples of efficient and cooperative communication between civil society representatives and policy makers that have resulted in improvements in certain cultural policy measures and instruments. Still, this is not always the case. The Law on Self-employed Artists has already been mentioned in this paper as a positive example of civil society involvement in the policy-making process. But in this section, we will try to illustrate how a lack of communication and the ignoring of public opinion has resulted in a series of demonstrations and public debates, in which a majority of artists’ and professional organizations have protested against government decisions that affected the status of artists in the Republic of Croatia.

In 2002, there was a protest of independent artists and a public debate with the Ministry of Culture over the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Social Affairs' presentation of a draft law on retirement benefits and health insurance in the cultural sector. The protesters demanded that artistic creativity obtain a special status within the fiscal system, since "artwork is of general public significance". Faced with such loud protests from all artist organizations, the Ministry of Culture decided to bargain with the other ministries and found a way to avoid the application of these new measures to artistic creation. Subsequently, with the legislative changes that occurred in early 2003, and without any prior consultation with the Association of Self-employed Artists, the government abolished the benefits that were guaranteed by the Law on Self-employed Artists. In fact, the amount earmarked in the budget for the social and health benefits was drastically reduced, so that today those benefits can be labelled as "symbolic" rather than substantive.

While the system established under the Law on Self-employed Artists was under continuous criticism as being non-transparent and, in a way, obsolete in the context of contemporary public policies, the example of a unilateral decision to abolish certain incentives without any analysis of possible effects and consequences, and without contemplating the possibility of introducing some new measures to counterbalance the negative effect of a government’s decision, shows weaknesses in public policy making and illustrates clearly some points raised in the Vesna Čopič’s paper on policy making:

Participation of different actors in the process of reaching cultural and political decisions may primarily be considered not a value issue but a functional matter related to the efficiency and effectiveness of actual policies. In order to meet their own interest, that of achieving the desired outcome, politicians in power must organize their decision making process in such a way that the interested parties or stakeholders are involved, and in this way stand a reasonable chance of success. (Čopič, 2000)

The example of two years of "fierce battles" between the Coordination of Professional Arts Organizations and the government (both the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Finance), which resulted in the resignation of all members of the Board of the Association of Self-Employed Artists, mere symbolic reductions of costs and continuous debate about the same problems, proves that it is neither rational nor effective to exclude civil society from the decision-making process.



Through some examples, this paper has attempted tried to assess the importance and the role that civil society plays in cultural policy making in Croatia. Even though a certain level of pluralism existed even before the democratic changes of the early 1990s, the real reform of the decision-making process started some ten years ago with the aim of reflecting the demands of the civil society to participate more actively in the decision-making process, and in order to bring the Croatian cultural policy closer to democratic standards. The new Law on Cultural Councils can also be considered as a significant step forward in decentralizing the decision making process.

Still, the example of this Law also shows that the introduction of new pieces of legislation does not necessarily bring the desired changes, especially if it does not take into account the realities of public policy-making and everyday life. The fact that the representatives of civil society were given certain responsibilities which were not accompanied by adequate logistical support, proves that the civil society is still regarded more as a "decoration" that can offer legitimacy to policy-makers’ decisions rather than as an equal partner in the decision-making process.

Ultimately, the example of the disputes over the rights of self-employed artists, where the professional associations were not willing to accept any changes, and where the government decided to cut existing benefits without introducing any substitute measures, shows that a more democratic way of reaching strategic decisions has yet to be embraced. What is needed is a procedure, whereby no new measures would be adopted without proper debate and consultation with the civil society representatives who would be affected by the particular measures.

© Nina Obuljen (Zagreb, Croatia)


(1) Nina Obuljen, Research Fellow, Department for Culture and Communication, Institute for International Relations (IMO), Ul.Lj.F.Vukotinovića 2, 10000 Zagreb, Croatia.

This paper was presented in the session "Media and Cultural Aspects of Civil Society" at the International Conference "The Unifying Aspects of Cultures", INST, Vienna, 7-9 November 2003.

(2) Gojko Bežovan: The Structure of the civil society in Croatia: results of the empirical research.

(3) The National Report on Cultural Policy highlights a long tradition of cultural and art amateur associations in Croatia. They were originally established to preserve the national culture and languages threatened by a foreign regime, but in the course of time they developed into community centres of social life. A number of different sections were organized (folk music, reciting poetry, literally, visual arts groups, etc.). (Bosner, 1998: 92) During the socialist regime these associations were used for political socialization, and considerable funds were invested in their activity, which also resulted in massive participation with a rather hight proportion of women and children.

(4) Namely Law on cultural councils, Official Gazette, no. 53/01.

(5) Official Gazette 105/97

(6) Official Gazette 105/97, 05/98

(7) Official Gazette 142/98

(8) Law on the protection and the promotion of cultural goods, Official Gazette, 69/99.

(9) See the Compendium of cultural policies, 2003.

(10) Cultural councils make decisions on who is going to receive a grant, but it is the Ministry of Culture that actually transfers the money and also receives and evaluates financial reports.


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2.3. Media and cultural aspects of civil society

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