Case study 1
Working for local government – promoting change from within
Dąbrowska Initiative & Dąbrowa Górnicza
Magdalena Mike | Responsible for collaboration with NGOs in the Dąbrowa Górnicza mayor’s office
Piotr Drygała | Responsible for civil society matters in the Dąbrowa Górnicza mayor’s office
Jakub Leszczyński | Head of the Dąbrowska Initiative
“NGOs should be given the opportunity to act; it is important to trust them, to bet on them.”
Jakub Leszczyński, President of the Dąbrowska Initiative
“There is not a single person in the Department of NGOs who was not previously involved in the work of an NGO or volunteering.”
Magdalena Mike, responsible for collaboration with NGOs in the mayor’s office
Political and legal context
Dąbrowa Górnicza is located in the eastern part of the Silesian Voivodeship. As part of the Katowice conurbation, it forms part of the Upper Silesian Zagłębie Metropolis and has a population of over 120,000. Dąbrowa Górnicza is home to heavy and traditional industry, including the biggest steel producing plant in Poland, as well as metallurgy, mining, and coal installations.According to Magdalena Mike, who is in charge of collaboration with non-government organizations in the mayor’s office, there are 323 civil society organizations (CSOs) in Dąbrowa Górnicza, one-fifth of which deal with sports and physical culture. In general, the city is host to a diverse range of NGOs, such as volunteer fire brigades, farmers’ wives’ associations, as well as charity and aid organizations.
The Dąbrowska Initiative and its history
The history of the Dąbrowska Initiative (pol. Inicjatywa Dąbrowska) began in 2001. That year, the Green Zagłębie (pol. Zielone Zagłębie) association was founded by a group of 20-year old enthusiasts from Dąbrowa Górnicza. Some of them knew each other from high school, some from participation in the European Club of Zagłębie. Since the very beginning, the association has focused on integration and development of the local community. The early 2000s were also the time of Poland’s accession to the European Union, and European integration was one of the association’s priorities. At the time, its activists organized debates and summer camps for young people, for which they obtained funds from the EU.
Soon after, Green Zagłębie became an active organization aimed at strengthening Polish civil society, and it thus joined the National Federation of Polish NGOs. Piotr Drygała, founder of Green Zagłębie, remembers this time as difficult “in terms of cooperation between local government and NGOs,” which he says was the general trend in Poland at the time. From 2001 to 2006, the association was involved in such projects as the “Academy of Democracy,” a series of debates for teenagers that included a get-out-the-vote campaign to promote participation in local government elections and a web portal for the CSO sector that encouraged people to join NGOs.
The year 2006 marked an important turn in the association’s history, after Zbigniew Podraza from the Democratic Left Alliance won the elections for mayor of Dąbrowa Górnicza. He replaced a mayor who had not been open to collaboration with CSOs, and members of Green Zagłębie sympathized with the Democratic Left Alliance and also knew Zbigniew Podraza personally. After taking office, the new mayor began to look for people to create a new team to manage the city. The local elections coincided with the graduation from university of the founding members of Green Zagłębie who were then looking for their first full-time jobs. Thus, Piotr Drygała and Marcin Bazylak decided to apply for positions in the municipality, to get into office and change the city from the inside.
For Piotr Drygała, it was clear that he would run for a job in the Department of Non-Governmental Organizations. As part of the research that he had carried out for his master thesis, he had analyzed the CSO sector in Dąbrowa Górnicza, investigating how the local government collaborates with non-governmental organizations. His thesis was fundamental for Green Zagłębie’s projects, for which it also received funding from the government’s “Citizens’ Initiative Fund.” This led to the establishment of the Dąbrowa Forum of NGOs (DFOP), which today brings together about 100 NGOs. “The forum prepared a proposal for regulations and a package of actions that was presented to the new mayor who accepted our proposal,” says Piotr Drygała. DFOP also prepared the “Program for the Development of Civil Society in Dąbrowa Górnicza in the years 2008-2013,” which was adopted by the city council. This was the basis on which the public-social partnership “Together for the City” was created. “It was thanks to the partnership that the Department of Non- Governmental Organizations was created in the municipality of Dąbrowa Górnicza in 2008,” recalls Drygała. He was hired as the director of the department, and soon after started to implement the program.
Another institution created through the partnership was the NGO Incubator of Social Entrepreneurship. The foundations were laid by Green Zagłębie, which ran a CSO incubator between 2009 and 2011. After the adoption of the second program for the 2013-2020 period, the incubator was transformed into the Civic Activity Center, a place where NGOs can receive advice in the field of civil society activities. It is a separate entity, based in another building than the rest of the municipal offices, which has gained national recognition: in 2015, Dąbrowa Górnicza received an award from the Polish president for the activities organized by the partnership. Another milestone for the association was the year 2018. In 2016, Green Zagłębie was transformed into the Dąbrowska Initiative. Two years later, the city’s then mayor, Zbigniew Podraza, announced that he would not be running again. For his successor, he proposed Marcin Bazylak, a member of the Dąbrowska Initiative and Deputy Mayor of Dąbrowa Górnicza from 2016 to 2018. Bazylak won the elections and then appointed Piotr Drygała, another founding member of Green Zagłębie, to be the official in charge of relations with civil society.
Today, the Dąbrowska Initiative has nearly 80 members, “the majority of whom are people with extensive experience, who have been working for the city for many years, who have developed many projects and who have been involved in creating the framework for social participation in the city,” says Jakub Leszczyński, President of the Dąbrowska Initiative. Among them there are municipal officials, but also businessmen, lawyers, academics, and journalists. “The main goal of the Dąbrowska Initiative has not changed: to continue to make our city a better place to live,” notes Leszczyński. “What has changed is our mode of organization: we work more as a think tank, we take part in meetings to discuss problems, and sometimes we offer solutions.” Due to this conflict of interest, the Dąbrowska Initiative does not apply for funding from the municipality or interfere in its work. Nevertheless, according to Leszczyński, it remains a complex and open association that works specifically with civil society in the field of urban development.
The “Factory Full of Life” project
“To fully understand the collaboration between NGOs and the local government in Dąbrowa Górnicza, it is crucial to know the history of the city,” states Piotr Drygała. Dąbrowa Górnicza developed together with the industries it hosts – the city grew its industry grew. In other words, industry determined the urbanization of the city, including the very center, where, among other businesses, a mine, a steel mill and the Defum machine tool factory were located. Due to this process, Dąbrowa Górnicza lacks a distinctive city center with characteristic functions.
From the very beginning, the members of the Dąbrowska Initiative were concerned with how to change the city and make it more livable. During one of their meetings, they came up with the idea to revitalize the old Defum machine tool factory and
to transform it into the new center of Dąbrowa Górnicza. “The members of the Dąbrowska Initiative began to present their proposals to the municipality and started to talk about it. This was partly done through people working for the municipality who supported this idea,” says Leszczyński. The city authorities accepted the project, and soon afterwards started to prepare business and financial plans for the revitalization. The result of the work was an “urban design project that aims to completely change the city center in a very modern, even modernist style, modeled on many Western cities,” notes Leszczyński. Importantly, the municipality consulted with the Dąbrowska Initiative and city residents about the project during all stages of its creation. Members of the Dąbrowska Initiative attended the meetings and, as Leszczyński says, “proposed the original idea for the Factory Full of Life (pol. Fabryka Pełna Życia) and conveyed what it was about.”
In the following stages of the work, other NGOs were also involved. Piotr Drygała sees the Factory Full of Life project as “an example of effective cooperation between the public sector and non-governmental organizations.” The consultation process was conducted together with local organizations, some of which were responsible for organizing workshops, debates, and meetings about the future of the city center. Magdalena Mike cites the example of the Civitas Association, which was responsible for meetings with young people and seniors. “We are very proud of all these collaborations,” says Drygała.
Right now, the revitalization is in the process of being implemented. The city council has established a company that is currently planning the first investments. “Tenders have been announced for catering services, for the opening of a local brewery. Buildings are being demolished. […] This is why the collaboration right now is somewhat more limited,” explains Leszczyński. It is worth noting, however, that a member of the Dąbrowska Initiative has been chosen to be the chairman of the board of the revitalization company. “He was the originator of the project. He has been living it for many years, he is 100% involved in it,” says Leszczyński. “The municipality chose him due to his business skills, but also for his previous involvement in the project,” he notes.
Positive and negative aspects of collaboration
The local government views the collaboration positively. For Magdalena Mike, the most important benefit of such collaboration is the possibility of reaching people who would not normally come into contact with the municipality and who do not like the municipal government as an institution. According to her, NGOs can “reach people whom the official can’t reach.” Another positive aspect is the organizational flexibility and the capacity for innovation of non-governmental organizations. “NGOs simply offer the support adequate to needs of people whose needs are being supported. They are innovative and flexible in their approach to problem solving, and they are often very willing to present innovative proposals to the local government.” By contrast, the local government is less flexible because its activities depend on administrative and legal procedures. As Leszczyński explains, “the implementation of each project takes the municipality a lot of time: it has to prepare the tender documentation and formalize it – these are requirements imposed by law. People often do not understand this and react negatively.” The time that needs to be invested can be reason for both the non-governmental organizations and the local government to withdraw from a collaboration. “Many officials feel that collaborations and carrying out public consultations significantly prolong the decision-making process and delay the implementation of actions,” argues Mike.
How to make it work?
“People. People are the worst and the best thing that happens during collaboration,” says Magdalena Mike. Both representatives of NGOs and of the local government agree that the most important thing during a collaboration is to trust each other and to maintain an attitude of openness. On the one hand, officials need to be open and “ready to introduce changes, not only on paper, but also in reality,” as Mike says. “NGOs should be given the opportunity to act; it is important to trust them, to bet on them,” notes Leszczyński. Piotr Drygała recalls his own experience of starting to work as an official when the former mayor gave him “a free hand. We could realize our vision of creating a real dialog between the city and the organizations without interference. We were able to introduce solutions of our choice – the mayor never interfered in our actions.” On the other hand, NGOs also need to be open to collaboration. “There must be some leaders and people from NGOs who are willing to get involved,” Mike says.
During the collaboration, close and personal contact between the two partners is important. “It is important to create a team that will be available to the NGOs at all times,” Leszczyński argues. According to him, this works well in Dąbrowa Górnicza, thanks to the existence of the Civic Activity Center. All the NGOs have to do is to “leave their offices, walk a few meters and knock on the door. The most important factors are direct, close contact, frequent meetings and face-to-face conversations,” Leszczyński continues. Magdalena Mike confirms these observations: “For many years, as the officials responsible for collaboration with NGOs, we worked from 8 am to 8 pm, 12 hours a day, of course on a shift basis. Employees are ready to come in on weekends and talk with the organizations. As an employer, we expect flexibility.” In Dąbrowa Górnicza, according to her, this has worked very well. This is also connected to the specific mode of recruitment: “There is not a single person in the department who was not previously involved in the work of an NGO or volunteering.” From this perspective, the best way for NGO members to effect change is to apply for jobs with the municipality and to successfully implement their ideas from the inside.