Case study 3
Influencing local government as a watchdog – exerting change, putting on pressure
To Know More, Kędzierzyn-Koźle; Civic City, Lubartów; Freedom Foundation, Lublin & Kalisz Urban Initiative, Kalisz
Kamil Nowak | Head of To Know More, Kędzierzyn Koźle
Anna Gryta and Elżbieta Wąs | Heads of Civic City, Lubartów
Krzysztof Kowalik and Krzysztof Jakubowski | Heads of the Freedom Foundation, Lublin
Piotr Choroś | Director of the Social Participation Office, Lublin municipality
Kalina Michocka | Kalisz City Initiative
“Our organization is always in opposition to power no matter what that power is, because it is a watchdog organization.”
Krzysztof Kowalik, Krzysztof Jakubowski, Freedom Foundation
“Our success was that we introduced certain topics to the public agenda, to the general circulation. Now nobody can dare disclose public information in Kalisz. […] There are a lot of officials who are not at the decision-making level, but their thinking changes and the office changes from the inside.”
Kalina Michocka, Kalisz Urban Initiative
“Our collaboration is less formal. Contact with councilors is constant, they contact the foundation and react to what the foundation does. This also happens via Facebook.”
Anna Gryta and Elżbieta Wąs, Civic City Lubartów
“We are very often invited by the officials to take part in consultations. They call us, email us. I suspect that officials do it because they are legally obliged to do so.”
Kamil Nowak, To Know More Foundation
Where the watchdogs are based
The four organizations we analyzed are located in various regions of Poland, which are characterized by a different history and economic situation. Among them are examples of organizations from a small town (Lubartów), a medium-sized city (Kędzierzyn-Koźle, Kalisz) and a big city (Lublin). While the economic situation in Kalisz and Kędzierzyn-Koźle is relatively good due to the strength of the local industries, the inhabitants of the Lublin Voivodeship are among the most at risk of poverty in Poland.
These organizations are unique in their respective cities and regions. As Kamil Nowak, leader of the To Know More Foundation, states, “there are no other watchdogs or monitoring organizations in the Opole region except for our foundation,” as most non-governmental activity focuses on “sports, culture or social care.” Kalina Michocka from the Kalisz Urban Initiative shares this opinion: “there are no activists besides the Kalisz Urban Initiative, which engages in open data and transparency in Kalisz.
How it started
The creation of watchdog organizations dates back to the 2010s. Most of them were established as a gesture of disagreement with munic- ipal policy. Their main goal was to publicize controversial decisions of the local authorities, and they postulated transparency across all city functions and open data. “The reason why we created our organization? Dissatisfaction and rebellion against what was happening,” note Anna Gryta and Elżbieta Wąs, leaders of Civic City Lubartów (pol. Miasto Obywatelskie). “Ten years ago, we started to fight against the sale of one of the city squares. A referendum was organized, and the square has not been sold until today,” according to the activists.
Kamil Nowak identifies the roots of his interest in social activity in the difficulties that he faced in his previous job. At that time, he worked as a journalist for a local newspaper. “There were problems in getting answers to questions and issues. I was discouraged and in 2011 I decided to set up a foundation.” As a result, one of the biggest projects of the To Know More Foundation (pol. Wiedzieć Więcej) has been analysis of the local press. “All newspapers in Kędzierzyn-Koźle are associated with the authorities,” as Nowak explains. “An exceptionally large part of public finances goes to the media. Therefore, no one objects to the local authorities,” he says. To expose this problem, the foundation publishes monitoring of the promotional expenses of the city of Kędzierzyn-Koźle.
Activists also disagreed with the authorities’ lack of interest in the voice of citizens when making key decisions. The Freedom Foundation (pol. Fundacja Wolności) was established in 2012 to support civic participation through participatory budgets and public consultations. “With time – quite quickly – the foundation started to focus on civic control. This turn resulted from the needs of city inhabitants,” explains Krzysztof Jakubowski, President of the foundation. Activ- ists started to monitor the local authorities, apply for access to public information, and answer to complaints submitted by city inhabitants. “We founded the Kalisz Urban Initiative (pol. Kaliska Inicjatywa Miejska) in 2011 because we wanted to have an impact on the direction of city development,” says Kalina Michocka. “We all worked as activists in Kalisz before, we just decided to formalize our work to be more effective.” The main goal of the association is to strengthen the dialog between local government and city in- habitants. “We never wanted to be an opposition to the local authorities, but a social partner that aims to talk to and cooperate with the local government,” as Michocka explains.
Today, each organization works with a small team. The To Know More foundation is represented by three mem- bers. Meanwhile, Gryta and Wąs are the only members of the Civic City, but when it comes to concrete actions, volunteers are also involved. The Kalisz Urban Initiative brings together around 10 people and relies on the vol- untary work of its members. The Freedom Foundation, in contrast, is supported by grants, which allows it to hire a four-person team. Activists from To Know More, Civic City, the Freedom Foundation and the Kalisz Urban Ini- tiative are all members of the Citizens Network Watchdog Poland. This network provides them with workshops, training, and legal advice. The Kalisz Urban Initiative is also part of the Urban Movements Congress.
We want to know how public money is spent
Since they were founded, these organizations are trying to bring to light examples of nepotism in city management, defend the right to information and ensure protection against abuses of power. One of their main objectives was the creation of an online public contract reg- istry for keeping track of all procurement activities conducted by the local government. In 2015, Civic City Lubartów sent a request to the mayor of Lubartów to create such a tool. “The foundation requested the creation of the register from the beginning of the mayor’s term in office, and this was his second term, so he had to go back four years and complete this information,” say Anna Gryta and Elżbieta Wąs. “The mayor approved our application, which was quite a sensation for such a small town.”
“The biggest success of the Freedom Foundation in Lublin is that a public contract registry was created. […] The Freedom Foundation oversaw the process. It was the main driver on this subject in the talks with the municipality,” remembers Piotr Choroś, Director of the Department of Social Participation in Lublin. In March 2014, the Freedom Foundation sent a request to the Lublin voivodeship marshal and to the mayor of Lublin to create a public contract registry. Soon after, the marshal answered and agreed to create such an online repository, while the mayor refused, citing the fact that there is no EU or national requirement for publishing the contracts.
Thanks to the activity of the foundation and media coverage, public opinion started to put pressure on the mayor. “Everybody started to ask: ‘does the mayor have anything to hide? Is there anything in these contracts that the mayor does not want to be public?’” Due to this pressure, in the summer of 2014, the mayor announced that a public contract registry would be created in Lublin. “By that time there were some fields in which the Freedom Foundation proposed something that was later part of the discussion within the municipal government, and then some of these ideas came to fruition,” notes Piotr Choroś.
To fulfill the principle of transparency, citizens should have universal access to information on the activities of public bodies. Not only should it be public, but the information should also be provided in a clear and understandable format. This is why the organizations that are involved in these projects aim to present the data in an accessible way. For example, the Freedom Foundation created a visualization of the city’s budget, showing where the money is going, where it comes from and what it is spent on.
The Kalisz Urban Initiative also tried to talk about municipal finances in a language that would be understood by citizens. It completed two editions of a project called “Social Analysis of the Budget,” the first in 2013-2014, and the second in 2014-2015. “The idea came from an organization in Amsterdam dealing with the transmission of knowledge from the Global South to the Global North. They taught us how to run this type of service. We even went to Amsterdam for special meetings,” Kalina Michocka recalls. “We got a grant for this service and we wanted to implement it in Kalisz.”
The activists initiated collaborations with officials and started to meet with them, to discuss the issues and to acquire knowledge about the budget. “This cooperation was close and the work intensive,” says Michocka. During this process, they organized open meetings and invited experts; Watchdog Poland carried out a training for city officials on access to public information. Together with the officials, the activists drafted various documents, such as regulations for public consultations. “We gave them prepared solutions. Unfortunately, there was no real political will and most of the documents were never used. […] This project required a lot of work, I was really involved in it, but the local government underestimated it. Although officials wanted change and they participated, there was no will on the part of the mayor,” Michocka says.
We want to control our representatives
Another topic raised by the organizations is civic access to public information about citizens’ representatives. They want to encourage people to exercise their right to vote and increase their knowledge about local councilors and political parties. To do that, some of the organizations collaborated with Association 61. Association 61 is a nationwide organization that is developing a web service called “I have a right to know,” which gathers and processes data on candidates in elections. The Kalisz Urban Initiative and Civic City were responsible for creating and implementing similar services in Kalisz and Lubartów. “We ran this service in the years 2014-2018,” says Kalina Michocka. “In doing so, we wanted to publicize the problem that council sessions were not recorded, and that councilors were not known to
the public.” Michocka considers the project a success of her association: “At the end of the previous term, the city of Kalisz created its e-session website. It is incredibly detailed, there is a lot of information, so we gave up running our own website. It is not needed anymore,” she concludes.
The Civic City foundation from Lubartów developed a similar website. “It all started in 2014 when we submitted a formal application for council voting records with names, so that people would know which councilor voted for which option,” explain Anna Gryta and Elżbieta Wąs. After negotiations with the local authorities, a compromise was reached. The local government decided to introduce audio and video recording of the city council sessions. “This enabled us to work on the service ‘I have a right to know,’” conclude Gryta and Wąs.
“We look at the activities of local councilors and it has a big effect,” say Krzysztof Jakubowski and Krzysztof Kowalik from the Freedom Foundation. “It motivates them. We don’t know if the quality of their actions is any better, but they certainly have become more active: they put their pictures on the internet, contact each other, they submit more questions and proposals, and care more about being present at sessions and voting,” according to the activists. In the future, the foundation is planning to run a website that will enable citizens to vote on matters before the city council. The Freedom Foundation has already received a grant for this project. “This project aims to increase citizen’s interest in what the local government does. On the other hand, maybe this application will be a form of exerting pressure on councilors. […] This would be a valuable indication for councilors on how to vote,” conclude Kowalik and Jakubowski.
Is there collaboration with the authorities?
There is no collaboration
“Our organization is always in opposition to power, no matter what that power is, because it is a watchdog organization,” argue Kowalik and Jakubowski from the Freedom Foundation. “On the one hand, the foundation acts as a watchdog, that is, it is concerned with everything related to transparency, openness, information, avoiding conflicts of interest or nepotism – the mission of the foundation is to monitor, publicize these matters, to lobby for change if there are any wrongdoings” The activists agree that as a watchdog, they cannot collaborate with the local government. The Director of the Department of Social Participation of Lublin, Piotr Choroś, expresses a similar opinion. “The Freedom Foundation is not an organization that cooperates with the municipality. They position themselves as an entity that does not cooperate with the municipality in a systemic sense, but as a watchdog organization that focuses on control,” he notes. “The Freedom Foundation as an organization is strict in this belief and it’s nice that such an entity works and does not mix these several roles.” In this point of view, watchdogs, by definition, should not collaborate with local government. Anna Gryta and Elżbieta Wąs state that when they started to talk with the local government, they “had doubts, because as a watchdog we should look at people’s hands. We feared that it would turn into a farce if the watchdog organization got along well with the authorities.” On the other hand, even if they want to collaborate, the local government may not be open to their proposals. “We are an organization that scrutinizes the authorities, we ask questions. Consequently, we are not liked […]. Other organizations prefer to keep quiet and simply take money from the local government,” explains Kamil Nowak of To Know More. “In the functioning of NGOs, reconciling the role of a substantive partner that works together with the municipality with that of a watchdog organization that examines the municipality’s activities, with whistleblowing if it notices that something is wrong as its main activity, it is very difficult, and maybe even impossible,” concludes Piotr Choroś.
Or is there?
Even though the activists see formal collaboration as a contradiction of the watchdog role of their organizations, they try to influence the local authorities in other ways. Activists take part in public consultations and provide advice to local government. For example, the Freedom Foundation was invited by the Department of Social Participation of Lublin to hold a workshop on open data for officials. “This proves that the municipality is sometimes interested in collaboration,” explains Krzysztof Jakubowski. “This could be seen as some form of cooperation, but we are not meeting, for example, to discuss ‘what to change in the civic budget.’ Nevertheless, representatives of the foundation come to consultative meetings and speak at them representing their point of view. Very often they come and record the meetings,“ notes Piotr Choroś.
According to Kamil Nowak, in Kędzierzyn-Koźle this kind of collaboration is the result of formal regulations. “We are very often invited by the officials to take part in consultations. They call us, email us. I suspect that the officials do it because they are legally obliged to do so,” says Kamil Nowak of To Know More. “We always take part in consultations. Unfortunately, this is where our collaboration ends,” he emphasizes. Anna Gryta and Elżbieta Wąs agree, noting that their “collaboration is less formal.” “We are in constant contact with the councilors, they contact the foundation and react to what the foundation does. This also happens via Facebook,” they explain. In fact, our interview was interrupted by a call from the chairman of the municipal council, who wanted to consult with the activists on a number of issues. “We want to recall the chairman in a referendum. But as you can see, despite that, it is possible to talk,” comment Gryta and Wąs. It could be argued that the less formal character of the cooperation stems from the fact that Lubartów is a small town (20,000 inhabitants). Collaborative relations may thus be less formalized and depend instead on informal interpersonal relationships.
Even if the collaboration is less formal, watchdogs are able to effect change and put pressure on the local government. “Our success was that we introduced certain topics to the public agenda, bringing them into general circulation,” as Kalina Michocka emphasizes. “Now nobody can dare to conceal public information in Kalisz. Thanks to our activity, the sessions of the city council are recorded and there are voting records that indicate how each councilor voted. There is a general awareness in Kalisz that the NGOs can work and that there are no other interests behind it, no business interests. […] There are many officials who are not at the decision-making level, but their thinking changes and the authorities change from the inside.” By exerting pressure, watchdogs can implement their strategic plans. They use transparency and control as tools to strengthen civil society, to increase the knowledge of citizens and to develop their competencies as partners involved in decision-making about their city. Watchdogs thus strive for permanent qualitative changes in the activities of public authorities, in the interests of citizens.