They came from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Belarus to discuss how citizens can influence the decision making. They were curious how Poles use their rights, how the rights are guaranteed in laws and how citizens take stands on public issues.
Why do we call them “Rebels”? After all, they wanted to know how to act in accordance with the laws! However, as it turned out, in order to realize citizens’ rights in local Poland, sometimes it is necessary to be a “Rebel”. And besides … they are part of the REBEL (REinforcing direct democracy in BELarus) project. It is a project of sharing experiences with Belarus by Visegrad countries. Locally in Belarus – as everywhere else – the inhabitants defend their neighborhoods, urban greenery or common places (examples of petitions).
We visited organizations in three places and each time we felt like swelling with pride. Because the people were amazing. As one of the “Rebels” – Ondřej Cakl of Czech Transparency International – said:
Looking at them, I thought I would love to act with these people. With each and every one of them
Who was visited? In Warsaw we started from the organization Miasto jest Nasze (MJN, The City is Ours). We met Maciej Czapliński there. He told us on the organization’s activities, among which limiting car traffic in the city, creating a map of craftsmen in the Warsaw districts and the map of re-privatization raised the highest interest. With satisfaction we have noticed that although MJN is harshly criticizing the authorities of Warsaw, it is based in the city premises. This is a great achievement of democracy when the power does not go to limiting its critics resources. After all, the authorities are entrusted with administrating public assets and they should know that they are obliged to follow the procedures. But it is not always the case….The more happy we are when we see that things go as they should.
In Warsaw we also met Anna Petroff-Skiba and Katarzyna Domańska from the Center of Social Communication in the city hall. It was very interesting to listen on how officials and residents learned social consultations. On the other hand, our foreign guests were skeptical as regards the participatory budget. They expressed several points that we often raise and cannot find partners to talk. For example, they asked what is going on with the rest of the local budget (PB amounts around 1%) and how residents can influence the remaining 99%. For them, it was especially astonishing that the civic budget financed things that should have been done by local authorities anyway, as part of their normal work – such as park benches.
Then we went to Wielkopolska. There we met in the Nekla urban-rural municipality with Hanna Mamzer from Czysta Nekla (Clean Nekla).
As one of the interests of our group was the referendum, we asked about it. At the end of 2016, a referendum was held in Nekla on the purchase of the mansion from the heirs of the Żółtowski family. Beautiful but somewhat neglected property. Two local organizations, including Clean Nekla, campaigned to encourage residents to take part in the referendum and vote for YES. And they succeeded.
We also started discussion on values and ethical standards – on the quality of governance, on standards that local authorities should meet and whether or not new settlers coming from cities to villages have the right to change local political culture. We – Watchdog Poland – in turn once again felt that even where there is an open conflict of power with the inhabitants, basic procedures work and organization operate without difficulty using the facilities of the municipal cultural center.
As Watchdog Poland, we also learned on the important thing of which we were not fully aware. Even small grants on the level of PLN 1000 to 1500 PLN (EUR 250-350) do matter for such local activities. For a long time we have been thinking of allocating a some amount of money raised each year from citizens to small grants scheme, but we have never received so convincing information that it does make sense. We will be working on this in the future.
Finally we went to Kalisz. There we met with representatives of the city hall, the city council and Kaliska Inicjatywa Miejska (KIM, Kalisz Urban Initiative).
We were hosted by five members of KIM! It was very nice to see how they were arguing, having different opinions on several issues and how aware were their choices regarding the most effective activities enhancing quality of governance in the city.
Thanks to the fact that we had talked about the civic budget (participatory budget) with Piotr Cieślak in the City Hall, we knew quite a bit about the design of this tool in Kalisz. Therefore, when listening to the KIM’s activists we were able to put their critical opinions in the context. When asked how to improve the civic budget, the activists talked about the need for meeting and discussions of residents and real learning on how to prepare a budget for a given project. Now, as activists claimed, everything is based on on-line or in-person voting and presenting projects as in a beauty contest. There was even a voice that it is better to stop doing participatory budget in Kalisz. And the justification was convincing – it is an illusion of decision making, it misleads people in their belief on having influence. It also causes situation when power feels free to forget about such tools as local initiative or budget requests.
On the other hand, we were interested in how KIM explains budget to inhabitants and how it informs residents about what the authorities do. Participants learned about the kalisz.mamprawowiedziec.pl, where everybody can find recordings from sessions of the council, bios of councilors, information about how they vote, and whether – apart from signing the attendance list (which is a precondition to be paid a per diem) – they were really present. The latter can be checked through looking at their votes. There has also been a problem raised that some councilors are not willing to share their email addresses with the public “because of privacy”. We will never understand why they are councilors with such an approach. Participants from Slovakia, who are working on similar issues, were impressed with how much data were available in machine-readable formats. Since KIM was too modest, we had to point out that it was the result of pressure from the organization.
Another tool for informing about the activities of the authorities was a new series of family films about what is going on in the city and what public institutions do – Ratusz Móvie. The series is the result of reflection on the form and subject, as well as the accumulated experience.
As regards our reflection on what is happening in Kalisz, we certainly have seen the lack of illusion in the eyes of activists. Three years ago, when we participated in the meeting on freedom of information, there was much more hope for developing the city together with the authorities. On the other hand, we were pleased seeing that the organization is persistent and has better and better ideas. They undergo a way that many of us have done.
Kalisz positively surprised us not only with KIM activities, but also with warm reception. The President of the City Council – Andrzej Plichta – explained to our participants how the local government operates in Poland. Then he spontaneously led us around the city. In the office of the Civic Budget, in turn, we saw an interesting way of informing the level of implementation of the ideas of the inhabitants.
The whole visit was quite short. Considering the need to move – very intense. But the participants thanked, saying that although initially they had doubts, the idea was a good one and the people they met were inspiring.
It was also surprisingly discovering and learning experience for us – Watchdog Poland. We were able to get to know initiatives known only from media and social media, as the City is Ours in Warsaw. We could go back to those people we know and see how they have changed. We were also able to see how our involvement in their affairs- even a small one – was and is important. It was also interesting to see how the issues of public consultation changed in Warsaw. We were interested in them almost 10 years ago, and we remember that the first attempts were very emotional. We also felt that we had partners for discussing the civic budget. An independent look on the part of outsiders. Most of all, we were motivated to continue working, because we once again saw what incredible people and organizations we have in Poland and how much them and us make a difference.
The meetings took place on 21 and 22 November 2017.
The visit was financed by the International Visegrad Fund.
It was part of the REBEL (REinforcing direct democracy in BELarus) project.
The leader of the project is : Transparency International – Czech Republic, and partners are: Transparency International – Hungary; Slovak Governance Institute, Smulkaus verslo dirbtuvė (Belarus) and Citizens Network Watchdog Polska
Author of the photos in the text – Ondřej Cakl.