Objectives of the Association
According to § 8 of the Statute, “The objective of the Association is to promote and protect freedom, human rights and civil liberties, as well as activities supporting the development of democracy, and to support monitoring and education activities, in particular those taken by members of the Association and individuals cooperating with them, aimed at increasing transparency and integrity of public life, such as:
1) promoting free access to public information;
2) promoting public asset management and public policy management that is effective, lawful, transparent and open to civil oversight;
3) providing technical and financial support to individuals and organisations in exercising civil oversight;
4) taking action to promote ethics in public life and anti-corruption activities.”
Data relating to the activities of the Association
The meeting of the General Assembly of Members (GAM) took place on 12 and 13 September 2020 in Warsaw. Due to the state of the epidemic, pursuant to art. 15zzh para. 1, in connection with amendments to the Accounting Act, the GAM could be held until 30 September 2020. Pursuant to art. 10 para. 1b and 1c, in conjunction with para. 1e of the Associations Act, the assembly was organised in a hybrid mode as a consequence of the declaration of the state of epidemic in Poland (Regulation of the Minister of Health of 20 March 2020 on the declaration of the state of epidemic in the Republic of Poland, provided for in the Act of 5 December 2008 on preventing and combating infections and diseases, Journal of Laws of 2020, item 1845).
The GAM had a reporting and electoral character. The composition of the Board, the Audit Committee and the Ethics Committee was completed. The composition of the Board had to be completed as a result of Bartosz Wilk’s resignation from his position. Marzena Błaszczyk became a new member of the Board. The composition of the Audit Committee was supplemented by Adam Dobrawy, as a result of Katarzyna Krześniak-Dęga’s resignation. The Ethics Committee was completed with two new members, Norbert Orłowski and Edyta Widawska, as two seats had been vacant since the 2019 GAM. In addition, the General Assembly of Members adopted the narrative and financial reports.
Brief summary of 2020 activities
In 2020, our operations were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and Polish presidential elections. The 2020 events broadened the scope of activities and topics covered.
We conducted our constant activities related to broadening openness – we filed information requests, we wrote texts, we went to courts.
Many of the requests were addressed to the government, state, local government and health services and concerned the pandemic. We also dealt with the Polish presidential election due to problems in its organisation.
On the other hand, because the administrative courts operated on a limited basis for several months, we had fewer cases in these courts.
We strengthened our voice in public debate and our collaboration with other organisations, provided education and conducted activities online through webinars and campaigns at https://sprawdzamyjakjest.pl/
Our activities in numbers were as follows:
- 9,528 is the total number of public information requests we sent out. It is the highest number in our entire history, twice as many as in our record-breaking 2018. This number largely depends on letters to municipalities (there are almost 2,500 of them), which we serially asked as many as three times. In addition, we serially asked hospitals, forest inspectorates and the editors of newspapers run by local governments. That means a few hundred entities each time.
- Hidden in the number of all requests is the number 373. It is the number of individual requests to single institutions we sent out in 2020. This is a 15% increase over 2019.
- 1,200 – this is how many cases we received at our free legal clinic. This is up 32% from 2019. Another few hundred are telephone tips not counted by any system, though they were less frequent in 2020 due to the pandemic.
- 55 – this is the number of court hearings in the cases we were involved in. This is two-thirds fewer than in 2019. The reason for such a large drop was that hearings were cancelled by the courts due to the pandemic.
- 194 is the number of texts that appeared on our websites. That is almost 1/3 more than in 2018 and 2019.
- 33 is the number of webinars we hosted as part of our ongoing civic education efforts and in conjunction with the COVID-19 pandemic and the Polish presidential election
- 1,000 is the number of people who attended the webinars
- 309 is the number of press mentions about us in the media
- 300 is the number of people who got involved in document analysis on sprawdzamyjakjest.pl
- 25 is the number of positions and statements in the public debate
Description of activities
Results of selected court cases
Admittedly, in 2020 there were far fewer court decisions in our cases than in the preceding years, but we had some important victories.
In June 2020, a case over access to information about who the Forestry Inspectorate in Białowieża district sells wood to ended. As a result of our win in court, the Forestry Inspectorate provided us with full information. The case began at the beginning of 2016, when, on the wave of media reports about increased logging in the Białowieża Forest, we submitted a request for access to information about the entities with which, over the preceding 6 years, the Forestry Inspectorate had concluded contracts for the sale of timber. The Forest Inspectorate did not want to release detailed information citing business secrecy.
In May 2020, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled in our favour on access to questions from medical exams that have already taken place, removing barriers in this respect. Back in 2016, the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that there was no reason to restrict access to information on past exams. Meanwhile, MPs, moments after the ruling, introduced a 5-year barrier to the access to the exams. The Supreme Administrative Court found this to be a so-called manifest unconstitutionality, applied the Constitution directly and ignored the unconstitutional provisions.
We were also able to obtain a court ruling stating that firefighter disciplinary rulings are public information and obtain a specific ruling that the family of a firefighter who died while practising in their unit was waiting for. The ruling was about those guilty of the tragedy who broke procedures and then tried to cover up the case. With access to information, the family was able to not only ascertain what had happened, but also recognise untrue information and seek justice.
Thanks to the use of art. 23 of the Act on access to public information, which provides for a criminal sanction for withholding public information, we managed to encourage the Polish National Foundation, whose budget comes from state-owned companies, to present the expenses related to the “Safe and Innovative Poland” campaign. Our request resulted from media information concerning articles in foreign newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and The Washington Post, which were paid advertisements, whose authors included President Andrzej Duda and Minister of Culture and National Heritage Piotr Gliński. Thanks to our actions, Polish taxpayers can verify that each of these articles cost between 100 and 170 thousand US dollars. The Foundation initially said it was unsure whether it was an entity required to respond. By skilfully using the law, we reassured the Foundation that this was the case, and the Foundation provided detailed information on its website.
In 2020, we also dealt with the subject of transferring data from the voter registers to the Polish Post Office. It is one of the legal abuses that occurred when the presidential election was held during the pandemic. First, on 6 April 2020, the Polish parliament passed a law regulating how the election on 10 May 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, was to be organised. The law stipulated that the election would be conducted entirely by mail and the designated operator (the Polish Post Office) would be responsible for the delivery of the ballots to voters and election commissions. However, the Senate played an important role in the whole legislative procedure, as it has one month to consider the bill submitted by the Sejm and to propose amendments to it. The government realised that if the Senate proceeded with the bill, it could go into effect just two days before the election. The government should, therefore, be preparing elections in the traditional form as there was no possibility of organising postal election on 10 May 2020. However, traditional election was not an option.
And this is where the action without legal basis began. On 16 April 2020, the Prime Minister ordered the Polish Post Office to organise postal elections. The basis for issuing this order, as it was later explained (it does not appear so from the decision) was to be art. 99 of yet another law, dated 16 April 2020, on special support instruments in connection with the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The problem is that on 16 April 2020, there was no legal way to hold a fully mail-in election. Nonetheless, on 22 April 2020, the Polish Post Office demanded that mayors hand over their voter registers. It cited the described decision of the Prime Minister as its legal basis. Social organisations warned local government officials that there was no basis for handing over the data. However, about 15% of mayors chose to do so. We filed notices of offence of abusing power on these local government officials. However, the prosecutors were reluctant to initiate proceedings. In 2020 already, we were able to obtain several court orders that mandated investigations.
We conducted some monitoring related to our planned activities and the COVID-19 pandemic situation.
Throughout 2020, we filed 60 public information requests related to the pandemic. We received the requested information in 26 cases. This was not always a complete answer, sometimes part of the request was denied and a decision was issued. We received a total of 5 such decisions. In 30 cases we did not receive a response: the authorities claimed lack of knowledge or ignored our requests. A considerable problem was referring questions to other institutions (this happened in 11 cases), which also often did not have the requested information. Sometimes our request was endlessly thrown around – such ping-pong was often played between the Chancellery of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Health. Among other things, we asked about the details of the implementation of the National Vaccination Program, the details of the government’s cooperation with the Medical Council and the recommendations of experts to fight the second wave of the pandemic or the purchase of medical supplies and the ways of testing and counting COVID cases, as well as detailed ratios.
We also checked what instructions the voivodes gave to the municipalities in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic and how prepared hospitals were for the pandemic.
In connection with the election, we were interested, as usual, in the transparency of the financing of the election committees. We wanted to bring more openness to the election campaign. That transparency in this area needed to be improved had already been recommended by the OSCE in 2019: “To enhance the transparency of campaign financing, consideration should be given to requiring parties and coalitions to disclose private donations, and all electoral contestants to submit interim reports on income and expenditures, before election day”. However, this subject does not meet with the understanding and support of the committees and responsible institutions.
Together with the citizens involved in the analysis of documents on the sprawdzamyjakjest.pl portal, we also carried out a diagnosis of the involvement of residents and councillors in the debates on the state of the municipality reports. As it turned out, this was not the case in most municipalities. As a result of this diagnosis, together with a partner organisation – the Field of Dialogue Foundation – we undertook to find pilot ways of engaging residents in 15 municipalities.
We also issued a report on another monitoring carried out within the sprawdzamyjakjest.pl portal concerning the efficiency of the courts after the changes in the judiciary taking place since 2017. As we found out, these topics are difficult for citizens to understand. Many things were still not clear even after the monitoring. Meanwhile, the idea of taking up the subject was linked to increasing the public’s understanding of it. Therefore, as a result of the questions we and the people involved in the analyses asked ourselves, together with the INPRIS Foundation, we organised 4 webinars on the judiciary.
In addition, we issued a report on the campaign conducted on the sprawdzamyjakjest.pl platform even before the outbreak of the pandemic, which concerned food in hospitals. This topic was brought to our attention by physicians who said it was important in the treatment of patients, and access to public information is a tool for gathering information that can support the voice of professionals. However, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in new challenges for Polish health care system, so the issue of food was not properly debated in 2020.
Influencing the shape of the law
2020 began with a bill that would increase executive control over the judiciary. Judicial independence is an important instrument for defending the citizens’ rights. This is why we spoke up in the Senate during the debate on the bill.
In connection with the presidential election, together with other organisations, including the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, we asked about the candidates’ attitude towards art. 212 of the Criminal Code, concerning defamation, and advocated its decriminalisation.
Together with 119 organisations from the European Union, we also appealed to the EU institutions to prepare a directive protecting those who act in the public interest. We have pointed out that the European Union needs to respond to the phenomenon of lawsuits used to gag individuals and organisations holding those in power to account. The wielders in power include companies, public officials as individuals and other prominent figures who seek to silence, through lawsuits, those who speak in public interest. Typical defendants are those who exercise watchdog functions, such as journalists, activists, informal groups, academics, trade unions, media and social organisations. Such lawsuits are called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP).
Together with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, we appealed to the Ministry of Health, the Sanitary Inspectorate and hospital directors to respect the right to freedom of speech of medical personnel and to refrain from imposing excessive restrictions or drawing consequences against medics acting as whistleblowers in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.
We raised the issue of conditions for the legality of remote meetings and votes of municipal councils, issuing several legal opinions and conducting webinars.
We protested against the statutory impunity of power that the Sejm tried to introduce in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, the law was not passed due to the lack of a majority in the governing coalition.
We spoke on bills affecting transparency. One of them concerned the re-use of public sector information, and here we successfully averted the danger. Another one dealt with the transparency of experiments on animals.
We also engaged in efforts to elect a citizen candidate for Ombudsman, Zuzanna Rudzińska-Bluszcz, who was ultimately supported by over 1,200 social organisations. We handled the visibility of the organisations in the campaign and coordinated communication between the organisations. It was an attempt to protect the office of the Ombudsman.
We spoke out on the situation of the Belarusian people, who demanded free elections.
We ran the School of Watchdog Initiatives, which due to the pandemic was partly done remotely.
We conducted 33 webinars. Some of them were open and their topics included the judiciary, the village fund, the right to information, the local initiative, election protests, defamation and article 212 of the penal code. Some of them were directed at the participants of our projects – School of Watchdog Initiatives and municipalities participating in the project on the state of the municipality report.
Financing of actions (costs of actions in 2020)
SOURCES OF FINANCING FOR STATUTORY ACTIVITIES (COSTS IN 2020)
|Financed by citizens||Funded by grants|
|Donations from individuals, contributions, possible profit from business activities or court refunds – PLN 147,310.43 |
1% tax from taxpayers – PLN 470,260.09
Total amount: PLN 617,570.51 (43% of costs)
|The Stefan Batory Foundation – PLN 38,656.37 (for the School of Watchdog Initiatives and support for Our Ombudsman campaign)|
Open Society Foundations for Europe – PLN 156,323.91 (for the projects: “The state of the municipality report – another obligation or a tool for residents and authorities” and the Development of activities with citizens interested in obtaining reliable knowledge)
Sigrid Rausing Trust – PLN 580,370.05 (core support grant)
EU-Russia Civil Society Forum – PLN 23,166.87 (cooperation in support of civil society from Russia and Belarus)
Total amount: PLN 828,017.20 (57% of costs)
|The Stefan Batory Foundation – Project according to application no. 24890 – 24,687.15|| |
Support for coordination activities around the Our Ombudsman campaign – concerning the election of a public candidate for Ombudsman, in which Watchdog Poland collected signatures from organisations and led communication.
|The Stefan Batory Foundation – Project according to application no. 23732 – 13,969.22|| |
Part of the cost of the fifth edition of the School of Watchdog Initiatives. A training course for local watchdogs.
|Sigrid Rausing Trust 3-year contract 2018-2020 580,370.05|| |
Core support grant, used mainly to cover staff costs (75%) of the Citizens Network Watchdog Poland, part of the costs of the School of Watchdog Initiatives, costs associated with supporting the organisation’s sustainability and administrative costs.
|Open Society Initiative for Europe – grant number: OR2020-72662 42,618.70|| |
Costs of a partnership project with the Field of Dialogue Foundation and municipalities that seek to better implement a municipal discussion tool which the state of the municipality report is.
|Open Society Initiative for Europe – grant number: OR2019-60854 113,705.21|| |
Costs of development of the sprawdzamyjakjest.pl portal and of the implementation of the 5th School of Watchdog Initiatives
|1% contributions 470,260.09||Mainly court costs, staff costs, administrative costs.|
Information Society Development Foundation according to the agreement number 226/NTL/2018 29,500.00
|Costs of the technological development of sprawdzamyjakjest.pl|
EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, 5th edition – PARTNERSHIP AGREEMENT 23,166.87
|Internships for people from Russia and Belarus|
|Activities funded by own resources, membership fees, donations, reimbursements|| |
Promotion, management costs, minor management costs, legal advice, civil oversight, organisational cohesion
The proportions of statutory costs
|Types of actions|
|Communication, promotion, fundraising||17%|
|Legal consultancy costs||17%|
|Advocacy and programme activities||7%|
|Management and development||10%|
Litigation costs (8% of the budget) are the fees of the lawyers in the permanent legal team, the costs of court fees and reimbursements, and the costs of external attorneys.
Education (16% of the budget) is the cost of staff, experts, travel, food, accommodation, training rooms, training materials and webinar platform fees.
Communications, promotion, fundraising (17% of the budget) are the salaries of staff who run social media, the website, prepare newsletters, edit texts and prepare all communications for the organisation. In addition, the cost of advertisements and online promotion, flyers, gadgets, research, translations.
Citizen control (11% of the budget) are the costs of developing the sprawdzamyjakjest.pl portal and journeys related to on-site civil oversight (e.g. in municipalities)
Legal consultancy costs (17% of the budget) are the salaries of lawyers and the purchase of literature or access to on-line legal databases.
Advocacy and programme activities (7% of the budget) are mainly staff and travel expenses for attending parliamentary meetings.
Management and development (10% of the budget) are the costs of management personnel, costs associated with the development of the organisation and staff, e.g. access to utilities and training, costs of the General Assembly, Board meetings, regular travel, employment support – health and safety training and medical examinations.
Administration (14%) are the costs of administrative staff, maintaining IT infrastructure, accounting, office rental and co-working, printing and copying costs, telephones, security, office supplies and small equipment.
There is a reason why personnel costs appear in most of the types of activities described. Without the staff team, we would not be able to dedicate ourselves to contacting the courts, counselling, requesting information and analysing the responses we receive, writing texts, participating in discussions on social media and educating citizens. In 2020, stuff costs accounted for 67% of all of the Association’s operating costs. Our salaries and scopes of responsibilities are available in the Public Information Bulletin – Path: bip.siecobywatelska.pl – Majątek, zarządzanie, polityka organizacji – Jawne wynagrodzenia (Assets, management, organisation policy – Disclosed salaries)