The most important challenges for 2018: local government elections and the change of the law on access to public information, and in the years to come – elections to the parliament as well as presidential elections. These make natural opportunities to take actions directed to politicians.
Elections to local governments – our priority is working with local communities. For years we have been traveling across the country trying to show people how they can exercise their right to information, which also seems to be a great tool to verify promises made by politicians during campaigns.
Amendments to the law on access to public information, this – depending how things will go – in unnecessary movement by the government or an attempt to limit freedoms. One way or another, the changes mean that people must be prepared and must know how they can use the new law and to look at how institutions work, and this is what we are getting ready for.
Parliamentary elections and presidential elections are good moments to discuss the transparency of political party finances, electoral funds and law making by the President. The latter is now virtually completely outside any social control and rules.
Whatever we do, we must also be aware of what happened in Poland during the actual change in the political system. The Constitutional Tribunal is not a center of control of the legislative power, the judiciary has also lost its independence, politicians talk about putting restrictions on the freedom of private media. Other ideas include limitations to organised activity of citizens, for instance by amending the law on public fundraising (fortunately, for now these ideas have been dropped). But this does not seem to be the end of changes. These phenomena, unfortunately, do not enjoy a widespread social resistance, although in the long run they will have an impact on the protection of rights. It is difficult sometimes to see the difference between the situation of imperfect protection of rights and the reality after new regulations are introduced. Even though this difference is essential, as before it was caused by imperfections of individuals, and now imperfections of the system, it is bound to take many years before the problem is noticed by citizens. We are still building civic consciousness and the only thing that can be done is to work out expectations for a good state together. Very little thought has so far been given to how Poland should look when it comes to caring for the rights and freedoms of individuals and the rule of law. And this is true on both the local and central level. Also people have not been given a voice often enough.
Objectives and expected results of the activities of Citizens Network Watchdog Poland for 2018-2020
Objective 1: Reduce the level of pathologies in the public domain within the areas we have identified.
Our main focus in the next 3 years will be on:
- On average, a 30% improvement in the transparency index for municipal and state – owned companies over a period of three years (a study to be carried out in 2018 and end of 2020 using a platform similar to http://firmy.transparency.sk/).
- Implementing a good practice, whereby councillors are banned from being hired by municipal companies and introducing open competition procedures for management board and supervisory board functions in 100 municipalities (to be evaluated on the basis of contact with persons involved in the project and on documentation provided by them).
- Increased accountability of HR and sponsorship policy in 20 richest state-owned companies (with 100% shares held by the state) – which involves publishing:
a. information on employees – CVs, seniority (years of employment), remuneration or possible severance pay,
b. information on the purchase of promotional services by companies,
c. information on subsidies/grants provided by companies – beneficiaries and amounts,
d. information on possible co-financing from the state budget.
(to be evaluated and documented by a team of people working on the project at the end of 2020).
- Ban to media ownership by self-governments and the lack of substitute pathologies in the form of other types of media or increase in expenditure on advertising, etc. (evaluation of effectiveness by means of re-surveying and feedback from citizens).
- Introduction of at least two recommendations presented by citizens to the public media (on the presentation of information on the use of airtime, selection of members to supervisory bodies or on responding to complaints). (evaluation of effectiveness by the team of people working on the project at the end of 2020).
- Uniform jurisprudence on the transparency of bonuses and publication of information on bonuses on websites in 100 municipalities and ministries (website evaluation and analysis carried out by lawyers).
- Transparency in payments to political party electoral funds during and before the campaign and a register of contracts and expenses in case of at least two parties (website evaluation and analysis carried out by lawyers).
- Changes in case law (currently unfavourable for citizens) on the access to information on e-mails and persons entering the Parliament, Senate, and Ministries. Transparency expert evaluations prepared for the president. Full disclosure of the process of developing new laws – disclosure of all documentation regarding three selected laws. (evaluation by lawyers)
Objective : 2 Raise awareness of citizens and organisation on how they can influence decisions and exercise law.
We want to have an impact, through our actions in the next three years, on:
- Greater awareness of the existence of the right to information so that 15% of the general public was aware of such right, 5% exercised it. Also making sure that the share of people under 24 in this group is at least 15% (we want to conduct a smaller public opinion poll at the end of 2018 or a wider one in 2019 – which would be conducted as part of a large international project).
- Increased interest in the right to information in 100 municipalities, in which we will identify the lowest involvement in this issue among local communities. We want 20% of enquires in all motions filed with these municipalities to be enquiries from “local” people, on “local issues”, including at least one enquiry concerning young people. Based on the data available at https://fedrowanie.siecobywatelska.pl/, in some communes, only 1 in 50 enquires filed with municipalities is from local citizens; in some this rate is – none, no “local” enquiry. We want to collect information about these municipalities and visit them. Being there we will try to increase people’s interest in public affairs.
- Assisting 200 people concluded in those 200 people seeking court resolution for their issues, in which at least 20 young people – people previously seeking advice with Citizens Network Watchdog Poland – high school students, students up to 25 and 20 organisations working for specific groups (using the information obtained during consultations by Citizens Network Watchdog Poland and contacts with people involved).
- Assisting in filing 100 motions/complaints under CAP/as petitions/local initiatives – by people seeking advice from Citizens Network Watchdog Poland. At least 10 of such motions to be filed by young people plus another 10 by organizations working for specific groups. (using the information obtained during consultations by Citizens Network Watchdog Poland and contacts with people involved).
Objective 3: Raising awareness of ethical and unethical or lawful and unlawful behaviour.
That is why in the next 3 years we will seek to:
- Initiate a public debate on issues resulting from our court cases. It is about access to information on remuneration, bonuses, decision making rationale (expert opinions, evaluations). Our success in this task will be marked by at least 10 actions taken by people other than us. We say “actions” and we mean litigations initiated, motions submitted, own monitoring. (analysis of media, social media and personal contacts).
- Undertake three successful interventions, leading to discontinuation of non-ethical activities. Introduction of ethical codes or other documents on procedures in such situations. (documentation from authorities)
- Win 10 cases in courts (such as regarding information on health, education, social assistance) with least 100 media mentions (our documentation of lawsuits, media monitoring, analysis by lawyers)
- Evaluate 10 new issues, worth solving in the coming years (our documentation form consultations by Citizens Network Watchdog Poland, telephones and visits, analysis by lawyers)
- “Initiate” the issue of hiring in higher education and on promotion channels. We will try to make sure that this issue will be permanently present in the public debate, we want to see more lawsuits appear and increased pressure for changes by young scientists (evaluation of cases in this field).
- Monitor judiciary authorities. We want those in power to be aware that whatever they do, it will be closely watched. Our objective is also to provide the public with reliable knowledge on the subject. (analysis of the response of media and social media to the information we provide, evaluation).
- Initiate a debate on police violence by filing motions and sharing information (quantitative and qualitative media analysis, evaluation).
To pursue our program, other tasks are included on an on-going basis, as our response to developments within the organisation, in Poland and in the world. Some of activities, not included in objectives, is building for the future. Setting program objectives is to choose what will be a more structured action at a given moment and which will not just a simple response to stimuli.
Further to that, we have distinguished several other groups who we plan to be the target of actions in the next three years.
- young people – around the age of 17-24 (graduates secondary schools, university students or people just entering the labour market, from smaller cities but not only);
- various social groups – business, parents, patients, officials, social organisations;
- people from large cities, often young people, not strongly interested in politics;
- civic organizations from smaller towns, working with discriminated or vulnerable groups – the disabled, homeless, poor, women, sexual minorities, prisoners, patients, etc.;
- local journalists;
- young lawyers and scientists;
- politicians – all options, whom we want to convince that they must raise both the ethical and substantive level of their activities;
- judges – who safeguard the law. We want to convince them to look at the “big picture”, human rights and the constitution.
Description of planned activities
Activities to involved local activists – usually from small towns. This group may use our online legal assistance on on-site training, conducted in their local communities. All interested activists who want to act are encouraged to review our online tutorials: “Watchdog guide”, guidebook ”Rights are there to be used” as well as info-graphics that will steer then through meanders of the right to information.
Transparency of municipal and state enterprises
Municipal enterprises operate in virtually every major municipality. They provide water supply services, cleaning services, cheap construction services, public transport. Their legal nature is such that they belong to the commune head, mayor or president who may influence hiring policy. Who may secure jobs for party colleagues and coalition partners, as well as those councillors, who support them. They may even make municipal enterprises sponsor events, when a mayor’s office may not do it legally. On the other hand, any enterprises in the red get financing from local authorities. Transparency of these institutions is the only way to reduce the most pathological phenomena and a factor preventing spoiling local public life.
We seek to implement an online monitoring of transparency of companies. We need to divide our struggle for change into several stages. We will start by checking what data on enterprises are made available on the Internet. And it’s about simple things like business reports, articles of association, managers, tenders, subsidies and sponsorship. These things will be evaluated by those with whom we are in touch on the Internet (from social media and our contact database). The issue will also be publicised by radio and local media. Following the example of the Slovak Transparency International, we will prepare a mechanism to assess companies and each person will be able to assess one, two, ten or even 100 companies. The result is a transparency ranking. Following the Slovak Transparency International we will prepare a mechanism to evaluate enterprises and everyone will be able to evaluate one, two, ten or even 100 enterprises. The expected result is a transparency ranking.
Our objective with this particular project involves:
- Attracting a lot of publicity to the issue and engaging people;
- Showing how enterprises that receive substantial grants from municipalities every year, are lacking transparency;
- Making sure that the issue is present during local electoral campaign;
- Initiating changes, discussed in the part on objectives and outcomes.
This initiative involving municipal enterprises is not the first one that we pursue. A few years back we ran a research, suggesting, that this issue is of great interest to residents: What bothers us in our municipalities. Then we went to sharing knowledge with local activists on how to monitor enterprises. At this stage of our activities, we expected the activists to thoroughly evaluate and enforce information in court. This gave us have an extensive and in-depth knowledge of the subject, however, such high expectations on getting involved in monitoring enterprises are really bearable for the strongest activists. We could see how our colleagues from Visegrad countries would go about monitoring and we decided that how they pursued had a greater impact. Especially Slovak example was impressive. The reason is access to comparable data on the whole country. This way, it will be easier to effectively communicate the essence of the problem, and that essence is – wasting public money and compromising confidence in institutions. Therefore, we decided to combine our method involving the engagement of local activists to run evaluations (in the case of the Slovak Transparency International, this work is done by students, who are paid for it, which adds no value in the form of civic engagement) and standardised analysis of data available on the Internet. In the following years, we will seek to work with some involved group on further information gathering in their municipalities.
The ranking will also include state owned enterprises.
Local government media
Apart from providing information and education, media must also control those with power. However, there is a large number of municipalities that have their own media, so obviously are not controlled by media they control. These “local government media” also unfair competitive advantage over independent media in attracting advertisers. It often happens that local governments share information only with their media. This pathology is one of those more painful ones in local democracy. The Ombudsman has been struggling for years to combat it.
What we can see however is that everyone got “used to” this situation. We must generate this energy for changes. It will start with collecting information on the number of local governments suffering from this pathology. https://fedrowanie.siecobywatelska.pl/ – our system for sending requests and disclosing responses will help achieve this. We will engage people to evaluate information and we will engage local media (independent media on municipal but also broader level) to write about the problem. We will keep pushing central authorities to introduce a ban on local governments having their own press titles. We will achieve this by running a research to obtain arguments in form of date on the number of such media on how they are run, i.e. whether this is a municipal enterprise or maybe an activity of cultural center etc.
Our goal in all this is to:
- Demonstrate the scale of the problem and how it effects democracy on a local level;
- Increase pressure on the government to make changes;
- Make sure that the issue will be present during local electoral campaign;
- Initiate changes, discussed in the part on objectives and outcomes.
What is worth adding here is that the issue of media independence is of a quite widespread interest, which is not provoked by us. Our actions in this respect were limited to supporting a debate organised in Świebodzin in November 2017 by Elżbieta Samsel-Czerniawska, a local journalist and editor of Świebodzin.TV, as well as an interview with Justyna Małycha, a journalist from Pabianice. It was enough for Radio TOK FM and Press monthly magazine to contact us and show interested in the issue, and at the end of 2017 no week would go by without someone calling us or writing to us about it. So, we are convinced that now is a good time to dig deeper into the topic.
We also believe that local journalists should be supported. Having said that, we have plans to run training for journalists before the elections of 2018 and after the elections, to bring them to the subject, which is worth dealing with and to show the sources of information and legal instruments they can use.
School of watchdog initiatives
We will seek to run one or two edition of the School of watchdog initiatives within the next three years. It is is the only initiative of its kind for people involved who want to act, publish their newspapers, sometimes work within an organization, sometimes alone. They need knowledge and networking. The school combines elements of the science of law and communication. One edition is intended for a maximum of 20 participants. We are happy to see teams joining the school.
Ultimately, we will seek to provide small grants/donations to finance activities of local watchdogs. We would like to be able to give 10 grants each year, each of approximately PLN about 5 thousand. We will probably start with lower sums. It is planned as an activity dedicated to this group and will be financed with 1% tax allocation. Hence to a large extent, these plans will be successful if we succeed with our annual fund raising. We hope that our grants will go to beginner watchdogs, whose actions will then be appreciated by other donors. In theory it will be possible to receive co-financing from the Civic Initiatives Fund (public funds); Civic Fund (funds from 1% tax allocation distributed under competition procedure by the Foundation for Poland); and perhaps also from a fund that entrepreneurs may set up (to which we will encourage them).
Activities addressed to young people (searching a path)
What we do is an appealing offer to young people. The main reason for this is that we focus on objective and verified knowledge (as opposed to fake news more and more often noticed by young people) and we speak about the fact that the right to information is a human right – and that this right belongs to young people. We have been seeing more and more young people joining us since 2012. We would like to find a way to reach out to those young people who will not find us by themselves as they remain outside the range of our communications and they do not get involved in the activities of social organisations. In 2017 we established ties with Startowa Junior High School. Several of its students carried out a project on freedom of speech and information. At the end of the school year, during a picnic, the school ran a fund raise and granted us almost PLN 6 thousand. We also went to the Open’er Festival with a program for young people, which included many elements on the freedom of speech, and to Woodstock festival, in the tent of the Ombudsman. We are still looking for a way to attract large number of people to our activities in this area, so that a content-related message reaches as many young people as possible.
We have some ideas for communicating with young people. We would like to test all of them in the next year or two years. Knowing that young people are very active users of the Internet and mobile devices, we looking forward to use this communication channel as well. The group we predominantly have in mind is senior high school students and university students. We do not want to limit ourselves only to the metropolitan group, but if possible we would like to go to smaller towns as well. The forms of communication with young people that we are considering include:
- Pre-election presence on snapchat or Instagram (coverage) – through our accounts (better quality and visibility of the content), but also through intensified relations with other users (commenting, shared coverage, marking) and paid campaigns with influencers on Snapchat and Instagram ( cooperation based on recording snaps/coverage on topics important for the Web).
- Presence during festivals (Open’er and Woodstock)
- Meetings in senior high school classes (workshops) – drafting educational materials (lesson plans, debates, social projects for use at school).
- Dedicating the new edition of our campaign “We care for a better reality” to young people.
The most important and the most difficult task is to find issues that will interest young people and engage them in further actions.
Activities dedicated to social groups performing different roles (interest in their right to information)
These activities involve requesting information on issues that are related with problems faced by these groups. We do keep on looking for such topics. For now, one of such issues that we are focusing on is the Act on the re-use of public information (important for entrepreneurs), transparency of bonuses paid to governmental employees, doctors’ responsibility (for patients), functioning of regulations on pain management (for patients), food in kindergartens (for parents).
In this area, for the time being, we rely on convictions, intuitions, expert hints and signals that we receive. To be more effective we need research and analysis of the problems of these groups which they face in contacts with public institutions and good communication as well as cooperation and openness to problems raised by people.
We care for a better reality (encouraging those, who care for pleasant life, to act)
We believe that it is also worthwhile to work with a well-educated metropolitan group, having more free time, willing to set trends. We want to convince that group that engaging for communities is a value in itself. Over time, their life roles will change their expectations towards public institutions, the state and politicians. We want to them to start thinking about a good civic state early enough.
Research and testing of indicators of the use of rights
With the data we collect we can create profiles of one hundred towns with no or very little requests for information submitted by residents. Many reasons can be found for this situation and our activities in this respect are of a cognitive nature. We will test previous hypotheses on the combination of various factors – lack of requests, the lack of village fund, dependence of the commune council on the commune head, dependence of local organisations on the “grace of the commune”. By obtaining this knowledge, we will be able to look for solutions in the future.
Integrating within the environment od organisations to show what we can offer to each other
On 10 December 2017 (International Day of Human Rights) we went to Zagreb. Organisations there celebrate together. During the backstage meeting, the Croats and their Western partners shared their reflections, pointed to the fact that they managed to make human rights a political issue. What they meant by saying it is that different groups had realised that human rights were also their rights.
This tells us that also in Poland the time has come to commence a regular effort to change the way human rights are seen. And we think we could contribute to this process. In what we do we combine the local and metropolitan level and the issues we deal with unite everyone, regardless how much otherwise divided. We will start with a research that will help map initiatives on human rights problems and striving to improve situation of the groups of their recipients. Such research would enable evaluation of the needs of such organisations and their ideas on communicating needs. When the map is ready we might have a chance to attract interest of other organisations in further integrations of the organisations’ environment. We can help others when it comes to the right to information and a lot of organisations simply approach us seeking our support in this. However we are approached by those who seek assistance most actively. There is a whole lot of organisations that do not even realise that they support, in their activities, protection of human rights and that can rely on the law for solutions to their problems.
It looks like politicians do not care for people’s problems any more and must be made realise that they need to start listening. Therefore in this world of NGOs we must make sure that the interests of individual groups, whose rights are not respected, are clearly communicated. Similar postulates come from the Ombudsman.
Once the map of initiatives is ready we will start preparations for the meeting to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a large number of organisations will participate in the Human Rights Congress, organised by the Ombudsman), which would integrate all organisations.
In the future, we would like to enhance our communication on how the right to information affects the needs of individual groups and prepare an offer for other organisations, showing how we can help them. We hope that over time the cooperation will become more widespread.
Changes to act on access to public information
When dealing with the changes to the act we seek to:
- participate in the legislative process – if the draft law on transparency of public life, presented in 2017, is not abandoned, in 2018 it will probably go to the Parliament and speaking of its imperfection will become necessary. It limits transparency by introducing excessive regulation, which on the one hand is supposed to increase transparency, but as a result – due to lobbying by its opponents, this transparency gets more and more “trimmed”, and even some information, for no reason, is reserved for certain services.
- take advantage of the fact that public information and transparency is becoming more and more popular and run two campaigns. One would promote the notion that information matters (we have already prepared materials for the radio, the Internet), and the other one on requesting information (material for this one is also ready). Both campaigns would be concurrent with a report on what information is requested on the local level and that is important to people.
- replace educational materials on informacjapubliczna.org and prepare comments to the act;
- monitor the functioning of the act on transparency of public life – a lot of new regulations are to be introduced on the register of agreements concluded by public institutions, recording sessions of commune council meetings and posting on the Internet, etc.
Transparency of the judiciary andpublic media
We will also look at how the courts work, what information they provide, what has changed after the so-called “Reform.”
Activities of the National Media Council and the National Broadcasting Council . As the issue of media dependence is key for us at the local level, we also want to look at how public media work. We know from the past that TVP is reluctant to respond to requests for public information and that they have real problems in ensuring fair distribution of air time between parties in the pre-election period. Now we will pay special attention to NMC and NBC.
Apart from responding to current events, we will, of course, do what we always do, that is we will keep providing provide legal advice, conducting court cases and requesting for information of our interest (including police and university activities that are within the scope of our interest due to previous experience) .