#Watchdogs: Contract registers make it easier to control public spending

Interview with Adam Dobrawy, programmer, member of the Citizens Network Watchdog Poland.

Joanna Gucman-Muż: Adam, how did you find yourself in the Network?

During my high school years, I became interested in the government’s actions regarding power ups (drugs sold as legal products). The then prime minister, Donald Tusk, took action to protect children from them and a decision, which I found questionable, was issued in an organised manner. It allowed entering stores which sold power ups. No law was changed at that time, there was just this one spontaneous decision, which was binding on all sellers, although it was issued by the Chief Sanitary Inspectorate. The changes in legislation to regulate these issues came only after this decision. I wanted to understand how decisions and laws were made. I was trying to get to how these regulations had been created and how they were then implemented, but it was difficult. We wrote letters on this matter (myself and Borys Bura, who was writing his master’s thesis on power ups at the time), but we were brushed off. We wanted to create a website to document our work, but as the administration was obstructive, we had no successes to share on it. We gave up, and I contacted Watchdog because I wanted to donate the web domain to the organisation. And so from word to word I started a closer cooperation with the Association.

Did you exercise your right to information by then?

I heard there was one, but my attempts to use it weren’t very effective because the administration dismissed us. It wasn’t until I worked with Watchdog for some time that I became proficient at contacting the administration to actually get the information I wanted. 

I contacted Watchdog about the domain name, and then started working and helping the organisation with IT issues as a volunteer. I was doing IT-related things while gaining knowledge about the right to information.

And when and how did you come to become a member of the Network?

It wasn’t a short road. I remember that I was recommended by two other Watchdog members, Zenon Michajłowski and Przemysław Żak, but at least two years passed from that time to the moment I actually joined the Association formally. During that time I attended General Assemblies of Members meetings as a guest, came to various meetings of the organisation, came to the Watchdog office as a volunteer, but it wasn’t until 2 years later that I decided I was worthy of joining the Association. I had no doubts about whether it was worth joining, but whether I was the right person to make decisions about the Association.

So how many years have you been in Watchdog?

I’m not sure exactly how long I’ve been a member, but I think we’ve been working together for about 8 years.

And you started this collaboration when you were still in high school?

Yes, before I turned 18.

So you were already exercising your right to information before you were 18?

I drafted requests, but did not send them out myself. I saw legal doubts and now, years later, especially after Tymon’s case [Tymon Radzik – editor’s note], I regret that I did not decide to demonstrate and prove that as a minor I have the right to information. At the time it kept me from sending out requests myself, but after turning 18, I started exercising my right to know intensely. I analysed documents from prosecutors’ offices across the country to examine how the right to information functions in these institutions. My computer skills helped me, but the postman in my hometown also got to know me very well.

But prosecutors’ offices weren’t the only topic you were interested in, right?

Back in my high school days, I noticed a theme that would later preoccupy me for years. It was records of contracts. I became interested in them after Piotr Waglowski asked the Sejm about some contracts and he was told that “a search query of the contracts shows..”. As a tech person, I could see that since there was some search query done, that means there is some computer system that contains records of contracts, so why only release part of the information instead of all of it? This prompted me to check what it looked like in all ministries at that time – how the register of contracts was kept, what data it contained. I believe that every citizen should have access to such data. If this data is kept in IT systems, it can be easily published. That’s my future building of sorts, because if we do it now, when these IT systems are being put in place, it’s not going to be something new and difficult in the future. It is easier to introduce such solutions when the systems are designed and implemented. The documents are published, no additional IT or clerical work, or constant verification is required. This is cheaper and more efficient than providing access on request.

Unfortunately, it turned out that not all ministries were willing to provide such data. Back in high school, I had to go to court with half of the Council of Ministers and become proficient at that as well. It was very valuable that the Association supported me in the court cases, both by providing legal aid and by paying for them. These cases went on for many years. Some were no longer relevant because ministries changed, and in some, I was able to get the records. This was important because if they were made available to me, there was nothing to prevent ministries from publishing them on their own initiative, which I then encouraged them to do by sending petitions. It was only a matter of will to publish this data on the ministries’ websites, and at one time the Ministry of Energy or the Ministry of Digitalisation managed to do so, and the Minister of Digitalisation itself encouraged other institutions to do it, although to no avail. But I was engaged to document this process, to write down how others could act so that such records of contracts were published.

You prepared a manual?

Yes, I did. I prepared a 3-step procedure, which I described in detail on my blog www.ochrona.jawne.info.pl, and people started to use it. I also gave interviews, and my cases occasionally appeared in the media, so there was pressure to publish such registers. I supported, inspired, encouraged, wrote letters to residents, councillors, activists who took this idea to their own municipalities. This was often their first contact with the right to information.

Do you know how many such contract registers have been published thanks to your instruction?

I have not counted my individual wins in this field, but over a thousand such contract registers have been published in Poland. How many of them thanks to my initiative? I don’t know, but they include small records of schools and cities as well as records of institutions such as – after my petitions – the Office of the Ombudsman and the Supreme Court. I was trying to get people widely involved. Surely, were it not for the energy and time I put into this initiative, there would be far fewer such registers published.

And what are you doing now on transparency issues?

I’ve started to work on the publication of the register of contracts of the Military Counterintelligence Service. For almost a year now, the Military Counterintelligence Service has been systematically receiving monthly requests for public information, but all responses are negative, despite favourable judgements. However, I will continue to work until I can get the Military Counterintelligence Service to publish information about the contracts that are being made. Every public institution should publish information about its expenditures.

Why do you have such a need to act in the public interest?

I have always been interested in information and its dissemination. I’m interested in computer science and I can see how it’s important in making such data easily shareable. 

Consequently, it will be easier to control expenditures, to assess the activities of public institutions in the field of concluded contracts. If we ensure that the expenditures are public, there is a greater chance that in the future we will not complain about the lack of work due to the fact that we do not have connections. Transparency increases equality of access to work, the possibility of carrying out orders or services.

What do you wish the Network for its 18th birthday?

Lots of transparency and stable case-law, which has changed a bit in the last 10 years and there are sometimes quite different rulings in similar cases.

Thank you for the interview.


This interview was prepared within a series presenting activities of the members of Citizens Network Watchdog Poland on its 18th anniversary.

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