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Locally Inquisitive

An egg cracked in Lubartów. Upon colliding with a window pane on Anna Gryta’s first floor. To warn her and her sister not to meddle in other people’s business.

A municipality near Warsaw issued another kind of warning to a probing resident. The postman served her with an ultimatum: either she ceases inspecting and criticising a local authority, or she will end up paying a fine of PLN 200,000.00.

Those, and few more stories describe the work of the representatives of watchdog organisations around Poland… Read about their experiences and work.

A yet another enquiring resident of a yet another municipality was followed by a police car, day after day, with great diligence and greater patience. To apprehend the enquiring citizen and check his ID. Just in case.

All these residents met in Pruszków near Warsaw, at a Watchdog Initiative Academy (Szkoła Inicjatyw Strażniczych) convention. Albeit over several dozen people attended and each brought their own story, they were all connected with a common experience of fear and loneliness – as there are few brave enough in small towns to keep an eye on local authorities; people engaging in citizen auditing are usually lone wolves, and are referred to as watchdogs. “They are very different, very ambitious, and very independent,” adds Katarzyna Batko-Tołuć of the Citizens Network Watchdog Poland. “They really need to meet, get trained, and support one another.”

Check the Purser, Check the Clerk, Check the Paymaster

“You don’t just wake up one fine day with this mad need to go out and start inspecting people. It usually takes an impulse to set it off,” explains Michał Stępniak from Fajsławice near Lublin. “In my case, it was all about plans to build a wind farm and power plant. The investment was to benefit farmers renting out windmill footprint land, including many local councillors. It was a loss for everyone else.” By pure chance, Stępniak discovered that – because of a so-called safe zone surrounding the structure – he would not be able to build a home on his own land. He took action, and effectively. The power plant was never built. He was left with a habit to rummage around in official papers.

Some time later, when checking out municipal documents (just in case), he encountered a list of residents whose taxes had been waived by the local mayor. He was surprised to find that names of truly needful people – the unemployed, the sick, the widowed – were mixed in with those of prosperous business people and other socialites. He posted the document on the web. A split second later, he became public enemy number one. Firstly, it turned out that half the locals knew about the case; secondly, they preferred to pretend they knew nothing; thirdly, people were convinced that by breaking his silence and a certain taboo, Stępniak is settling some private score, no reason for glory.

“I played it too harshly. People saw a hotbed for conflict rather than an act to the common good,” Stępniak sums up, “I failed to earn their support.”

Cold water – the resentment or indifference of locals – has been thrown on many a watchdog; and this is by far not the only source of watchdog frustration. While Polish watchdog traditions are more than a quarter of a century old, they encounter constant problems with their stability and scale as part of the local landscape. External obstacles are an issue: people in charge of many municipalities break out in a nervous rash at the very thought of being under someone’s scrutiny; local communities undermine the watchdogs’ good intentions; to local journalists, they are competition or pettifoggers. Furthermore, they aren’t maturing quickly enough as a group: though their individual competencies are indisputably expanding, knowledge exchange has been poor for years. Many watchdog “careers” have taken off with rather clumsy fumblings in the dark, the same omnipresent mistakes made over and over again.

“We have been supporting, training, and integrating watchdogs for years; yet only once we received PLN 2 million from the Citizens for Democracy programme could we actually tackle different issues in a more systemic manner,” Batko-Tołuć emphasises.

Thus, the WATCHDOG ACTIVITIES: Professional and Permanent in the Public Interest (STRAŻNICTWO profesjonalnie i trwale w interesie publicznym) programme, under way for nearly three years and operated jointly with the Helsinki Foundation of Human Rights, Homo Faber Association, and Court Watch Poland foundation, is more than an extensive training offer for watchdogs (such as the aforementioned Watchdog Initiative Academy); it comprises activities targeting the society, such as a nationwide watchdog awareness radio campaign, competitions for journalists focusing on watchdog-related themes, and activities addressing teachers, with the Centre for Citizenship Education as a partner., an open source repository of citizen watchdog activities, was another systemic-approach project component. The repository includes i.a. educational materials and multimedia training sessions, with an option to choose from versions appropriate for watchdog beginners or watchdog experts. The formula of service creation is unique as well: upon registration and verification, all content is posted by local watchdogs themselves. They publish activity descriptions, share good and bad experience, and submit monitoring reports.

Problems with the Superstructure

“As part of the Citizens for Democracy programme, we completed two monitoring evolutions: of participation (civic) budgets and of senior citizen policies in cities,” says Grzegorz Wójkowski of the Katowice-based Bona Fides Association.

Monitoring activities are organisation- or individual watchdog-handled attempts to produce credible snapshots of reality fragments referencing specific standards, to analyse findings, and – finally – to draw conclusions and offer recommendations.

Bona Fides researched the way of introducing and implementing participation budgets in 18 locations and municipalities of 9 voivodships. The monitoring report leaves no doubt: changes are a must. While the ideological base of providing local residents with the right to decide as to a part of the local government’s money is absolutely correct, the institutional superstructure and practice of project submission and selection are deeply flawed.

“Procedures (…) are largely based on competition (…). Diverse forms of community-level debating and reaching agreement as to priorities and individual tasks are an exception. And in cases where such proceedings have been applied (…) we find them to be sourced in cliques and coteries rather than communities (…). This is detrimental to true local impact (…)”, the report reads.

Authors further believe that the moment has come to ask the question as to whom participant budget beneficiaries should truly include, and what role civic budgets should play in local public life. The practice of recent years shows that in a vast percentage of municipalities, related funds are “appropriated” by communities of young, active residents familiar with modern technologies (such as social media), and that tasks earmarked for implementation relatively rarely respond to issues concerning the majority of local communities (i.e. education, healthcare, or public transport). They usually focus on such matters as the leisure time offer for groups forming a relatively low share of the overall resident population.

Other undesirable yet common phenomena include that of stretching rather tight budgets over institutions or organisations serving large communities, such as schools or parishes. Usually those with a high number of votes win, rivalry replacing dialogue.

The other report (concerning the monitoring of local policies for senior citizens) is another reason for concern. In numerous cities, senior citizen policies involve symbolic declarations or activities only. This would require change as well, and not least because the share of post-productive age citizens is growing in all communities.

“While our reports do tend to be critical, we are not in favour of anyone using them as a launching pad for an attack on authorities. The paper is to become a point of departure for constructive co-operation. Any other form of using it (for purposes of conflict-stirring, for example) would only serve to prove the complete lack of comprehension of the very idea of joint management,” Wójkowski says as a reminder. This is one of the reasons why nearly all of senior citizen policy monitoring, while co-ordinated by Bona Fides, was handled by seniors themselves, duly recruited at locations under scrutiny. “They are the ones living there on a daily basis; they will have the option of co-operating with authorities.”

The Force in the Detail, the Force of the Detail

It frequently happens that at first glance, monitoring takes place… and then it ends. It reveals no scandal; neither does it in any way stimulate the local public opinion. How, thus, does it make sense? – As opposed to strictly scientific research, a watchdog study modifies the status quo as well as describing it. Case in point: the monitoring of ten Lublin-based district councils by the Freedom Foundation. Monitoring tools included film footage of council sessions. “Initially, the opposition was tough. Councillors kept calling city guards to have our cameraman removed from the conference room. They attempted to resolve to the effect of proceeding in closed session,” recalls Krzysztof Jakubowski of the Freedom Foundation. After one year of filming – once the monitoring exercise was over – the camera became something absolutely obvious to the majority of local councillors; they actually wanted it there. Filming council session proceedings has become standard practice also for non-monitored district councils.

Monitoring efforts revealed a number of minor and major issues. It was found for example that local council Facebook profiles were used for purposes of councillors’ election campaigns; and that some social media sites (Facebook pages included) described individual councillors rather than councils – once a councillor lost an election and was not re-elected, he or she would actually decide to delete profiles formerly visited by residents. It was further found that councils lack annual operational plans, bulletin boards, and/or options to publish documents in the municipal Public Information Bulletin.

Lublin watchdogs have also emphasised the rather obscure role of councils in the overall municipal system. Today, their competencies are limited – both as decision-makers and as bodies issuing opinions concerning draft decisions made by the local or municipal councils. Report authors have offered a number of recommendations.

The imperfections found, especially if analysed in isolation, will be of no interest to journalists, no source of shock for public opinion, no cause for a prosecutor to take action. That, however, is not the point. Once they are collected in a report and submitted to local authorities, they can take remedy action jointly with the local community. Furthermore, Freedom Foundation research proves that approximately one-half of all Lublin residents had had no idea that district councils existed. The fact that this period of unintentional conspiracy is over will definitely also be conducive to good change. “Not to mention the fact that Lublin pays over three hundred thousand zlotys per annum for local councils and their operations, and it would really be great if that money brought more profit to the city and its residents,” Jakubowski concludes.

The sisters from Lubartów – Elżbieta Wąs and Anna Gryta – are well-known in their neighbourhood. They blocked the construction of a waste processing plant: the cumbersome facility was erected considerably further than its originally planned location along the town’s borderline. They stopped the sales of the local square, claiming that Lubartów only has the one and that “one does not sell family treasures.” Most recently – in 2015 – they pressed the local council to reveal all agreements signed and paid for from the public purse. Since 2014, they have also been responsible for managing the local (“I have the right to know”) site, an independent portal describing the work and initiatives of local councils and their executives. The site is supported by the Citizens for Democracy programme (

In the spring of 2016, they won the Your Vote, Your Choice (Masz Głos, Masz Wybór) statuette for the town, precisely for linking watchdog activities with keeping the local community informed, and for animating the activist-local authority co-operation. They travelled to Warsaw alone to collect it. No municipal or executive council member found time to accompany them – whereas local websites began insinuating that the sisters are doing all that for money (considerable, and from murky sources), and that at the end of the day, they are a cause for harm and damage. “I don’t care. I will go on working. Maybe eggs will finally be thrown at my windows as well, like they were at my sister’s. When only one sibling of the two is persecuted, the other feels frustrated…”, Elżbieta Wąs is ironic. “You know what I mean?”

I do.