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Poland – Country Chapter


Municipal decision making

Country chapter

Transparency and accessibility of local councils’ sittings

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 drastically transformed local politics in Poland. In addition to being burdened with extra tasks, despite lacking or insufficient resources, local governments were forced to operate under conditions of social distancing and ever-present risk of infection. Local councils started to conduct meetings online or heavily restrict public access to the sittings (or both), despite the fact that access to the sittings of elected bodies is a constitutional right, and at the time there was no legal basis for such a restriction. Even after the government stepped in and introduced a proper bill, doubts about its constitutionality and application remained.

To analyse this problem, we reviewed legal changes, regarding the functioning of local government during the pandemic, and researched media reporting on transparency problems of local government units. We conducted 7 interviews with local government officials, experts, and local activists, seeking their perspectives on local government problems with transparency. We also conducted 3 case studies on local communes in different parts of Poland with different budgets, to highlight how they are affected by those problems.

As a result of the analysis, we came up with recommendations on how to conduct sittings safely, but without infringing on the right to information – for example, but providing information on how to access the sittings beforehand, if its conducted in online mode; using software that allows both presences of public, and opportunity of speaking up by them. We also recommended including the council in the decision on whether to conduct the sittings traditionally or online and public accessibility of committees’ sittings. 

Workshop and broader picture

As Citizens Network Watchdog Poland, our main interest is transparency and access to information. Hence, even before being involved in the project, we analysed the public response to COVID with regard to the right to information and its effect on it. At the beginning of the pandemic, we published an analysis on the admissibility of the ban on the entrance to council sittings – in our view, limitation of this kind is illegal unless the emergency state is introduced; we also pointed out, that at that stage (March 2020) there were no regulations on conducting sittings online. We also criticised provisions regulating online sittings, both their legality and their negative impact on the transparency of local government, in our articles.

On July 26th, we organised an online workshop regarding our recommendations – we wanted to discuss them with local stakeholders and improve them with their feedback. We invited local activists and local government officials to the meeting; among them were representatives of the Association of Polish Counties and Rural Communes Association.

We presented our findings: first chronological changes in the pandemic situation and legal changes that followed, and then our recommendations, based on the research. Then we discussed the findings in groups and allowed our guests to provide suggestions on their own. Feedback on our recommendations was varied, and while some participants agreed with our recommendations, they also added several suggestions of their own. For example, to legally ensure access to documents used by commune councils (which we did not include). They also noted that regulating the matters on the statutory level is risky because statutes can be easily changed, while, on the other hand, even the best law does not change anything, if it is not enforced. One of the most interesting  problems we discussed was the issue of protests – how to exercise the right to protest while the session is conducted in online mode? As one of the participants noted, even the best law can be left unenforced, rendering it useless, which highlights the importance of good practices. 

Overall, the workshop made us aware of the blindspots in our analysis and forced us to revise our recommendations.

Representatives of local governments and civil society as participants of the online workshop organised by Citizens Network Watchdog Poland in July 2022

Our work fits into a broader set of changes. In the Autumn of 2022, the government amended the law regarding online sittings, and moved the power to decide the mode of sittings from the chairman to the council itself, a welcome change, as we have advocated for this. 

We still work to broaden our perspective about the impact of the pandemic on local government, and we have sent out new requests for information on the mode of the sittings, and we involved the citizens in analysing the answers. We intend to publish our full report on commune council sittings during and after the COVID pandemic, with revised recommendations, after we analyse our findings. 

However, just as the pandemic seemed to have been brought under control, a new wave of crisis started with the Russian aggression on Ukraine in February 2022, resulting in a new refugee crisis. Insight into the functioning of local government in the time of crisis, is as important as ever.