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Case study 2: Providing expert knowledge from outside local government​


The end of the partnership model? Collaboration between non-governmental organizations and local governments

Case study 2

Providing expert knowledge from outside local government

Sustainable Development Workshop, Toruń & Fix Your City, Katowice


Krzysztof Ślebioda Head of the Sustainable Development Workshop, Toruń Sylwia Kowalska Head of the Time for Residents association, Toruń Paweł Wyszomirski Head of the Fix Your City Foundation, Katowice

Agnieszka Lis Responsible for collaboration with NGOs in the Katowice mayor’s office [written response]

“Collaboration with the city of Katowice didn’t work; it was a simple conclusion: ok, they don’t want us here, and we think we’re doing cool things, we’ll go do them somewhere else.”

Paweł Wyszomirski, Fix Your City Foundation

“We started to work outside Toruń, in municipalities where we weren’t treated as competitors, but as partners, and what mattered was our experience and competencies.”

Krzysztof Ślebioda, Sustainable Development Workshop

Toruń & Katowice

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Toruń and Katowice are economically well developed medium-sized cities. Toruń is located in north- central Poland is one of capitals of the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship, together with Bydgoszcz. Its population is less than 200,000. Katowice, meanwhile, is the capital of the Silesian Region in southern Poland. With a population of 290,000, it is one of the centers of the Upper Silesian Zagłębie Metropolis The mayor of Toruń, Michał Zaleski, has been in office since 2002. The mayor’s party forms an “exotic coalition” in the city council, as Krzysztof Ślebioda calls it, together with the Civic Platform, the Law and Justice Party and the Polish People’s Party. By contrast, the mayor of Katowice since 2014, Marcin Krupa, has the support of Law and Justice.

How it started

Katowice and Toruń are home to two non-governmental organizations that collaborate with various municipalities in Poland, but – due to communication problems – do not work with the municipalities in which they are located. The first of the two to be established was the Sustainable Development Workshop (SDW, pol. Pracownia Zrównoważonego Rozwoju), which was founded in 2007 by three friends from Toruń who wanted to stay and live in the city after graduating from university. Among them there was Krzysztof Ślebioda, currently the President of the foundation. “From the beginning, the idea was to promote sustainable development with an inclination towards environmental protection,” he recalls. Several years later, in 2010, the informal initiative “Fix Your City” (FYC, pol. Napraw Sobie Miasto) was established in Katowice. “It all started with an event that involved cleaning the train station,” notes Paweł Wyszomirski, the President of the foundation’s Board. “This action gave us the impetus to get to work.” The foundation was formally registered two years later.

Both initiatives are aimed at improving the quality of urban public spaces and enhancing social participation. “Soon after, we started to collaborate with the local government. We knew that if we want to change something, we have to cooperate,” explains Ślebioda. At that time, the activists organized debates, discussions, and educational campaigns. They worked in a three-person team, which later grew to 10 people. “At the beginning, the local government approved of our ideas, and the cooperation went very well,” Ślebioda recalls. “The municipality was open to collaboration and ready to work together.” Similarly, Wyszomirski argues that “the role of the Fix Your City foundation was to act as a mediator between what the local government says and what people want.”

Fix the City!

In Toruń, one of the first projects of the Sustainable Development Workshop implemented in collaboration with the local government was “Let’s fix it!” in 2012. SDW was one of the non-governmental organizations that worked on the implementation of “Fix Your Street” services in Poland. They wanted to launch a website in Toruń where citizens could report problems to the local authorities. The project was coordinated by the Warsaw-based Stocznia Foundation and financed by the Batory Foundation. SDW was responsible for contacts with the local government in Toruń, preparing the tool, and running the project for at least one year. At that time, the city of Toruń created a Department of Communication, which was open to collaboration with SDW. “This project was a challenge, but also a cool technological job for us and for the local government. The beginning was very, very promising” recalls Ślebioda. The team that was set up included representatives of SDW and city officials. “We met regularly, we launched a website with the approval and commitment of the local authorities. All this went very well and was met with an incredibly positive reception from city inhabitants.”

One year later, SDW activists were suddenly informed that the project would not be continued, after the director of the Department of Communication had changed. The new director decided to withdraw the city’s support for the tool. “We were informed that the city believes this service is a way for NGOs to highlight our errors to the local authorities,” notes Ślebioda. “The city did not extend the contract, claiming that it was working on an application that would be better than ours.” In so doing, the municipality excluded non- governmental organizations from the process. “Our work was wasted. From the point of view of collaboration, this project is a complete failure. We are still disappointed about it.” Finally, the city of Toruń created a new service about five to six years after the SDW project.

The Fix Your City Foundation has a similar story to tell. In 2015-2016, it implemented a project called “Miejska Szychta,” which was based on government funding and required collaboration with the municipality, with the aim of including citizens in urban governance. For three months, interdisciplinary groups of fifteen people worked on the project, carrying out social monitoring, making changes and testing solutions before the final implementation. Several initiatives were launched as part of this project, including:

  • “Gop Gear” – a race in which groups of competitors try to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, using cars, bicycles or various combinations of public transport and checking the quality of transport and communication on a given route. The biggest race took place in 2018, organized in partnership with the Upper Silesian-Zagłębie metropolis with the aim of showing the quality of public transport in the Silesian conurbation.
  • Open data in Katowice – a hackathon scheduled for 2016, based on data from the budget of the city of Katowice (2010-2016) and the Multiannual Financial Forecast, with a view to launching new services for citizens. The hackathon was never finalized, as the municipality of Katowice did not share the necessary data, but a series of meetings did take place.
  • #Cleanair – a social campaign for reducing air pollution in Katowice that included the collection of signatures for a citizens’ initiative to improve air quality during the 2016-2020 period.

The #cleanair campaign was a milestone in the collaboration between FYC and local government that involved different activists and politicians, representing both Law and Justice and the Civic Platform. However, the Civic Platform councilors were the first to publish photos from the campaign, “and the mayor was offended to death. They said they didn’t want to cooperate anymore because it is a political project,” says Wyszomirski.

“They do not want us here”

Figure 2. Logo of the Sustainable Development Workshop
Figure 3. Logo of the Fix Your City Foundation

“Collaboration with Katowice didn’t work, it was a simple conclusion: ok, they don’t want us here, and we think we’re doing cool things, we’ll go do them somewhere else,” Wyszomirski notes. After several unsuccessful joint projects, the Fix Your City Foundation decided to implement its ideas outside Katowice. “Our actions met with great enthusiasm in other cities,” he says. The Sustainable Development Workshop took a similar decision. “Around five years ago we decided not to cooperate with the Toruń municipality anymore,” explains Krzysztof Ślebioda. “Our projects and experience have gained national recognition – we were able to collaborate with other cities.”

The reasons for this failure are clear for both Wyszomirski and Ślebioda: the municipalities looked at them through the prism of politics. The local authorities feared that the NGOs were building a political force and would want to take power in the city by taking part in elections. Even though several officials liked their ideas and wanted to collaborate, the mayors were skeptical. The Sustainable Development Workshop suspects that it has been blacklisted by the municipality and is barred from joining any institutional form of collaboration with it. “We can’t join any formal body, even if we apply and try to get there. We just don’t get accepted,” says Ślebioda. The director of the Department of Social Communication and Information of Toruń refused to be interviewed to clarify this matter. It should be underlined that a similar feeling was also expressed by other NGOs interviewed for this study, which may stem from the specific political culture in Poland (see also the Country Chapter).

In Toruń, this fear was reinforced by the emergence of the urban movement “Time for Citizens.” In 2014, one of the leaders of SDW created a political movement and ran in the elections. Four people from Time for Citizens joined the 25-member city council. “Soon after, our foundation became associated with the political opposition.

This hindered collaboration and led to a number of decisions – for example, we decided not to use municipal funds any longer,” Ślebioda explains. After the elections, the Sustainable Development Workshop continued to collaborate with Time for Citizens. “Our activities coincided with those of SDW. We were partners, perhaps unnamed, but partners,” as Sylwia Kowalska, President of Time for Citizens, explains. “We felt that we support each other. For example, when we were in the city council, sometimes it was easier for us to get access to information, to act, to do something. SDW used this possibility. We were in symbiosis,” she adds. This affected the foundation’s relationship with the local government. “The municipality never understood that criticism is about instigating positive changes and remedying elements that are not working properly, and not about undermining them,” says Ślebioda.

Moreover, several times, the activists offered expertise and ideas that were then rejected by the local authorities. After some time, however, the municipality started to implement the same solutions while presenting them as its own projects. According to Ślebioda, this is how the local government in Toruń collaborates with non-governmental organizations: “NGOs provide some ideas for action, then the cooperation ends, and the same ideas are implemented by the city.” The situation is similar in Katowice. The Fix Your City activists approached the local authorities with the idea of organizing a joint conference on clean air, which was rejected. However, the same day when the proposed conference was scheduled to take place, the mayor organized a remarkably similar conference. “We did not like this type of cooperation, stealing ideas combined with a lack of real action,” notes Wyszomirski.


Collaboration outside the city of origin

This led both organization to the decision to start working in other cities than Toruń and Katowice, where “we weren’t treated as competitors, but as partners, and what mattered was our experience and competencies,” as Ślebioda explains. He adds that “it also feels a bit like a failure because we were created locally, and we wanted to develop Toruń. This is the place where we live, where our children go to school.” However, he argues, when the foundation is not treated as a political enemy, collaboration can go very well. SDW and FYC have been successful at implementing their projects in other municipalities, thanks to the expertise of their members and their experience in conducting consultations and participation processes. Both organizations have been able to provide expert knowledge outside their local municipalities due to their specific profiles and more general focus.

One examples of effective collaboration is “Space for Participation,” a governmental project led by several non-governmental organizations, including the Sustainable Development Workshop and the Fix Your City Foundation. The main topic is social participation and conducting public consultations on planning documents. As part of the project, the Sustainable Development Workshop started a cooperation with 26 municipalities from all over Poland, providing them with expert advice. The authorities were “coming in with an idea and money – we were the external experts who provide advice,” as Ślebioda says.

The Fix Your City Foundation gained national recognition due to its innovative project “Livable Street,” which focuses on urban prototyping and experimental urbanism. It uses small-scale, temporary interventions to start discussions about public space. While the initiative mostly took place on the streets, the prototyping was preceded by detailed research. So far, the foundation has implemented it in several cities in Poland, causing it to grow and to open a branch in Warsaw (in 2017). Livable Street eventually became sustainable enough to form a separate organization. Currently, FYC has 10 members. Its collaboration with the city of Katowice is formal: “The foundation rents an office from the municipality at a preferential rate for NGOs,” says Agnieszka Lis, who is in charge of NGO relations in the Katowice mayor’s office. “Although I do not have direct experience in collaboration with the foundation on specific projects, I had the opportunity to meet some of its members. These are people who are strongly involved in the activities they undertake, with the power to attract other citizens. […] I am glad that, like thousands of others, they are involved in the life of their local communities,” she says.

At present, the FYC activists have abandoned their urban activities and are thinking about changing their concept. In contrast, the Sustainable Development Workshop continues to work in a four-member team. Even if the COVID-19 pandemic has caused some disruption, they see space for future development. “Until now, we’ve worked with municipalities that claimed that online tools are useless – now their eyes have been opened: there is no other way, public discussions have to take place on Zoom, and it is possible,” notes Ślebioda.

How to make it work?

“It all depends on people,” says Krzysztof Ślebioda. According to him, it is important to begin the process with an analysis of the situation and agreement on who will be responsible for collaboration on the part of local government. The Fix Your City Foundation has already developed a special technique that it calls the “agent of change” strategy. It searches for such “agents” within the local government: a person who is progressive and open to collaboration. If they find such a person, they support him or her and enter into a collaboration. It is only later that the idea of collaboration is presented to the mayor. This model is more effective than coming in as a non-governmental organization from the outside because it avoids the need to confront the administration. “The ideal model was to have someone in the municipality who understands our philosophy, and to have a mayor who understands that we are no threat who then gives the green light. We do not want to be Santa Claus who comes in to change something from the outside,” Wyszomirski explains. “The first step is to be open. To learn something, you just have to start doing it,” adds Ślebioda. In his opinion, the first step towards change would be to open the municipality and the administrative structures to new, young people with an open mind. “Digging yourself in, building walls around you, it doesn’t lead to anything.”