Menu Close

Case study 4: NGOs as opposition in the city council – from pushing from the outside to gaining influence as politicians


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

Case study 4

NGOs as opposition in the city council – from pushing from the outside to gaining influence as politicians

People for the City, Gorzów Wielkopolski


Alina Czyżewska | Citizens Network Watchdog Poland, People for the City Gorzów
Marta Bejnar-Bejnarowicz | Head of People for the City, local councilor in Gorzów, Urban Movements Congress
Anna Bonus Mackiewicz | Director of the Department of Social Consultations and Revitalization, Gorzów Wielkopolski municipality

“I went through stages of war with the mayor, political pressure, arguing, reconciling, and so on. Ultimately, I think that the most effective and least annoying option is to collaborate and be ready to compromise.”
Marta Bejnar-Bejnarowicz, President of People for the City

“In the most difficult moments the department had a lot of support from the People for the City movement. […] officials and activists stood side by side and defended the project, they tried to explain together why it is needed, how it will affect the city.”
Anna Bonus-Mackiewicz, Director of the Department of Social Communication and Revitalization of Gorzów Wielkopolski

The city of Gorzów Wielkopolski

Figure 1. Location of Gorzów Wielkopolski Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gorzów Wielkopolski is located in western Poland and has population of over 120,000. It is one of two capitals of the Lubusz Voivodeship, together with Zielona Góra. In the postwar era, Gorzów was home to many industries: chemical fibers, textiles, and tractors. After the capitalist transition, the former state- owned companies went bankrupt or suffered severe financial problems. In the 2000s, the city faced the challenge of rebuilding the local economy. New private companies were established in a number of sectors, such as car wiring systems, heat and power plants, veterinary medicine, and the chemical industry.

According to Marta Bejnar-Bejnarowicz, President of the People for the City association and a local councilor, there are around 100 civil society entities in Gorzów Wielkopolski, most of which are charity or sports organizations. She estimates that there are around 10 organizations that deal with social participation and urban issues. “It is very little, but there is simply no need for more NGOs in a small city like Gorzów,” she explains. In Gorzów, there is neither a Public Benefit Council nor a Non-Governmental Organizations Center. Currently, a team is being set up that will be responsible for developing a program of collaboration between local government and NGOs.

People for the City and its history

he People for the City (pol. Ludzie dla Miasta) movement was established in 2013 during a protest against the cutting of trees. A group of inhabitants who were concerned about the plans of the former mayor called for a change in building plans to preserve the trees in question. “We didn’t know each other before, but we shared the same point of view on what the city should look like,” as Marta Bejnar- Bejnarowicz recalls. The group included a road worker, a dendrologist, an urban planner, an architect, as well as a cultural animator. “This is how we met. We just started to talk and cooperate,” says Bejnar-Bejnarowicz. Eventually, the mayor withdrew the building plans.

In 2014, local elections were held in Poland. “We thought that if there are so many of us, we should run in the elections for the city council,” says Bejnar-Bejnarowicz. After conducting a political analysis, the activists decided that they should put forward a candidate for

mayor in order to increase their chances of electoral success. They chose Jacek Wójcicki, who was already known in the city, as he was the mayor (pol. wójt) of the neighboring municipality. Due to his high profile and an intensive political campaign, Wójcicki won in the first round with over 60% of votes, beating the incumbent mayor – Tadeusz Jędrzejczak from the Democratic Left Alliance – who was seeking reelection.

People for the City’ entered the 25-member city council with 7 representatives. At that time, the Civic Platform had 8 councilors, Law and Justice 5, the Democratic Left Alliance 3, the Polish People’s Party 1 and 1 member was an independent candidate. “The first year was exceedingly difficult for us. We served as local councilors for the first time. We had no previous local government experience in this form,” Bejnar-Bejnarowicz recalls. During the first year, the collaboration between the councilors, People for the City and the local government went well. For example, the association successfully lobbied for the creation of the Department of Spatial Planning and the office of City Architect. This position was filled by one of the members of the People for the City movement, while several other members were also hired to work in at the municipality at lower levels.

Between 2014 and 2018, four councilors left the People for the City association because of an internal conflict. Together with the mayor and two former councilors from the Democratic Left Alliance and the Civic Platform they formed a separate group in the city council. This weakened the movement and put it in the role of the opposition. In 2018, Jacek Wojcicki again ran in the elections, but this time separately from People for the City, and won with 65% of votes. In response, activists from other organizations created the “I love Gorzów” coalition committee, three of whom entered the city council, while Marta Bejnar-Bejnarowicz was the only one representative of People for the City to be elected.

Today, People for the city has around 20 members. “Nowadays our association functions as an NGO: we carry out different social projects,” Bejnar-Bejnarowicz states. In 2019, the activists organized a crocheting workshop with a local craftsman, and this year they are running yoga classes for seniors. “There is a group within the association that does not engage in politics at all, and there is also a part that is politically involved,” says Bejnar-Bejnarowicz. “People who wanted to focus only on politics, but weren’t elected to the city council in 2018, left the association to pursue their political careers in a different manner. In the association there are those who want to get involved socially as NGO,” adds Bejnar-Bejnarowicz. The association continues to be part of the Urban Movement Congress, in which it plays a significant role, with Bejnar-Bejnarowicz acting as President of the Congress.

Social communication and revitalization

“There is a department in the municipality of Gorzów that was created as a result of the People for the City election program, which is dedicated to social participation and the ‘right to the city,’ public consultations and revitalization,” says Alina Czyżewska, a member of the movement. During the 2014 campaign, People for the City lobbied for the creation of a special unit that would approach revitalization in a systematic way. After the elections, the mayor created the Department of Public Consultations and Revitalization. “Certainly, the very initiative for establishing this department and combining these two threads – social consultations and revitalization – in one unit, was largely due to the activities of the urban movement before and during the election campaign,” stresses Anna Bonus-Mackiewicz, the department’s Director.

The director and the employees of the department were selected through an independent recruitment process. “The office brought together officials who really believed in change, who thought that nothing should be decided over the heads of the citizens anymore, that they should be listened to,” explains Alina Czyżewska. Officials were incredibly open to collaboration with non-governmental organizations, as well as with citizens. “They were going out of their offices, they had stands on the streets, they had tents. They used to stand outside and talk no matter if it was raining or snowing – they tried to reach consensus positions,” says Bejnar-Bejnarowicz. “There is no other department in Poland that would approach revitalization, participation and social consultations as well as social dialog in such a comprehensive and positive way,” she notes.

From the very beginning, People for the City collaborated with the new department. Members of the movement take part in consultations and help to create participatory tools that will answer the needs of all city inhabitants. “I meet regularly with the director of the department and we discuss all the activities step by step. I submit comments, try to attend evaluation meetings and work on changes to the participatory budget regulations,” explains Bejnar-Bejnarowicz. On the other hand, the department is also willing to support activists if they want to organize public consultations, meetings, or debates with citizens – it handles the promotion of these activities and the preparation of the materials. “We have a collaboration and I can’t complain about it at all,” says Bejnar-Bejnarowicz.

Figure 2. The Wool Market in Gorzów Author: Halina Frederiksen Source: Wikimedia

One of the biggest projects that involved collaboration between the department and activists was the urban prototyping for the “Livable Street” initiative, which involved the reconstruction of a street in the city center. “Seven or eight years ago, the municipality would sign a contract with a company and would do the construction work as the designer had proposed. As a result of the establishment of the department, as well as the daily cooperation with the People for the City movement and its know-how, this process is now completely different,” explains Anna Bonus- Mackiewicz. It now involves urban prototyping aimed at preparing construction plans that will address the needs of all city inhabitants.

“A very big conflict arose due the fact that the plan foresaw the elimination of parking spaces, the removal of car traffic and the creation of a pedestrian promenade,” explains Anna Bonus-Mackiewicz. “There were exceptionally large protests from the so-called urban backward movements, car drivers. We were taking away their ‘holy’ parking spaces and attacked the ‘sacred’ road capacity. We did not want to let cars into the center. These protests were so strong that we received threats,” says Bejnar-Bejnarowicz. “In the most difficult moments, the department had a lot of support from the People for the City movement. Despite the fact that it was a difficult project that was met with huge criticism […] officials and activists stood side by side and defended the project, trying to explain together why it was needed and how it would affect the city,” recalls Bonus-Mackiewicz.

Urban prototyping helped to demonstrate that despite these protests, the city inhabitants liked the new space in practice. “Again, the urban prototyping was done after People for the City proposed it, based on its know-how. The foundation told us about this concept […] explaining that there is a method that allows us to see how the flow of people, cars, pedestrians and bicycles would behave in different urban contexts,” says Bonus-Mackiewicz.

How to make collaboration work?

According to Marta Bejnar-Bejnarowicz, the quality of collaboration between local government and NGOs depends on the political will of the mayor. “If the mayor wants to, even if he fails once, because people screw up, he will replace these people or train them and try again. The third time it will go as it should. But he needs to be convinced that the idea is good and give people the opportunity to learn from mistakes. […] If the mayor wants to do it, he will persevere until he succeeds,” she says. “Collaboration of local government with NGOs

is certainly influenced by the acceptance and openness of the mayor to a certain way of thinking about the city and its development. If this is not the case, then even the most dynamic organization with the most enlightened ideas and the greatest experience will not break through, it will not stand a chance,” states Anna Bonus-Mackiewicz. In the opinion of Marta Bejnar-Bejnarowicz, even if civil servants are open to a collaboration and understand that it is needed, they do not have enough impact to transform it into action.

If an NGO wants to collaborate, it should be prepared to compromise. “I went through stages of war with the mayor, political pressure, arguing, reconciling, and so on. Ultimately, I think that the most effective and least annoying option is to collaborate and be ready to compromise and give up some of your demands,” advises Bejnar-Bejnarowicz. According to her, it is rarely possible that 100% of an NGO’s demands will be implemented as part of a collaboration. However, even if 10% are implemented, then this one tenth can prompt real, irreversible change. This is why every movement or non-governmental organization should try to collaborate. “Activists have to understand that the mayor cannot say that he will only listen to one non-governmental organization. No – the city has limited space, for which different groups of users compete. The inhabitants have different needs and interests and the municipality must be open to everyone,” as Anna Bonus-Mackiewicz explains.

On the other hand, even if the mayor is open to collaboration, its implementation may prove difficult. One of the negative aspects, according to Anna Bonus-Mackiewicz, is a lack of NGO competencies when it comes to legal and organizational restrictions. “Some ideas of some organizations are detached from the legal, organizational and technical reality, and not every organization is competent enough to do it,” she says. Activists do not consider the fact that “the city and the local government operate under the law and within the law. This can give rise to a number of restrictions that may not be visible to someone from the outside,” as Bonus-Mackiewicz states. Local government is very often criticized for being slow, but this dynamic is frequently the result of legal regulations and procedures. “Activists very often do not understand this,” argues Bonus-Mackiewicz. The solution might be to collaborate on technical rather than on abstract projects. “The demands of NGOs are valuable, but they are often too operational. There is a lack of understanding that strategic documents are more abstract, and that they do not prescribe specific, concrete solutions.” However, she concludes that “these minor downsides do not change the fact that collaboration is generally an added value.”