In responding to the omission of organised civil society from the preparation and consultation on the National Recovery and Resilience Plan in Poland, an unofficial coalition of NGOs mobilised to initiate their own series of public hearings. Within a few weeks, the coalition organised the largest ever public hearings in Poland, resulting in a series of 11 public hearings over 11 days, bringing together over 460 speakers (from civil society, local government, trade unions, businesses etc.), and watched by over 20,000 people via livestreams. This award celebrates the determination of NGOs in defending civil dialogue, in bringing social partners and local dignitaries on board, and making their voices audible to decision makers, who recognised the value of the hearings by attending and assuming roles as listeners.
The interview with Iwona Janicka representing the coalition for the public hearings on the National Recovery Plan, was carried out in the summer 2021 as part of the report Activizenship #6.
Can you tell us a bit about the context in which the hearings started? Why did you decide to self-organise and what were the goals of the coalition behind them?
We understood quickly that time was of the essence as we realised that The National Recovery and Resilience Plan for Poland that the government was preparing would not include consultations with civil society. There was no dialogue about the Recovery Plan. We were presented with a final and complete document that only allowed for minor modifications. Therefore, we could not think of that recovery plan as civil society’s plan. It was for us a technocratic and political document.
We met the deputy minister for EU funds, Ms Małgorzata Jarosińska-Jedynak and showed that the Code of Conduct for Partnership set out in EU legislation and the basic principles of dialogue were violated. She agreed but could not provide support in this regard. We then decided very quickly to organise on our own hearings to create the consultation process we wanted. First, the health situation forced us to organise ourselves online. Second, we had a very challenging timeframe as we only had two weeks to organise all the sessions. We also encountered other issues among which the fact that we did not have an online platform to hold the sessions, there was a problem of accessibility in relation to access to internet coverage. The pandemic also added personal challenges. Despite all these issues we pulled through and decided that the only way was to make this possible and show that civil society is strong, even stronger than the government expected.
The goal was both to have a process in which we learn from each other but also to create a collaborative document coming from a consultative process that civil society would recognise as its own. We wanted to achieve a recovery plan by civil society. These consultations included civil society in a broad term including social business partners and others.
First of all, we had to fundraise to make this possible and secure a platform that would be easily accessible to ensure the public hearings’ sessions. We also wanted to ensure transparency, which is harder for online events. We decided that the speeches will have to last five minutes maximum to allow everyone to speak. Anyone willing to participate could do it via a special form 48 hours before the session. We then grouped those who were willing to speak in line with the European Code of Conduct on the Partnership. The order of speakers was randomly selected. We also ensured that the public hearing was streamed live on Facebook and YouTube to enable anyone to watch it. To increase accessibility, we also had sign language interpretation.
The public hearings were held in cooperation with very committed employees of the Ministry of Funds and Regional Policy under the patronage of the Partnership Development Subcommittee.
Could you tell me more about the partnership agreement that you talked about?
There were two processes running approximately on the same timeframe regarding the EU budgeting. One was about the Partnership Agreement within EU Cohesion Policy 2021-2027, for which the government was required to consult with partners, including civil society in its broader sense, the second was the National Recovery and Resilience Plan for Poland. Both processes were quite interlinked in terms of the content included and the analysis needed from our side. It appeared necessary for us to feed into both in order to provide a comprehensive and useful contribution. Therefore, we decided to have five public hearings sessions about the National Recovery Plan and to use the same model for nine hearings regarding the Partnership Agreement and related national programs. For the partnership agreement, we needed to provide nine national programs on thematic areas such as social issues, environment digitization, fisheries…
Working on both these processes almost simultaneously and in a short timeframe required a lot of work on our side but we decided to do it to provide a meaningful contribution that addressed the underlying causes of the issues that were highlighted during the COVID-19 crisis.
It was important for us that the provisions were consistent – the speakers emphasized that the demarcation line between the Reconstruction Fund and the Cohesion Policy programs is important.
Through our contributions we also tried to highlight the role that civil society played during the pandemic. In fact, we could say that NGOs were like the local fire brigade, on which the government relied. For instance, we underlined the role that youth played in remote areas by biking to provide isolated elderly people with the medicine and basic food they needed. Young volunteers walked with the dogs. Meanwhile, there was a situation when the government forbade young people to leave their homes before 4 p.m. (without adult supervision), which was socially incomprehensible and disrupted the process of providing civic support. Therefore, for us it was important that in the Recovery plan and these thematic national programs the future of youth and children was addressed not only in terms of jobs but also regarding other issues faced during pandemic and beyond.
What did you want to get out of the hearings?
We had no illusions about the way the government operated and its potential response to comments and proposed changes to the Plan, but we wanted to maintain goodwill. We thought that civil society’s point of view should be captured in a document. We were very careful in our approach and relied on Union Regulations, in particular the European Code of Conduct on the Partnership.
We also criticized the government’s plan which did not appear to us as an answer to a crisis, it was not a plan for our future, and it did not address the challenges that we were facing. The government’s plan would only apply “bandages instead of an operation” without addressing the underlying causes and effects of the crisis. Addressing these shortcomings was also a motivation factor for us. We wanted to provide solutions for deeply rooted issues. In order to do so, we started from the beginning.
What was the result?
During the hearings, we received more than 2500 propositions and recommendations from very different point of views, experts, local actors and authorities, citizens, national level actors, students, trade unions and social partners… To ensure this diversity in the participation we had to be flexible and adapt the agenda on the spot. This diversity allowed everybody to hear about many issues that we were not aware of in the past. Waldemar Buda, the minister of Funds and Regional Policy, that was present was impressed by the amount of information and point of views he was hearing, he used the term “information bomb”.
We relied on a Union Regulation to ensure that our consultations took place and included the presence of national representatives and local authority representatives. That also meant ensuring that all actors are treated equally as partners as the Regulation puts economic and social partners as well as NGOs on the same level for collaboration.
We did not have a completely new version of the plan, but on the basis of the comments submitted to plan, we prepared a completely new, separate social component taking into account the scope, in particular the social and territorial cohesion; health, and economic, social and institutional resilience, with the aim of, inter alia, increasing crisis preparedness and crisis response capacity; and policies for the next generation, children and the youth, such as education and skills.
What do you think is the biggest success of the public hearings?
One of the main successes is related to the media. Apart from the independent media channels, the public hearings were also covered by the mainstream media which traditionally only cooperates with the government. I think this was an important achievement as it allowed the hearings to reach outside of the “traditional NGOs bubble”. This coverage meant that the public hearings were accessible to a broader audience and a different public from the usual target.
But… the fact that we had to collaborate with the government questioned us and me personally on an ethical level. We had to be careful. We had very transparent rules so that they would be legible to everyone. I was afraid of being manipulated, which added a large amount of stress to the already difficult work. Being selected to the European Civic Pride Award was a timely and welcomed celebration.
The most important success is that we could all hear each other, with a feeling of mutual respect and eagerness to get to know different points of view. We want to cooperate further.
Did you have any chance to see if anything that you said during these people public hearing was taken upon by the decision-makers and authorities?
There were only few sentences that I could see were taken from the discussions held during the public hearings. However, often the ideas that were include were not assigned a budget, whereas other actions have clear assigned budget for implementation. Additionally, these sentences often described the climate around the issue and do not necessarily formulate a policy target.
Looking forward, we are concerned about the monitoring of funds, which must be independent. The government actually wants to secure a majority in the monitoring committee, which in the case of the general regime of conditionality for the protection of the Union budget, is a cause for considerable concern. We are afraid that the monitoring committee will be a façade.
We insisted on an equal distribution of seats in the committee, where 1/4 of the seats are allocated to each group (government and local authorities and science, social and economic partners, NGOs), and on the fact that the government should not have a majority.
In addition, the committee must include independent NGOs, including those dealing with horizontal principles – the Charter of Fundamental Rights, sustainable development (to better implement the assumptions of the European Green Deal & Fit for 55), equal opportunities and non-discrimination, gender mainstreaming and accessibility for people with disabilities & needs.
During the hearings, you collaborated with social partners and local authorities. Do you see other opportunities to collaborate with them? How did the collaboration go?
This also requires a lot of effort and finesse in our interactions with the authorities.
Organizing these public hearings allowed us to get to know other actors and to collaborate at a technical level with them. These hearings stimulated our interactions among civil society actors. Indeed, by bringing people together, this process allowed us to build trust so we can really rely on each other for close collaborative work going forward. Additionally, it laid down the foundations for other collaborations with business and social partners as well as with local authorities. I am very pleased that everyone took these hearings seriously.
This experience is very useful now as we need to mobilize quickly and discuss some key issues with the different types of actors.
What can the EU institutions do to prevent the omission of a dialogue with civil society in the preparation and implementation of EU funds, including the National Recovery Plans?
We would need clearly written and binding regulations that require and structure the collaborations between the national governments and civil society regarding decisions such as the Recovery Plan. That would allow us to base our advocacy for implementation as we did for the Partnership Agreement within EU Cohesion Policy 2021-2027. The Code of Conduct for Partnership is very helpful.
We also need clearer rules of implementation to avoid interpretations by national governments that would disadvantage civil society. For instance, we had a divergence in regards to the interpretation of the provisions of the Article 9 of EU Regulation establishing the European Social Fund Plus (ESF+).
The government interpreted the regulation as establishing that 25% of resources of the ESF+ of national program should be included for the capacity building of the social partners and civil society organisations. Whereas we were convinced after reading the regulation that it this applies both to the national program and to any regional program as well.
To resolve the misunderstanding the national government asked the European Commission through an unofficial channel which agreed with the government. However, as it is an unofficial answer, which stops us from contesting it without providing a clear and official answer. Therefore, it would be necessary to have straight forward indications on interpretation and implementation of regulations provided by the European Commission, as it is a heavy burden on civil society to have to contest the government’s interpretations.
In this case, we were right, but many weeks passed before we achieved our goals.
What do you think the EU could do to help civil society engage in dialogue at National level, but also at the European level?
It is a difficult question; I understand that the EU must avoid involving itself in an internal and national conflict according to the treaties. However, if I use a metaphor to describe its involvement, I would say that it should act as a parent for certain member states providing a clear guide for conduct and punishing when necessary. Additionally, it would be interesting if the EU could directly interact with civil society and not have to go through the government, especially when it comes to programming and monitoring European funds. It would provide a freer and a more cooperative system for the management of the funds. It would also avoid unfair situations where civil society finds itself unable to access EU funds because of the political decisions of their government. Especially, when this civil society does not share the views of the government and is active in denouncing its actions. This would of course require the setting up of guiding rules, maybe at regional level to ensure an oversight.
The interview was carried out on 20 August 2021.