Poland, August 15, 2004

POLAND'S COUNCIL ON PUBLIC BENEFIT ACTIVITIES: A NEW ERA OF GOVERNMENT-CIVIL SOCIETY PARTNERSHIP

 

Ewa Kulik-Bielińska

Introduction

With the launch of the Council on Public Benefit Activities, Poland has entered a new era of government-civil society partnership. The Council was created by the Law on Public Benefit Activities and Volunteerism ("Public Benefit Law") signed by the President on April 24, 2003 after several months of parliamentary discussion and almost seven years of work since the first draft was prepared. It is the first law that seeks to define the role and position of the Third Sector in the social policy of the Polish state. The Law:
  • establishes a basis for cooperation and partnership between the NGO sector and the public administration in Poland;
  • defines the spheres of tasks carried out by NGOs that are considered by the state as being of special importance for public benefit;
  • creates a new category of public benefit organisations which, in exchange for taking on certain tasks and obligations, are granted additional benefits and privileges including the possibility of obtaining 1% of personal income tax, acquiring real estate on a preferential basis and free access to public TV.


The bill also regulates the work of volunteers, offering them, among other things, accident insurance, the possibility of health insurance, and reimbursement of certain costs, namely business travel and per diem.

The Council's Membership and Tasks

Chapter IV of the Public Benefit Law also establishes the Council on Public Benefit Activities which serves as an advisory and opinion-forming body to the minister responsible for social security issues.

The Council consists of 20 members appointed by the minister:

  • 5 representatives of the central administration: Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Economy, Labour and Social Policy, Ministry of Internal Affairs;
  • 5 representatives of local government authorities delegated by the local government side of the Joint Central and Local Government Committee;
  • 10 representatives of NGOs nominated from among candidates proposed by civil society organisations.

 

The Council's tasks include:

  • issuing opinions on the implementation of the Public Benefit Law and on governmental draft laws concerning public benefit and volunteer work, as well as on the process of commissioning public tasks to be performed by NGOs;
  • assisting in case of any dispute between the public administration and public benefit organisations;
  • participating in audit procedures concerning public benefit organisations;
  • creating mechanisms for informing about standards of carrying out public benefit work.


The Council's term lasts three years, except for the current first Council that was elected for a two-year term.

The Public Benefit Council as a Civic Dialogue Institution

The Council on Public Benefit Activities constitutes an institutionalised form of cooperation between the public administration and NGOs at the national level. Though formally its functions are limited to an advisory and opinion-forming role, particularly regarding the implementation of the Public Benefit Law, the Council provides a platform for articulating the interests and concerns of the NGO sector vis- -vis public authorities in an organised way and within the existing legal framework. In this sense the Council constitutes an important form of institutionalised civic dialogue that complements two already existing ones: the Socio-Economic Trilateral Commission, a forum of discussion between public administration, trade unions and private employers organisations, and the Joint Central and Local Government Committee. The establishment of the Council on Public Benefit Activities expands the social partner basis to civic organisations: associations and foundations acting for important social and public interest goals.

The main task of the Council is to monitor the implementation of the Public Benefit Law to see if and how it improves the conditions for the growth of civic organisations and enhances cooperation between the public administration and local governments on the one hand and NGOs on the other. The mandate to give an opinion on all laws that concern the sphere regulated by the Public Benefit Law opens before the Council the possibility of influencing the creation of laws that enhance the participation of NGOs in the implementation of state social policy. The Council can check if a given law violates the articles of Public Benefit Law, especially in the sphere of commissioning public tasks to civic organisations and can propose amendments to that law. It may also recommend amendments to provisions of the Public Benefit Law itself if they prove unfavourable to the functioning of the NGO sector.

Initial Experience

In the first months of its functioning (the Council inaugurated its work on November 27, 2003) the Council focused on formulating its stand on the draft Law on Social Welfare which the government adopted and introduced to the Parliament before the Council was nominated. The act was severely criticised by social welfare organisations as representing the old philosophy of thinking about social policy and not responding to the challenges of the modern world. The Council questioned the conformity of the Social Welfare Law with the Public Benefit Law, since it annulled articles of the latter dealing with commissioning of public tasks to NGOs by creating its own terms of support and commissioning procedures. The Council managed to get the Parliamentary Commission to review the Social Welfare Law. The NGO members of the Council are invited to the Social Welfare Parliamentary Commission where they present the opinions of organisations active in the social welfare sphere. Parliamentary voting will show whether their voice has been heard and whether the government backs their position.

The Council has been monitoring the effects of the introduction of the Public Benefit Law on NGO-local government relations. On the Council's initiative the Ministry of Economy, Labour and Social Policy issued a letter to local governments alerting them to an erroneous interpretation of the Law: some local governments mistakenly believed that the Law requires them to commission public tasks exclusively to public benefit organisations (organisations may apply for such a status beginning in January 2004). The members of the Council active in the NGO-Local Government Working group prepared a document directed to local governments at all levels (commune, county, voidvodship) which elaborates on the chapter of the Law devoted to cooperation between NGOs and local governments, providing a detailed explanation and examples of different forms of such cooperation.

The NGO part of the Council does not formally represent the non-profit sector since the NGO members were not elected by the non-profit community but nominated by the Minister of Economy, Labour and Social Policy from among the proposed candidates. Nevertheless, the Council is looked upon by the public administration as a body that - given the lack of a formal NGO representative structure at the national level - may fulfil such a function. In effect, the Minister of Economy, Labour and Social Policy as well as representatives of other ministries involved in the preparation of operational programs for European Union structural funds, pressed by the need to find candidates for the funds' various steering and monitoring committees, turned to the Council to nominate members from the social partners' side. The Council worked out the nomination procedure that involved a public call for submitting of candidates by civic organisations interested in participating in the work of the committees, and gathering support for their candidates in the NGO community. The Council in an extraordinary session selected the candidates for six steering and monitoring committees from more than 200 submissions and recommended them for nomination by the relevant ministers.

Challenges

Three months of work of the Council on Public Benefit Activities is too short a period to determine what the impact of the Council will be in strengthening the role of NGOs in the civic dialogue. The future will show whether the Council opens channels of communication and consultation with wider circles of civic organisations to bring to the table issues of concern to the non-profit community or rather limits itself to voicing its opinion on questions raised by the minister that it advises. The initial experience inspires optimism, especially regarding the range of problems the Council is consulted on. However, it is too early to say whether one can be equally optimistic about the Council's effectiveness in turning its opinions into government policy. The most difficult task is right before the Council - by the end of March in cooperation with the Ministry of Finance it is supposed to draft new tax regulations concerning the non-profit sector that become a part of the tax laws starting in 2005. The battle over maintaining the tax exemptions for NGOs waged by the Polish non-profit sector in the autumn of 2003 clearly demonstrated that the discussions will not be easy. The work on taxes can be a real test of the powers of the Council. If it fails to defend the interests of the whole NGO sector against the attempts of the fiscal authorities to eliminate the tax exemptions for statutory purposes and to maintain tax reliefs on donations for charity purposes at the insignificant level of 100 USD, it will lose the trust and respect of the civic sector and undermine the basis of the Council's existence.

Ewa Kulik-Bielińska is Information and Development Director at the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw.
E-mail: => ekulik@batory.org.pl
Web: => www.batory.org.pl

First published in SEAL (Social Economy and Law Journal), Winter 2003 - Spring 2004. See => http://www.efc.be/publications/sealabstract.html .

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