Polish youth councils are a good, albeit imperfect, example of how to foster dialogue between state and society. As Your Public Value continues to invite young people to share their views on their role as citizens, Kamil Krzyszczyk, a student at SGH Warsaw School of Economics, reviews Poland’s experiment and reflects on what could be improved: 

Nothing about us without us!

“As the days go by one can observe that mistrust between the people and political establishments around the world is growing. This phenomenon is further magnified by the current global health crisis. Across all five continents demonstrators are taking to the streets with a wide array of demands. The youth, especially, is tired of being kept on the sidelines of the political and decision-making processes. So am I.

We, young people, know that the future is ours, that we have every right to fight for it. But how can we possibly achieve this goal if we are not listened to? Inclusion of young voices is one of the global challenges that are yet to be answered. However, there already exist some initiatives that are worth analysing. In my view the youth councils that were set up in 1990 in Poland as the result of a bottom-up initiative could be a first step in helping young people shape their environment.

The example of Polish youth councils

Poland’s youth councils, which have been regulated by law since 2001, are generally seen as a voluntary consultative body for local administrations on whose decision they are being set up. Youth councils by law cannot impose decisions on local authorities. In addition, each administration assigns its youth council a specific role and drafts its charter. Needless to say, the level of responsibility of each council and the range of tasks it is assigned depend greatly on the willingness of local authorities.

How youth councils are elected also differs from one place to another. Pupils of local schools generally choose council members — who must be aged between 14 and 18 — among their schoolmates. The ideology that presided over the creation of these councils is simple. It can be summed up in five words: nothing about us without us! If you want to solve the problems of a social group, you can do so only by talking to its representatives and taking its demands into account.

However, the absence of specific guidelines on the role of youth councils makes it hard to assess their impact at national level. The success of each council depends mostly on the engagement of its members. It is also preconditioned by the level of trust demonstrated by the local administration. In places where these two factors co-exist, youth councils make an invaluable contribution to the local decision-making process. Most importantly, they are a crucial source of data on the needs of younger generation. They also help make local youth policies as efficient as possible.

Warsaw’s showcase experiment

One good example is the youth council of Warsaw’s Białołęka District. In cooperation with local authorities it has helped significantly broaden the choice of youth recreation programs. Council members and school pupils praise its contribution to social life. They believe it helped improve communication between themselves and local policymakers. On the other hand, authorities see the council as a good reference point for all youth-related decisions. Both sides meet and exchange information regularly, which means that they can prepare themselves for discussions. They also have enough time to develop arguments in favour or against any proposed decision.

The hidden profit of this successful cooperation is a growing mutual understanding that governing is a process that implies constant dialogue. Young people have also learned that their role in democracy is not limited to casting a ballot but also demands that they actively engage in issues that concern them directly.

Mixed results elsewhere

Yet, not all councils are thriving. Some of them complain that they are not given any duties. They say local administrations do not reach out to them to assess their proposals, or simply ignore their feedback. For this reason young people grow frustrated, which may jeopardize the chance of seeing them actively participate in social life. This is a good reminder of how crucial the importance of trust is. Local administrations must earnestly listen to youth voices and allow them to be heard.

Failure to meet young people’s expectations is bound to create further problems, such as ill-prepared policies or pointless youth-related investments. Furthermore, it may give birth to an entire generation of citizens impervious to politics. How can we possibly expect to maintain a functioning democracy if we fail to bring up civil society’s next generations?

Conversely, there are councils whose members, according to Joanna Stachowiak and other local politicians, do not engage enough, even though they have all the necessary tools to do so. This is the case in northern Poland’s Wejherowo County, whose youth council has yet to demonstrate an interest in giving local authorities feedback on their proposals and coming up with initiatives of its own.

Stachowiak believes there are two main reasons for that. First and foremost, she says, young people may not know how to take action. If one thinks about it for a moment, one will recognize how important guidance can be. Youth councils should be given proper training and offered a contact person with whom they could discuss the scope of their responsibilities or possible courses of action. Councils also have a role in educating young people and preparing them to actively participate in civil society; it is therefore important that a knowledge-sharing mechanism be put in place.

No real results without genuine dialogue

Another reason, Stachowiak says, could be that young people remain unconvinced that they can cooperate with local administrations. Here again, a contact person, together with open and regular dialogue, may come into play. It is not enough to invite young people to give their feedback on such or such proposal. Local leaders should meet regularly with council members to discuss matters that are important to both sides. It sometimes requires a bit of effort to build a working and productive relationship.

Young people should not have just a consultative role. Yet, despite their shortcomings, Poland’s existing youth councils can be a basis for future development, thus leading to a more inclusive decision-making process where young people can feel they are listened to.

With a relatively small engagement of resources we could gain valuable insight into the needs of young people and get a number of benefits. For example, we could become increasingly aware of the role intergenerational dialogue can play and improve trust between authorities and citizens. What we need is not revolution but empowerment and engagement in order to build bridges between generations. We need to have a say in matters that are vital to us!”

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