Poland Local Government Reform: Division of Responsibilities

To give a sense of the speed of reforms in Poland, we provide a chronological order of major events of the decentralization process


Poland demonstrates a successful case of transition from a centralized communist state to a decentralized local government system. The transition in Poland was made possible through persistent negotiations, trials and legislative amendments regarding various aspects including administrative division, responsibilities, and financing. This experience is highly informative for Ukraine in building a democratic country based on the principles of decentralization. In fact, the survival of Ukraine as a unitary country depends on delegation of power to local governments.

This post, the first one in a series of our posts about decentralization, will focus specifically on the topic of allocation of responsibilities among the different levels of local governments in Poland.

To give a sense of the speed of reforms in Poland, we provide a chronological order of major events of the decentralization process:

1988-1989 Round Table Negotiations between the Communist dominated authorities and the democratic opposition.
1989-1990 Direct legislative and organizational work; preparation for reforms resulted in the first municipal elections for the gmina council in 1990.
<1990 Adoption of the Local Government Act
1990-1992 Gminas (municipal level) coming into existence as independent local government units with legal power, taking ownership of property and finance management.
1997-2000 Second stage of building elected local and regional authorities and creation of two new tiers – powiats (county level) and voivodships (regional level)

By the end of the decentralization process, there were 2478 municipalities (gmina), 379 counties (powiat) and 16 regions (voivodships). As can be seen in Table 1, the gminas grew in size and gradually took ownership of local administration. Note that while powiats “subordinated” gminas and voivoidships “subordinated” powiats, the unit of local governance was gmina. In other words, it was the local community that was an independent unit while powiats and voivoidships were designed to help gminas to coordinate their activities. In part, this philosophy was reflected in the fact that powiats and voivoidships owned little property and employed few people relative to gminas.

Table 1. Employment in Local and Regional Administration

Office Year # of  Employees , ‘000
Gminas 1991
Gminas (except cities with powiat status)
Cities with powiat status

Source: Regulski, J. (2003). Local government reform in Poland

Responsibilities outlined by law

The term “gmina,” as outlined by the Local Government Act of 1990, was to be understood as consisting of two elements: the community of residents and the territory. The purpose of establishing gminas was not only to divide the administrative territory of the country, but also to develop local communities capable of resolving their respective problems. Article 6 of the Local Government Act infers that the scope of gmina activity extends to all public matters not reserved in laws for other entities. Article 7 provides a more specific list of responsibilities that pertain to satisfying the collective needs of the community, as can be seen from the first column of Table 2. Such preliminary scope of gminas’ functions was extended later on. They could also be obliged by law to perform delegated functions falling within the responsibilities of the central administration.

Moreover, gminas could also negotiate voluntary agreements to assume the functions of the central administration. The gminas’ activities were only subject to supervision for its legality.

Table 2. Summary of Exclusive Tasks/Responsibilities

Gmina  (Municipality)
(Local Government Act A.7)
Powiat (County) Voivodship (Region)
1)     Spatial order, land use and environmental protection;
>2)     Local roads, streets, bridges, squares and organization of traffic;
3)     Water systems and water supply, sewage, removal and treatment of municipal sewage, waste removal, maintenance of dumps and recycling of municipal waste, supply of electricity and heating;
4)     Local public transport;
5)     Health care;
6)     Public welfare, including group homes and guardianship institutions;
7)     Municipal housing;
8)     Primary schools, kindergartens and other educational institutions
9)     Culture, including municipal libraries and other cultural institutions;
10)  Physical culture, including recreational areas and sports facilities;
11)  Open-air and indoor markets;
12)  Green spaces and wooded areas;
13)  Municipal cemeteries;
14)  Public order and fire departments;
15)  Maintenance of municipal and administrative buildings and facilities used by the public.
1)     Education, particularly secondary schools and schools for the disabled;
2)     Health care, including management of hospitals;
3)     Public welfare and family support policy;
4)     Management of public roads considered powiat roads;
5)     Maintenance of cultural, sports and physical culture institutions;
6)     Geodesy and cartography;
7)     Building inspection;
8)     Environmental protection as well as agriculture and forestry;
9)     Public order and resident safety;
10)  Protection against fire and flood;
11)  Protection of consumer rights and others;
1)     Promotion of economic development
2)     Management of public services of regional significance such as higher education, specialized health care providers and some cultural institutions;
3)     Environmental protection and management of natural resources;
4)     Development of regional infrastructure, including management of roads and regional transport and communications.

Source: Regulski, J. (2003). Local government reform in Poland

The period of years 1990 to 2000 was characterized by the gminas’ struggle for new responsibilities and funding. In response to the prime minister’s questions about the extension of gmina responsibilities, gminas indicated their interest for future expansion in the areas of: building regulations – 87.5% traffic laws – 81.4%, land use and appropriation – 73.3%, geodesic and cartographic laws – 63.6%, legislation concerning the change of names and surnames – 63.3%, the educational system – 60.8%, public welfare – 58.0%, environmental protection and development – 55.0% employment and unemployment – 54.5%, water laws – 54.0%, forestry laws – 50.6%, regrouping and exchange of land – 47.5%, public welfare institutions – 45.3%, and inland fisheries – 31.6%.  On the one hand, gminas generally assumed new responsibilities upon their own request, but on the other, those responsibilities were devolved usually without the accompaniment of adequate grants.

A detailed breakdown of their sectoral expenditure is available in Table 3. Among all, public utilities, administration and education were the top three sectors for gmina spending. In Ukraine, the composition of spending of local governments (all levels, year 2013) is concentrated on education (34%), healthcare (22%), and welfare (25%). While this composition is qualitatively similar in the sense that local governments deliver public services at the local level, the key difference, as we discuss later, is that local governments in Ukraine have little say in actual governing of anything in education, healthcare or social welfare as the local offices for these functions are really regulated by the central government.

Table 3. Gmina Expenditures in Principal Sectors

Function Year
1991 1993 1994 1996 1998 1999
Agriculture 3.1 2.8 2.3 2.3 2.0 2.3
Transportation 2.9 2.3 1.9 1.8 2.2 6.0
Public utilities 28.0 29.6 26.8 22.3 22.2 16.6
Housing 7.8 7.8 6.7 4.2 4.7 4.4
Education 16.0 20.1 25.5 37.4 36.7 39.6
Culture and arts 3.9 3.5 3.3 2.7 2.8 2.9
Health care 7.0 6.3 8.7 6.1 6.1 1.4
Public welfare 7.7 10.9 9.9 9.2 9.6 10.4
Administration 10.4 11.5 10.3 9.7 9.7 12.1
Subsidies 8.4 1.1 0.7 0.2 0.1 0.1
Other 4.8 4.1 3.9 4.1 3.9 4.2
Total expenditures 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0

Source: Regulski, J. (2003). Local government reform in Poland

Primary education was one of the biggest responsibilities assigned to the gminas by the Local Government Act. The gminas experienced some power struggle with various groups including the Ministry of Education, the school administration and the Teachers’ Union during transfer process of the responsibility. However, over the course of the reform, gminas successfully took over management of most primary schools in the country, as can be seen in Table 4.

Table 4. Changes in the Structure of Primary Education

Primary Schools Managed by School Year
1989/90 1991/92 1994/95 1997/98 1999/00
Central administration 20,391 19,295 13,999 763 48
Gminas 986 5,779 18,173 17,314
Other entities 12 165 296 363 381
Total 20,403 20,446 20,074 19,299 17,743

Source: Regulski, J. (2003). Local government reform in Poland

The system of powiats, established in 1999, was based on principles analogous to those of the gmina system. Powiats were considered obligatory associations of residents in a given area, formed to independently perform public functions. They were granted legal status to own property and manage their own finances. The powiats were made responsible for the delivery of public services to residents of one or more gminas in the areas outlined in Table 2. In practice, the most important responsibility of powiats (measured by spending, Table 5) was to manage secondary schools.

Table 5. The Structure of Powiat Expenditures in 1999 in Selected Sectors [%]

Function Share
Transportation 7.1
Education 42.8
Health Care 5.5
Public Welfare 14.8
Central and local administration 9
Public safety 18.4
Other 2.4

Source: Regulski, J. (2003). Local government reform in Poland

Voivodships were recognized as associations of residents forming to exercise appropriate functions. Whereas the primary function of the local authorities (both gmina and powiat) is to satisfy the direct needs of residents, the regional authorities were responsible for economic and cultural development. Their activities had to be concentrated in the four areas listed in Table 2. However, voivodships were also legal entities that could own property and manage finances. The Ukrainian analogue of a voivodship is oblast. In contrast to voivodships, oblasts have much greater powers and responsibilities.

Remnants of the Communist Poland Governmental Structures (Ministries):

The Communist Poland’s structure based around ministries and individual ministries did not immediately vanish. Rather, it first established administrative districts to exercise the functions of the central administration at the local level (it was apparently necessary as the gminas could not assume those functions according to the principle of separating the responsibilities of the local and central administrations). Individual ministries then began to build their administrative units at the local level. Those units struggled both for power and for control over funding and became one of the primary barriers of the development of local governance. Most of these institutions were completely separate from local administrative offices. In other words, many government units had double subordination: 1) to local administration; 2) to the corresponding ministry. This double subordination undermined and greatly limited local governance as the ministries could overrule decisions of local governments. The responsibility, loyalty, promotion, etc. of employees was to the central authorities rather than local communities that they served. This created a clear disconnect between what local communities wanted to get delivered and what the administration and public servants actually delivered.

The Polish reformers recognized this key problem and consolated those administrations and subordinated them to voivodship offices and powiat managers in 1998. Moreover, 7,478 public service units were transferred to voivodships and powiats. The military and customs administration as well as some special administrations remained outside voivodship offices as autonomous units (Table 6). Similar to Poland, Ukraine had the same double-subordination in the soviet time but this problem has not been resolved in Ukraine even until now.

Table 6. Special Administrative Units after 1999 (Number of Units Countrywide in Parentheses)

Autonomous Administration Consolidated Administration
Supra-Regional Level Voivodship Level District Level Voivodship Level Powiat Level
1.      Military (2)
2.      District Mining Administrations (14)
3.      District Offices for Measures (9)
4.      District Conscription Offices (9)
5.      Regional Directorates of State Forests (17)
6.      Regional Water Management Boards (7)
7.      Customs Offices (19)
8.      Sea Administration Offices (3)
9.      Inspectors for Technical Supervision in Sea Navigation (3)
10.    Inland Shipping Inspection (8)
11.    Border Guard Squads (11)
12.    Regional Customs Inspection (9)
1.      Voivodship Military staff (16)
2.      Tax Chambers (16)
3.      Tax Audit Offices (16)
4.      Voivodship Employment Offices (16)
1.      Military Conscription Headquarters (140)
2.      Tax Offices (355)
3.      Sub-district Offices for Measures (62)
4.      Forest Inspectorates (438)
5.      Powiat Employment Offices (322)
1.      Health Inspection
2.      Veterinary Inspection
3.      Plant Protection Inspection
4.      Environmental Protection Inspection
5.      Trade Inspection
6.      Pharmaceutical Inspection
7.      Inspection over Purchase and Processing of Agricultural Produce
8.      Seed Inspection
9.      Historic Preservation
10.    Education Superintendent
11.    Police
12.    State Fire Department
13.    Building Inspection
1.      Health and Epidemic Stations
2.      Veterinary Inspectorates
3.      Regional State Fire Brigade Headquarters
4.      Regional Police Headquarters
5.      Building Inspectorates

Source: Regulski, J. (2003). Local government reform in Poland

Municipal Associations

With the 1990 law giving gminas the right to form associations voluntarily, gminas used that opportunity extensively. Various associations, including national groups, groups organized by gminas sharing specific features or problems, or groups based on the geographic criterion, formed. The associations may possess their own property and exist as legal entities. And like gminas, they exercise functions on their own behalf. The Association of Polish Cities is the strongest and most stable national association of gminas. (Ukraine has a similar association: Association of Ukrainian Cities.) The Association had formed in 1993 with a mission to support the idea of local governments as well as promote the cities’ cultural and economic development. Such voluntary associations have limited membership and had not gained political power proportionate to the local governments they represent or on a scale to take influence from other interest groups. They were, however, represented in the Regional Audit Chambers (which will be another topic we’ll cover). There were many task-oriented associations forming in order to deliver public services designated as the specific responsibility of gminas (see Table 7).

Table 7. Number of Task-Oriented Associations by Range of Activity, 1991-1998

Range of the association’s activity # projects
Environmental Protection 58
Transport 14
Telecommunications 13
Waste and Dumps 26
Tourism 30
Physical Planning 5
Regional Economic Development 10
Water 47
Gas 17
Sewage 30
Heating 6
Development of Local Governance 7
Other 7
Total 270

Source: Regulski, J. (2003). Local government reform in Poland

We will continue reviewing the experience of the Polish decentralization in the next posts.


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