In this article, we aim to demonstrate to all editors of local media how assisting residents in crafting competent requests to officials not only aids individuals in problem-solving but also contributes to the development of community. The main result of our work is that the level of awareness of people is growing, and officials are less likely to deny access to information. Even the comments under our articles are gradually shifting from negative and sometimes offensive to constructive thoughts and moderate discussions.

The large-scale invasion of Russian troops in Ukraine has led, among other things, to difficulties in obtaining information from the authorities in the Poltava region. Because of the war, the state closed access to previously open data used by both journalists and ordinary citizens. Indeed, the Ministry of Digital Development acknowledged restrictions on access to open data on digital resources. However, they emphasized that anyone can directly contact the manager to obtain all the necessary information. However, in reality, the vast majority of government officials and public information managers in the Poltava region, especially concerning the distribution of budget funds, either do not provide information, citing “force majeure circumstances,” or postpone it until the end of the war. The official web portals of local self-government bodies either do not publish decisions of sessions and executive committees or release them with a delay of several months. As a result, the ability of the public to actively participate in the process of state governance has decreased to a critical level, and budget funds are distributed non-transparently.

In other words, we chose to assist people, particularly in addressing the most challenging issues, in order to lift that restriction to some extent. After all, without reliable information, people are weaker, they are easier to manipulate. In other words, it is simpler to draw attention to promises that cannot be fulfilled, to explain the misappropriation of funds by attributing it to the influence of unfavorable circumstances, and so on. Without reliable information, people can incur losses if they invest their funds in dubious transactions, and may not even have time to evacuate during an attack on a city or village.

Our experiment showed that people can get the information they need

We initiated a sort of experiment by sending requests to all territorial communities of the Poltava region – 60 requests in total, with around 30 of them being repeated. The goal was to check the situation with the openness of officials throughout the region, so we asked them to provide data on the salaries of territorial communities chairpersons. We discovered which entities readily provide data within the legal timeframe and who keeps information “under lock and key,” citing martial law or force majeure circumstances, despite the normal functioning of the executive committees in these communities.

We published the results in the investigation material titled “Secret Salaries: Where Officials in the Poltava Region Hide Their Income.” We also introduced participants to a round table with attendees from various countries held in Kyiv in November as part of the IWPR Protecting 3 the Frontline initiative, supported by UNESCO.

Participation in a round table with research on responses to queries

We realized that we needed a tool that would help residents get information on their own. So we decided to help them submit their requests correctly

Our publications not only detailed the experience but also outlined how we obtained the information. Of course, we also published details about salaries. For residents of some communities, it turned out to be a revelation that obtaining such data was even possible. As a result, individuals from various parts of the Poltava region became interested in our work, and they began requesting us to file inquiries on their behalf. Then we realized that we need to develop a tool to help people get that information on their own. If needed, we would assist them in overcoming refusals from officials and cover the most alarming cases in our media outlet.

A separate guide titled ASK is a convenient service helping people

To solve this problem, we decided to create a separate service titled ASK. On the main page of our website, we placed a banner that directs readers to the page with this service. With it, residents can learn step-by-step how to make requests: how to write one, what information is public, how it differs from an inquiry, what data remains accessible despite martial law, who should receive it, how to challenge the response if officials do not provide data, etc. Additionally, users can download request and complaint templates in .doc and .pdf formats. At the end of the guide, there is a brief test that we suggest each reader take to effortlessly assess and reinforce their knowledge.

Our ASK guide

To promote the project, we have launched videos that would encourage the community to actively participate in accessing information. We’ve also established a hotline on our website for questions and appeals from community residents regarding the distribution of budget funds, social support, access to public information, and refutation of misinformation. This tool should help the community solve current issues with the help of experts. Readers now primarily use it when submitting topics they believe are worth investigative journalism or at the very least, verifying government tenders.

How exactly our efforts has helped the community

At the initial stage, we saw that citizens are in no hurry to act. That is, the audience liked our ASK guide. Thematic videos and posts calling for access to information on Facebook and Telegram pages received positive feedback and comments. In addition, there were reports asking for help in gaining access to the data. Despite the active responses from people urging to learn how to obtain data, only a few ventured beyond emotional reactions to take direct actions.

Although people liked the opportunity to learn how to get data on their own, only a few people came to direct actions

For instance, a reader from Poltava asked the editorial board to take note of nine contracts for the current emergency repair of premises in preschool educational institutions in Poltava and the district. These contracts were entered into with a private entrepreneur who had been registered for only three months at the time of application. We investigated that case and created an analytical article. Following its publication, the acting mayor of Poltava instructed the regional department to explain the details of the implementation of these procurements to the community. Of course, we also published that explanation on our website.

And then gradually the audience became more active. People from various communities (Poltava, Hradyzk, Horishni Plavni, Shcherbany, Opishnia, Velyki Sorochyntsi, Kremenchuk, Hoholeve, and Dykanka) wrote requests to leaders of local communities to receive public information. Most of the requests concerned the salaries of officials and funds allocated for the repair of shelters. We also guided a resident of Horishni Plavni on how to register a petition on the President’s website.

Comments from our readers

It’s hard to say how many requests residents of the Poltava region submitted after our assistance or after downloading data from the guide – we did not measure it in any way. However, monitoring of social media and groups related to individual communities reveals that people have not only started attending receptions and making verbal applications but also sharing documents received from officials. And now, after the project is completed, they contact us mainly when they have certain doubts about the correctness of drawing up documents.

Today, people not only go to receptions and apply for information verbally, but also publish documents received from officials, thus helping others

We promised to tell you above how our “solution” works. Here are some examples that we consider the most successful.

We helped Kostiantyn, a resident of Velyki Sorochyntsi, write a submission. He wanted law enforcement agencies to check the quality of road repairs in the community and the purpose of the funds spent on those roads. According to Kostiantyn, the funds were allocated, but not all roads were repaired. He made several submissions at once: to the police, the prosecutor’s office, the State Bureau of Investigation and the Head of the Poltava Regional Military Administration. Recently, following the conclusion of the project, Kostiantyn informed us that the regional prosecutor’s office responded, indicating that proceedings had been initiated. Law enforcement officers are now conducting a pre-trial investigation under the article “misappropriation, embezzlement or possession of property under his management or use due to abuse of his official position.”

Our reader received a response to the request

Our other reader, Maryna from Zinkiv, sent the request on her own. She wanted to know how much the community spent on the Armed Forces of Ukraine. She also tried to get estimates for two multimillion-dollar repairs in the community. The officials refused to answer her, so we helped her draw up a complaint to the Commissioner for Human Rights Dmytro Lubinets.

But we didn’t merely confine our assistance to helping people draft complaints. The reader’s requests brought to our attention a problem in the local community: officials committed to repairing the roof of the kindergarten during the autumn-winter period, but the roof was dismantled and left open for a month and a half. During this time, the room was flooded with precipitation, despite the fact that more than 10 million hryvnias were allocated for the reconstruction of the roof. The contractor covered the building with polyethylene and allegedly continued the interior works. But parents are forbidden to look at what has already been done in kindergarten. Despite the local authorities promising to open the first floor at the end of February, parents suspect the builders of negligence, allege deliberate destruction of the building, and have already submitted a report to the police.

After the project is completed, we continue to publish materials based on the results of requests – after all, we work to help the community

This topic interested us, we visited Zinkiv, talked with parents and made an investigation about how the kindergarten is being renovated. By the way, we published this investigation after completing the project, which was supported by UMBA and funded by the EU. By doing this, we want to emphasize that we are working to help the community. And we continue to address important topics consistently, whether a specific project has been completed or is still ongoing.

kindergarten in Zinkiv, which we investigated thanks to readers
Requests are only part of the result

This is true: requests are only part of the job of accessing important information. Getting a response to the request is not enough; it is crucial that the problem is solved so that the situation begins to change. Therefore, we distributed all the information received in response to requests within the project.

Getting a response to the request is not enough; it is crucial that the problem is solved so that the situation begins to change

As mentioned earlier, the requests mainly pertained to details on salaries and bonuses of officials. These publications received the greatest coverage. “Do they really deserve that?” – this is the most popular question that our readers asked in the comments. Here, we are referring to bonuses, financial assistance, and the so-called allowance according to Cabinet of Ministers Resolution No. 268 (also known as the allowance “for intensity” or “for tension and complexity in work”). If we omit direct insults to local officials, people often comment that officials do not really deserve such a kind of money.

“Their salaries and bonuses are very good, but what kind of work has been done??? Weeds have overgrown everywhere except for the center (right, why bother?). The bypass road is just horrible; you can easily break a leg even while walking, let alone driving. They haven’t even tried to patch at least one hole” – that’s what people are saying under the article about salaries for officials in Hoholeve Territorial Community.

“High achievements are the lack of shelters in schools in 2022 due to more than half a year of war, lies about the conditions of schools, and in 2023 ridiculous blah-blah about the inability to cook food at school.” “I want to add a CT scanner to the list of ridiculous procurements. It didn’t work during Covid, and it doesn’t work now,” say the residents of Horishni Plavni.

Comments are also a form of discussion, and in addition to negative and sometimes offensive ones, residents also provided constructive opinions

But comments are also a form of discussion, and in addition to negative and sometimes offensive ones, residents also provided constructive opinions. For example, people started actively participating in the life of their communities: analyzing the documents that determine bonuses, identifying which local deputies voted for such decisions, and so on. Therefore, our work has a good result – the awareness of people is growing, the number of constructive discussions is increasing, respectively, and officials are gradually less likely to refuse access to information. I want to delve into this in more detail because such changes happen slowly, and my colleagues from other media should consider our experience.

Readers’ comments
Experience worth considering

I’ll start with statistics that demonstrate the extent of the work we’ve accomplished in this project and enable us to compare the results with the efforts we’ve invested. So, during our participation in the project, supported by UMBA and funded by the EU, we produced 4 long-read investigations and 49 analytical articles on our website and social media, covering topics such as the distribution of budget funds in communities, access to public information, regional restoration, and salaries of community leaders. We also analyzed public procurement announced by municipal institutions and organizations of the Poltava region, and the potential corruption risks of these procurements.

We conducted 4 long-read investigations, published 48 analytical articles on our website and social media platforms, and analyzed public procurement along with potential corruption risks. All these efforts were made to be useful to our community

Throughout the project implementation, the website’s audience increased by 16%, Facebook saw a 2.5% growth, and Telegram experienced a significant rise of 20.45%. I would like to emphasize that the project gave us a common vision of potential directions for the development of digital platforms. Now, many colleagues are questioning the value of maintaining accounts on multiple social media platforms and pondering the goals and expectations associated with each. Therefore, I think our achievements will be useful to everyone.

”Ask” video

Topics are the second question. We differ in direction from our colleagues, because we are not a regional news media, but work as a Investigative Journalism Center. We do not plan to shift our focus from investigations and analytics to news and diverse content aimed at garnering a larger audience. We do not consider our niche less popular.

Two words about us. MediaDokaz Investigative Journalism Center Information Agency of Poltava region was created by a group of journalists from Kremenchuk in June 2022. The project commenced with financial backing from the NGO “Institute for Regional Press Development,” supported by EUACI, as part of the project titled “Assistance in creation and financial support during the war.” MediaDokaz editorial staff is located in Kremenchuk but our analytical materials and investigations cover the whole Poltava region. We write about both large cities and small communities in our region. At the moment, the editorial staff consists of three journalists and a proofreader. The work is exclusively financed through grant funds received from foreign and Ukrainian organizations.

The main outcome of our efforts is to increase awareness among residents of small towns and communities in the Poltava region. Pay attention to the size of the distribution geography. While most of the media in the Poltava region focus on large cities, residents of small towns and villages may not be aware of how budget funds are allocated for officials, repairs, and improving local areas. Based on our experience, we’ve observed that signs of corruption can be identified in the majority of significant procurements made in the region, and often the community is unaware of the actual costs of specific projects. So there is definitely something to study here.

The main result of our work is that the level of awareness of people is growing, and officials are less likely to deny access to information

The third aspect is usefulness and assistance. Our project did not concern a separate community and was not focused only on it. Our goal was to help not a narrow, but a broad audience of citizens gain access to information, using editorial knowledge and experience. Now, having accomplished this, residents of the region have a centralized resource providing knowledge about their rights in times of war, along with document samples for obtaining data, all accompanied by a comprehensive guide on appealing to refusals. As a result, as I said above, we see that people’s awareness is growing, and officials are less likely to deny access to information.

Success is where flexibility comes in

We would advise our colleagues to pay attention to the fact that the key to success is flexibility, because the process of implementing your plans within the project can change. For instance, when we applied to participate in this project competition, our anticipation was to engage technical specialists for website development. With the support of the donor, we aimed to address the shortcomings of our web resource and fill specific knowledge gaps. But then they realized that the first result should be the achievements of the community, and assistance to individual residents. And our actions should be subordinated to this goal. Therefore, we had to change our plans, both for the design of a special guide and for the involvement of the community.

Flexibility is the key to success. It is also about your focus and the underlying reason for your actions

Then our team shifted the focus from the website to social media platforms, which actually became the main communication space. The project enabled editorial staff members to undergo a series of trainings focused on social media development, providing them with insights into their functionality and content requirements. So, the editors added more videos to social media and started a profile in TikTok. We have changed the approach to some posts in Telegram and are trying to change the website settings to update the style of posts on Facebook.

Our TikTok channel

We expanded our presence on various platforms and successfully attracted more residents from different communities interested in a transparent budget allocation process. Now we continue to develop our platforms and use them for effective communication.

AUTHORS: Editorial staff of MediaDokaz

This publication was created with the support of the European Union. The content is the sole responsibility of the Ukrainian Media Business Association and does not necessarily reflect the position of the European Union, whose financial support made the project possible.