DIY Politics — an example of direct citizen involvement

By Chris­tine Hübner.

One evening last week all my Dutch col­leagues and friends sud­den­ly hud­dled in front of their TV sets—in big excite­ment about the soon-to-be announced abdi­ca­tion of their queen Beat­rix in favour of her eldest son Prince Willem Alexan­der. I was watch­ing the hap­pen­ings in a mix­ture of awe, curios­i­ty, and—at the same time—utter incom­pre­hen­sion. Excit­ed to expe­ri­ence some first-hand monar­chy, I was also per­plexed about how sud­den my for­ward-look­ing and hands-on Dutch friends turned their atten­tion towards non­sen­si­cal dis­cus­sions about whether the queen was too old for the throne or her son too inex­pe­ri­enced to take over. Their per­spec­tives seemed pro­found­ly out­dat­ed to me and did not fit the inven­tive and prag­mat­ic image I had of my host country.

That image stemmed from expe­ri­ences such as the lat­est ini­tia­tive for direct cit­i­zen involve­ment in the city of Rot­ter­dam: I was pret­ty sur­prised when I received an invi­ta­tion from the munic­i­pal­i­ty in Novem­ber invit­ing me to voice my opin­ion on how Rot­ter­dam should approach the nec­es­sary reforms of munic­i­pal admin­is­tra­tion. With an inter­est to reduce admin­is­tra­tive lay­ers and trim down the num­ber of pub­lic office hold­ers, it was decid­ed that local dis­trict coun­cils (deel­ge­meen­ter­aden) can no longer be elect­ed from 2014. The dis­cus­sion of alter­na­tives on how to involve towns­peo­ple in city pol­i­tics was not sup­posed to take place behind closed doors. Instead, the aim was to design alter­na­tives for the admin­is­tra­tion of Rot­ter­dam after 2014 with the help of inven­tive Rot­ter­dammers them­selves. And of as many of them as possible.

A vari­ety of con­tact points such as local dis­trict debates and dis­cus­sion forums offered oppor­tu­ni­ties for cit­i­zens to speak up and guide the deci­sion mak­ing process. Insti­tu­tion­al­ized groups such as hous­ing coop­er­a­tives, ten­ant asso­ci­a­tions, church­es, and even sports clubs were asked to gath­er feed­back from mem­bers and make sug­ges­tions from their point of view. The iter­a­tive process of gath­er­ing reac­tions and devel­op­ing alter­na­tives was accom­pa­nied by a research project on pub­lic opin­ion deliv­er­ing quan­ti­ta­tive and qual­i­ta­tive insights from some 3,300 cit­i­zens. Final­ly, all cit­i­zens eli­gi­ble to vote—in total more than 500.000 people—were con­tact­ed to cast a vote on one of two devel­oped alternatives.

The offi­cial report on the project men­tions legit­i­mate crit­i­cism both on the two alter­na­tive solu­tions ulti­mate­ly put for­ward as well as on the process itself. It not­ed that with about 12 months the iter­a­tions on the pro­posed mod­els took lots of time and effort and that they did not involve enough peo­ple: of the 500,000 invit­ed to join about 25,000 peo­ple vot­ed online. Togeth­er with anoth­er 4,500 cit­i­zens giv­ing qual­i­ta­tive feed­back and about 650 cit­i­zens vis­it­ing one of the pub­lic debates, some 30,000 peo­ple were active­ly involved—a mea­ger 6% of the pop­u­la­tion in the city. There is no account of the spread of involve­ment over social groups, but the turnout by dis­trict shows that most involved were the inhab­i­tants of afflu­ent parts of town and those most affect­ed by the reform. Cit­i­zens from quar­ters pre­dom­i­nant­ly inhab­it­ed by immi­grants and sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Dutch were much less like­ly to voice their opinion.

With­out doubt, if the project were to be repeat­ed this crit­i­cism has to be recon­sid­ered closely—especially the involve­ment of all social groups needs to be ensured. Cit­i­zens need to know about the cam­paign and need to have the capa­bil­i­ties to par­tic­i­pate in it. Nev­er­the­less, both as a cit­i­zen and a con­vinced demo­c­rat, I want to applaud this ini­tia­tive for its bold­ness giv­en two reasons:

  1. First­ly, try­ing to engage cit­i­zens is always bet­ter than tak­ing deci­sions with­out any involve­ment. Yes, a delib­er­a­tive process takes time, but it has to be worth it by the very nature of democ­ra­cy. This project may have only reached 6% of the pop­u­la­tion, but from a dif­fer­ent point of view it has engaged more than 30,000 peo­ple who would nev­er have had the chance to speak up if the process had tak­en place with­out the effort to involve cit­i­zens. There are no exam­ples known in the Nether­lands for a pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion process that active­ly involved such a large num­ber of citizens.
  2. Secondly—and this may be the most under­es­ti­mat­ed argu­ment in this debate—in a con­sul­ta­tive process all cit­i­zens can at least feel involved. Even if I did not active­ly par­tic­i­pate in the debates, I did feel a part of the deci­sion mak­ing process just by expe­ri­enc­ing the com­mu­ni­ca­tion cam­paign all over town, find­ing a let­ter in my mail­box, and hav­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty to par­tic­i­pate. This project is a great exam­ple for what every CEO knows as stake­hold­er buy-in: cit­i­zens will be more will­ing to sup­port the imple­men­ta­tion of a solu­tion by feel­ing engaged in the process of reach­ing it. For a city that hosts so many dif­fer­ent nation­al­i­ties, cul­tur­al and social back­grounds as Rot­ter­dam, this involve­ment may exact­ly be what cit­i­zens need to pro­mote a peace­ful together.

One rea­son why this process of involve­ment is tried in the Nether­lands above all coun­tries may be hid­den in the Dutch his­to­ry of Pold­er pol­i­tics: a polit­i­cal style that is aimed at con­sen­sus and com­pro­mise. I may have been judg­ing too fast on the impor­tance of the Dutch queen for the state of democ­ra­cy in my host coun­try, as it is the queen and her roy­al fam­i­ly who com­mit to the very same lead­er­ship style of bring­ing par­ties togeth­er instead of dri­ving polit­i­cal oppo­sites apart. Sit­ting togeth­er to talk things through and—if in doubt—inventing new ways to solve prob­lems prag­mat­i­cal­ly is some­thing I now deem a fun­da­men­tal­ly Dutch qual­i­ty. And some­thing that I would wish to see applied more often across Europe in the future.

Chris­tine Hüb­n­er is a part­ner at d|part.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

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