It has been four years since King Willem-Alexander heralded the dawn of the participatory society. The government called on citizens to take more matters into their own hands rather than wait for the State to deal with them. So has it worked? Public administration expert William Voorberg: “Everyone wants to get busy on co-creation – without knowing why.”

William Voorberg – De Kwestie – participatiesamenleving

Public Administration expert William Voorberg (1985) works as a post-doc researcher for Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences. In the autumn of 2017, Voorberg was awarded a doctorate for his research into co-creation and civic participation. He is also the coordinator of the Governance Design Studio, which works to develop solutions for issues on the interface of science and practice.

Let’s go back to 2013: King Willem-Alexander announced during his speech from the throne that the welfare state would make way for a participatiesamenleving (participatory society). Why was it announced at that time exactly?

“I wouldn’t say it was announced. It was sooner a case of the King mentioning a trend that was already taking shape. In Business Administration, we have three paradigms that describe how government policy is developed.

“For a long time, the Netherlands was known for its welfare system: you could count on the State taking care of you – whether it was your security or your health. This model came under considerable pressure in the 1990s: people said it led to bureaucracy, sluggish decision-making and high costs.

“At which point a second form was introduced: free market principles. In the Netherlands, the clearest manifestation of this philosophy could be found in the care sector: the publicly-funded national health insurance system was abolished, and private health insurers became competitors. Citizens were turned into customers. But this too had a downside: it leads to a flat, one-dimensional approach to public services, where the sole focus is on efficiency and earning money.

“People started thinking: ‘Surely, we can develop a different kind of relationship with these citizens. Individuals don’t all want to be forced into the same mould. Citizens have a good idea of how they can solve specific problems, and can even help others in some cases. You could already see signs of this development years ago. Public Administration scholars called it ‘New Public Governance’. The recent financial crisis formed a perfect window of opportunity for publicly launching this participatory society. We had run out of money, which created room for a new approach to policy development. Because that’s another aspect of the participatiesamenleving: it’s also an austerity programme.”

Since then, citizens are expected to actively join in, participate, co-create. What does that mean?

“I like to use a band metaphor. Dave Grohl, the former drummer of Nirvana and the lead vocalist of the Foo Fighters, once explained how he writes songs. He comes up with a new idea, which he then shares with the other band members. After that, everyone pulls the idea this way and that, based on his individual abilities and skills. This turns it into something that gives everyone a sense of ownership. That’s my idea of co-creation: someone takes an initiative – a private citizen, for example, but it could also be the government – and seeks out other parties. So that together, they can realise something that’s to everyone’s benefit.”

‘They want to involve citizens in policy at every level. But participation in itself isn’t necessarily beneficial.’

William Voorberg

But that wasn’t a new approach as such?

“Well, what’s new about it is that the involved citizen is given more leeway to develop ideas of his or her own. For example, you could have an undeveloped site somewhere, and you don’t have to go through miles of red tape before you can start a vegetable garden there. In fact: the municipality may have even reserved a budget for that kind of thing. In addition, a growing number of citizens are getting involved in municipal decision-making. In Rotterdam, for example, you had Stadsinitiatief, in which private citizens were invited to choose between a number of landmark projects. This yielded a skating rink and the Luchtsingel footbridge.”

This new societal model has a lot of fans. Are you one of them?

“I’m fairly cynical about it, actually – particularly when it comes to implementation.”

Why are you cynical?

“One reason is that ‘participation’ has been adopted as a value in its own right. Like democracy. Or transparency. They want to involve citizens in policy at every level. But participation in itself isn’t necessarily beneficial. It depends on what you want to achieve with it – and some domains are more suited than others. Take flood risk management. If you’re considering reinforcing a dike, I’d call it very wise – and in the public interest – to not let the viewpoint of a farmer who lives behind the dike (and obviously doesn’t feel like moving) carry too much weight.”

kwestie participatiesamenleving co-creatie nimby dijkverbreding bas van der schot
Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Could you offer a concrete example of civic participation having an adverse effect?

“In my study I mention a playground they built in Slovakia. There was a plot of unused land and the local residents had an idea for a playground. The municipality said ‘Fine, you’re allowed to develop it yourself, but then you’re responsible for managing it too. No problem: they had a beautiful playground that was kept in tip-top shape. Until their children had grown up. It fell into disrepair in no time. That touches on a second, important point of criticism: participation only presents true added value when it transcends the issues of the day: when there’s durable co-creation.”

The big promise made by the participatory society is that everyone’s allowed to join the debate and pitch in. Does it really work that way?

“I don’t think so. And that’s my third – and most fundamental – objection. In many cases, we’re talking about trendy initiatives – urban vegetable gardens, playgrounds for city kids – that have a very exclusionary effect. It’s always the same people who set to work on that kind of civic initiative. They know how the procedures work, and where you need to go for funding. They’re highly educated people with a left-wing orientation and a socio-economic status that allows them to invest their free time in these projects. The latter is a prerequisite. Go figure: if you’re a single parent who hardly earns enough to make the rent every month, you have other things on your mind than redeveloping your street. The same applies to a lawyer who works 60-hour weeks, by the way.”

‘Als de overheid ervoor kiest om dit soort projecten tot standaard te verheffen, ga je mensen uitsluiten’

William Voorberg

Is that a bad thing?

“There’s nothing wrong per se with a cultural and economic elite arranging things for other members of its group. But when a government decides to adopt that kind of project as a standard, you start to exclude people. At which point, the participatory society leads to growing inequality.”

Perhaps it is inherent in this model. You may see it as an unwanted and negative side effect, but a classical liberal would call it a very fair arrangement: if you want something, you need to make an effort for it.

“I want to point out that in this model, the people at the bottom end of our society will be forced in direct competition with – to name an example – a very vocal GroenLinks voter. The latter has a far better idea of whom he should approach in the corridors of power. That could be a political choice. But it is quite possible that this approach structurally deprives certain groups of equal access to, for example, green spaces, a clean street or a public library.”

EN – kwestie participatiesamenleving co-creatie bezuiniging bas van der schot
Image credit: Bas van der Schot

In 2015, Vice Mayor Joost Eerdmans introduced the ‘Right to Challenge’ in Rotterdam. In the case of specific public services, citizens are now allowed to say ‘I can do a better, more efficient or cheaper job, so give me that contract. Regardless of one’s skin colour, income, level of education or background, right?

“In theory, yes. But once again, you could question whether Eerdmans is really reaching ‘the common Rotterdammer’. He’s not reaching my retired mother, I can tell you that. Furthermore, the whole premise of the Right to Challenge has a polarising effect. The government and the individual citizen become a kind of competitors. Whereas I think that with co-creation, your best tactic is to take advantage of each other’s talents.”

You have quite a few objections. Do you believe we should return to a traditional welfare state?

“No. It’s simply that I’m annoyed by the implicit conviction that participation is always a good thing. If participation leads to better care for senior citizens, do we see this reflected in a reduced number of lonely and isolated elderly people? Do these urban gardens result in a healthier, fairer city? Perhaps – but I’d like to see hard evidence. And you can measure that stuff. In fact, now that we’re recovering from the economic slump, I think this is a fine occasion to start doing just that. The time has come for authorities to professionalise the way they handle civic participation.”