“In practice, the participation society is a whole lot less self-evident than I’d like to see,” says Nico Haasbroek, a participating journalist reporting on his attempts to improve the Rotterdam city district of Middelland under the name of ‘De Middellandman’. “The main reason for this is that reactionary politicians simply haven’t got the guts to delegate power, even if they wanted to.”

This comment is in response to Public Administration specialist William Voorberg, who said in EM earlier this week that governments have no idea what they’re doing since King Willem-Alexander announced the participation society in his Speech from the Throne in 2013. The government has been investing in co-creation without even drawing up any long-term strategy, let alone making it clear what specific improvements this will make in the living environment.

Haasbroek’s main criticism is that the majority of citizens’ initiatives are thought up by and for a socio-cultural elite. And this means they aren’t contributing to the inclusive society we were promised. On the contrary, they’re actually functioning as an exclusion mechanism which in turn encourages inequality.

‘Self-sufficient community’

‘There are a whole lot of Rotterdam citizens taking initiatives, not just a handful of people seeking collaboration or applying for subsidies’

Anne Boomsluiter

Staff at the Municipality of Rotterdam disagree with this criticism. As Municipal Participation Advisor, Anne Boomsluiter informed us that ‘all our organisational units’ have put collaboration with Rotterdam’s citizens high up on the agenda. “We welcome personal initiatives and we’re assuming this will result in a city with a self-sufficient community,” she added.

No, this ‘self-sufficient community’ isn’t reserved for an elite comprising creative GroenLinks voters. “There are a whole lot of Rotterdam citizens taking initiatives, not just a handful of people seeking collaboration or applying for subsidies,” Ms Boomsluiter told us. “Walk down any street in the city and ask people what we’re doing for their neighbourhood.”

Against all odds

“There’s a very real danger of exclusion,” says Marieke Hillen, who set up projects like Singeldingen and Het Wijkpaleis to fill the gap left when welfare organisations and community centres had to close down about 10 years ago due to lack of government aid. Ms Hillen is the embodiment of the participation society. But, she warns, you have to speak and act in a certain way in order to be able to join the civil-service circus. And you have to have the time and energy to fight for what you want – sometimes against all odds.

But, she hastens to say, elderly Surinamese ladies and trendy young hipsters are equally welcome at Het Wijkpaleis. “This type of initiative has really brought it home to people how important it is to open your doors to everyone,” she says. “But it means a lot of hard work all the same.”

Dragging their feet

With respect to the municipality’s role, Haasbroek and Hillen both agree with William Voorberg’s statement that the government hasn’t got any clear idea of its actual goals for participation. Haasbroek said that civil servants are scared because it might just turn out that participating citizens can do the municipality’s work every bit as well as they can (if not better!) if you trust them and give them the freedom to do so.

Hillen added that civil servants are ‘dragging their feet’: politicians might make a song and dance about participation and co-creation, but municipal services staff are actually the ones who have to give active citizens enough scope. But some of them don’t approve of all this ‘power sharing’, as she calls it. “Most civil servants are tremendously enthusiastic, but I still comes across some who dig their heels in, or worse, who deliberately and maliciously sabotage the scheme.”

Bloody elite!

‘Sometimes we just have to put on an imaginary Teflon suit and let it all slide off’

Marieke Hillen

All right then, let’s give the alderman a call. This is Joost Eerdmans, who introduced Right to Challenge in support of democratic innovation. We asked whether he could identify with the above description, and what he thought of the conclusion that ‘ordinary Rotterdammers’ are losing out in the participation circus, again because of that bloody elite?

According to his spokesperson Claudia Verhulp, Alderman Eerdmans didn’t have time to answer our questions personally. Nor could she tell us whether the present Municipal Executive has actually attained its goals, including those on citizens’ participation. “If we did that, we’d be anticipating the evaluation, which won’t be held until the end of the Executive’s term in office,” she told us.

So we’ll just have to wait till the municipal elections in March 2018. In the meantime, concerned citizens like Hillen and Haasbroek will carry on determinedly with projects that look like they will be a success – in spite of the government rather than thanks to any efforts on its part! “Sometimes we just have to put on an imaginary Teflon suit and let it all slide off,” as Hillen says. Haasbroek adds: “The municipal elections will be coming up very soon, so we’ll be battling for a real participation society till we drop by the wayside. Won’t you join us?”