Anger management: restoring the relationship between local government and local business

Every policymaker or political leader in local government will recognise the feeling of frustration when the only people convinced of your good intentions are the members of your own administration. This was certainly the case recently in Nijverdal, a town of 25,000 inhabitants in the eastern part of the Netherlands. Fortunately, a remarkable series of events has restored the relationship between the municipal government and the village’s small businesses.

A broken relationship

Let’s start from a personal perspective. When I began work four years ago as alderman/vice-mayor of Nijverdal, I was new to the area. Since the town centre was one of my administrative responsibilities, I thought it best to get to know the people there straight away. And that’s easy to do – just walk into one of the 130 stores at a quiet moment and strike up a conversation with the owner. Always begin with the weather (a Dutch habit just as much as British one) before moving on to the economy, the market and, of course, the policy of the local government – my new employer.

These discussions always started out as open and friendly. Until, unavoidably, I mentioned my new role as municipal administrator for the area. And that changed the entire conversation. From that moment on, I was no longer seen as a normal citizen. Judging from the atmosphere, I was now a representative of the organisation whose sole purpose was to eliminate any form of commercial success in the town. Not having spoken to any of the store owners until then (I had hardly been to Nijverdal before I started), I encountered hostility, mistrust, and total incomprehension of the local government. Sometimes the customers joined in the conversation, all supporting the shopkeeper’s arguments.

At the same time, all the political parties represented on the local council demanded policy action on a desperately needed spatial and commercial “upgrade” of the town centre. It seemed like a mission destined to fail. Public confidence in the municipal government was so low that our lack of legitimacy seriously endangered any type of policy, despite our best intentions. Everything that originated from city hall was seen as “tainted”, and would never be adopted or accepted by civil society. But that didn’t convince the local politicians, who demanded that something be done – and quickly.

Calling civil society

All the regular policy scenarios we explored resulted in a prediction of failure. Running out of conventional options, we decided to try something new – the lack of legitimacy gave us no alternative. And so we handed the challenge of designing an integrated masterplan for the centre of Nijverdal over to civil society. We invited the relevant stakeholders – citizens, shopkeepers, building owners, interest organisations – to tell us, the municipality, what was needed to improve stakeholder satisfaction and increase total commercial revenue. We hired two good external process facilitators to help, but left their job descriptions to the participants.

There was some hesitancy at the outset, but very quickly large groups and sub-groups began talking, thinking, designing. All without any involvement from civil servants, local politicians, or administrators. The group of people involved grew apace – a kind of energy and optimism emerged that they hadn’t felt in a long time. In the end, this group had to rent the local theatre for its meetings because there was nowhere else big enough in Nijverdal.

After about six months of intense effort, they presented a masterplan to the municipality. And since barely any constraints were imposed at the beginning of this process, it was not expected to dovetail seamlessly with existing policies. For example, Nijverdal had a paid parking regime, with meters all around the centre. Businesses and consumers agreed that the parking meters had to go, and the new policy should be free parking everywhere. The general public seemed to agree passionately on this policy measure, but we – the administration – could point to expert reports demonstrating that removing the parking meters wouldn’t improve the town centre’s gross revenue, which was after all the underlying goal. So, what were we to do? For politicians, there is a very thin line between representation of the people and populism.

By the people, for the people

Then we entered the endgame: the decision of the local council. All our efforts, all our work, and all the fragilely restored trust could be trashed by a negative vote of the 25 councillors, who had the final say. During the preparation for the vote, the municipal administration had to acknowledge that the masterplan ran counter to the coalition agreements on several key issues. The plan didn’t add up financially, in fact it showed a large, structural budget shortage. But the vote was unanimous – 25 in favour, no opposition.

The best explanation for the positive vote was given by a conservative member of the local council – who had never voted for anything opposing the coalition agreement, and had never voted for a proposal without a balanced budget. She said: “we are supposed to represent the people. But in this case, we don’t need to represent them. We don’t need to weigh or balance all interests. Society has done this itself. All stakeholders, including our citizens, have collectively spoken themselves. Who are we to disagree with them?”

Personally, I learned four key lessons:

  1. Be sure that everyone is involved. Although we conceded almost all our influence over this project, we secretly checked that everyone who wanted or needed to be involved, was involved. A masterplan that doesn’t have broad approval will not succeed, because the interests it serves will be too narrow.
  2. Be clear about constraints. If the project has any red flags, make this clear at the outset. It will be very frustrating for people to invest their time in researching an option, only for the authorities to say later on that it wasn’t on the table after all.
  3. Accept that if citizens are asked to make choices, they will make different choices from the professional administrators, and probably with a different outcome. This is more of a problem than it sounds!
  4. Be prepared to take risks. If at the beginning of this process, I’d fully understood the political risks involved, maybe I wouldn’t have dared set it up in the first place.

People now seem generally satisfied. Some love the long-desired improvement to the public space, shopkeepers enjoy the new collective and constructive mentality, many shoppers value being able to shop without having to worry about parking fines, and that’s all good.

But for me, one aspect outweighs them all – as a local government, we have won back some of our legitimacy.

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What is legitimacy to you? Where do you see legitimacy working well? How governments work with citizens to build legitimacy is a big question for CPI. 

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