Dialogue on cutbacks – collective ideas for broader support in the municipality of Zeist

The municipality of Zeist (approx. 64,000 inhabitants) faced the challenge of having to cut its spending by 6.2 million euros. A decision was made to take the innovative approach of engaging with citizens in a social discussion on possible spending cuts. Through this process of co-creation with its residents, the Zeist local authority not only managed to balance the budget, but it has also helped the local authority forge closer ties with the community and garner broader support for cutbacks.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

Initially, the local authority took up the cutback challenge by setting up a working group with senior civil servants headed up by the municipal clerk. The working group was tasked with developing three cutback scenarios and submitting them to local residents. However, the members of the working group wondered whether this would actually produce the desired social discussion and the right choices. The central question was, ‘Who is affected most by the required cutbacks?’ When it turned out that society would be hit the hardest by the cutbacks, Zeist decided to take a different approach, one that harnessed the power, creativity, and expertise of the local community. This ultimately led to an action plan that drew inspiration from how the European Commission works, which is to tap into the power of the community by inviting (citizen) experts in certain areas to, based on eight subject areas (care and well-being, citizen and outdoor space, sport, culture and social economy, urban development, security, citizen and governance, and education), help make well-founded proposals for spending cuts.

The process of engaging with citizens on possible cutbacks spanned a total of approximately nine months (starting when the municipal council defined the framework for the talks and ending when the joint decisions were submitted to the council). The dialogue was shaped in an innovative way by going beyond the existing frameworks for advice to the municipal executive and council:
• The eight subject areas were explored by eight groups, which were each headed up by a subject manager. These managers were recruited from within the organisation, based primarily on their enthusiasm and competencies. They were subsequently trained to manage the process across the various groups, working on their management skills and traveling to Brussels to meet fellow subject managers working in an EU setting. Internally, they were fully or partly relieved of their regular duties.
• Over 250 local residents were directly engaged in the eight subjects specified above. It was important that the (citizen) experts had a mixture of expertise, experience, and interest to be able to acquire a comprehensive picture of the problem, as well as to find solutions. All the relevant interests were represented at each table of experts. One table of experts covered a maximum of forty interests and therefore consisted of a maximum of forty experts.
• Unconventional methods were used to engage citizens in dialogue, including 3D street drawings by professional artists. Young people were involved by organising competitions through schools, asking youngsters for their input on how to cut spending and to capture their ideas in a video.

After a kick-off event with 250 local residents and eight subject groups, dialogue on cutbacks was held at six meetings of one evening each. This was split into two phases of three meetings each, the Green Book phase and the White Book phase.

Each subject group was set the following brief:
• Develop a vision within the subject area where Zeist should be in 2020. This vision is to be recorded in a so-called Green Book.
• Develop, based on the vision, specific proposals based on funds available for each subject (White Book).
• Make specific proposals for the subject area in which you participate, focused on the creation of new relationships between the public sector and society.
• Work these proposals out together with your dialogue partners for the subject area to achieve a broad perspective.

The municipal executive subsequently reviewed the results of the Green Book phase. What followed was the White Book phase, which consisted of formulating specific proposals. During this phase, the groups could also draw on the expertise of civil servants. Given the fact that the budget had been cut structurally, the proposals included specific cutbacks.

In the end, 217 proposals were formulated, spread over eight white books. These proposals were captured on so-called product sheets with all the relevant information and submitted to the municipal council for a decision.

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Year: 2011
Level of government: Local government


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