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.
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.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
Both the approach and the results show how innovative the local authority was in this dialogue on cutbacks, both for the various subject groups and in terms of civic participation and improving the quality of the democracy. Zeist managed to get 200 local residents to participate in the 8 subject groups, with 80 percent staying involved throughout the entire process. The dialogue on cutbacks was also evaluated in an innovative way. Filmmaker Frans Bromet chronicled the whole process in a film. Watching this film triggered in-depth learning conversations between the people involved.
Within the civil service organisation, people went off the beaten path to recruit enthusiastic process supervisors to run the various subject areas, supervisors who complied with the required profile. They took training and got the opportunity to exchange learning experiences through methods such as storytelling. And they were relieved of all their other duties to be able to focus fully on their new role.
What is the current status of your innovation?
Following the dialogue on cutbacks, the Zeist local authority took a range of other initiatives in the area of democratic renewal. They held a Z battle, for example, where residents could submit ideas for the municipality, council members went out into the various districts on Democracy Day to learn what residents would like to see change, and they organised the 24 hours of Zeist to engage with residents on how to shape democracy in Zeist. At the Meal of Zeist event, council members and civil servants jointly went out to find recipes for the good life in Zeist. This resulted in a "recipe book", existing side by side with the municipal executive’s program. The local authority uses both as guidelines for governing the city. After the proposals had been collected in society and published, the municipal council decided which proposals would and which would not be implemented, whereby they pointed out that the community could also implement certain initiatives itself.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Involved in the dialogue process were citizens, the municipal council, and the municipal executive, as well as local civil servants. Two hundred locals participated in the subject groups. Although council members did not take part in the subject group discussions, they played an important rule during both the start phase in setting the frameworks and during the decision-making phase in stating reasons for accepting or rejecting proposals.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
The dialogue on cutbacks ultimately led to a balanced budget thanks to the cutback proposals that could rely on commitment from local residents. During the white book phase, 217 proposals were made by eight subject groups for cutbacks totaling 7.6 million euros, while spending ‘only’ needed to be cut by 6.2 million euros. The proposals varied greatly in content. Some were focused on savings, while others targeted a rethink of the relationship between society and the public sector. The tables of experts came up with proposals that would never or were highly unlikely to ever come up for discussion in a ‘normal’ political context.
Aside from that, a number of so-called ‘soft’ culture changes were realised, such as the creation of new networks with citizens, a boost in local residents’ trust in their local authority, a broader perspective for civil servants on what local people find important, and greater confidence in the power of the community.
Challenges and Failures
The main challenge that the Zeist local authority faced during the dialogue on cutbacks and the Meal of Zeist initiative was how to make the community come up with proposals for spending cuts and improvements. Following on from that, it also turned out to be a challenge to align society’s priorities with those of politicians: how do these relate to each other and which priorities should prevail?
When the local authority launched the dialogue on cutbacks and the Meal of Zeist initiative, the expectations were high. The challenge was also to manage these expectations and fulfill them.
Conditions for Success
The Zeist local authority considered the results of the dialogues with the community and the plans of its politicians equally important and equally guiding in charting the municipality’s course. In fact, political priorities and proposals from the community turned out to largely overlap.
The success of the dialogue on cutbacks hinged on the reciprocity between democracy, society, and organisation, which also meant that these three entities needed to develop. The local authority had the courage to completely change their internal collaboration practices. One example was the confidence placed in ‘the triangle’, i.e. the municipal clerk, mayor, and registrar. Talks between the three members of this trinity dictated the agenda, following which the municipal council made the decisions. The Meal of Zeist initiative built on the development that the dialogue on cutbacks had set in motion for the community, council, and organisation.
In other local authorities, too, similar dialogue with the community could be equally successful. It does, however, require the organisation, community, and council to trust each other’s role, as came to the fore in Zeist in the conversations that ended up setting the agenda. Aside from that, the dialogue on cutbacks has laid a solid foundation for far-reaching collaboration between society, council, and civil service. Residents have gone through a development and learnt to fulfill a different, more active role. This basis needs to be laid first so that you can build on it.
Democratic renewal is achieved only through reciprocity between politics, society, and the civil service. This is the most important lesson that the Zeist local authority has learnt. This reciprocity requires each of the three groups to develop in a certain direction. Stakeholders in society need to develop by learning how to be active citizens, so as to be able to play a role in coming up with proposals for spending cuts and improvements. The council needs to get used to a role where control is bestowed elsewhere, and also to working methods where democratic legitimacy is also ensured in other ways. This is when a new balance emerges between the controlling role, framework-setting role, and representative role. But the civil service, too, is expected to assume a different role. The municipal organisation becomes a facilitator that brings stakeholders together so that they can come up with problems that exist in society. In all of this, the power of the community comes first, with the community tackling problems itself and the municipal authority adapting and taking its lead from the community.
Another lesson is the importance of being consistent as a municipal council in deciding which proposals to pursue and which to reject after they have been collected and shared with everyone, and in doing so, pointing out which initiatives the community can pursue itself. In Zeist, the local authority ensured clear frameworks for the dialogue on cutbacks. They made clear right from the start of the dialogue on cutbacks that existing policy would not be dropped. They did the same for the Meal of Zeist initiative.
Lastly, the only way for the Zeist local authority to fulfill the community’s expectations, was for the politicians to retreat. Only then does the community have enough space to develop innovative solutions. At the same time, the municipal council has to be clear from the start that the final decision will be made by them.