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Borders to Cross – Amsterdam promotes ‘do-ocracy’ 6 November 2013

Posted by cooperatoby in Amsterdam.
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Dutch Minister of the Interior Ronald Plasterk is keen not to reduce the welfare state, but to augment it through citizen participation. Accordingly, his ministry has just sponsored the Borders to Cross event, held in the De Zwijger warehouse in Amsterdam’s Eastern Docks. This brought some 300 people together to examine and debate a score of initiatives from round the world in which citizens have taken the development of their communities into their own hands.

A participative event in both form and content

CIMG2968 Pakhuis De ZwijgerThe participants divided roughly into half from civil society, a third from local government and a quarter from academia. They could attend workshops on a score of initiatives from around Europe, comment on poster displays, and intervene in plenaries. Journalist Tracy Metz facilitated with energy, humour and insight, with the help of modern technology. The walls of the main hall displayed an uplifting display of images of local initiatives and those fortunate enough to have a smart phone could vote in instant polls via Sendsteps (which by the way is free for an audience size of up to 20).

This was backed up by a powerful demonstration of political will – none other than the Minister of the Interior, Ronald Plasterk – turned up to kick off the closing plenary. The final presentation was a barn-stormer from Jim Diers, a community organiser who had been appointed by the mayor of Seattle to lead a team of what he called “overt double agents” working to promote community initiatives within the local authority. The city encourages volunteering through its Neighbourhood Matching Fund, set up 25 years ago, which has supported 5,000 projects and is now worth $4.5 million a year.

If democracy was complete, it would decay

Geoff Mulgan of NESTA gave a provocative keynote speech, citing the Copenhagen summit as the most obvious example of world leaders getting together to entirely fail to address the word’s most pressing problem. He said that nowadays democratic institutions have to compete with social media as a means of expression, and are consequently becoming more direct, deliberative and community-based. To work well, democracy needs not just mechanisms for the public to instruct parliament and for the government to deliver policy, but also civil society participation and media scrutiny. He introduced a term that was new for most people – ‘epistemic democracy’, meaning that good decisions stem from putting together the combined knowledge of citizens. The ‘delivery state’ becomes the ‘relational state’.
NESTA is putting this into practice in an EU project called D-CENT – Decentralised Citizens ENgagement Technologies – to pilot two digital platforms for direct democracy and economic empowerment in Finland, Iceland and Spain.

Political will

Ronald Plasterk’s speech, delivered without notes, was impressive. He pointed out that Holland’s municipalities have grown so large – they have on average 20,000 inhabitants – that they have outgrown street-corner direct democracy. But people are better educated and more autonomous. So there is a gap and an opportunity. Secondly, governments can no longer pay for everything. He called for representative democracy to become a “do democracy”, forestalling our doubts by affirming that participation is a new development within the welfare state, not a substitute for it. He values what social democracy has achieved, and does not want to go back to schools that are not run by professionals (an oblique reference to Britain’s ‘free schools’?).
Yet he is conscious of the consequences. First, if you don’t act, yourself, then you have to put up with what others do. Second, geographical differences will be inevitable (what in Britain is derided as a ‘post-code lottery’). Third, enthusiasm goes in waves; energy is not constant and there’s no one to complain to if things go quiet for a while. Fourth, the state can only let go so far: at what point do community meals or nurseries become businesses that require health inspections?
Though full of praise for his passion and sincerity, Tracy Metz did not let him off the hook about the recent abolition of the stadsdelen or boroughs within Amsterdam, which his party had originally opposed and now he had implemented. His reply was simply that the Netherlands had had six tiers of elected authorities (municipalities, cities, provinces, the country, the EU and the water boards) which were too many.
Underlying the optimism, the government appears to have a pragmatic motivation: in the past it has had its fingers burnt when planning proposals have been bogged down in legal challenges. If stakeholders can be engaged beforehand then such unpleasantness can be avoided.

Citizen’s initiatives

– G1000 –Belgium’s citizens reinvent their own government

In 2011, Belgium beat the world record by spending 541 days without a government. A group of citizens created the G1000 citizen’s summit, whose manifesto analyses the problem picturesquely as follows:

Political parties, once created in order to streamline the diverse interests in society, now keep each other in a permanent stranglehold. Politicians are reminiscent of what is known as a rat king, a nest of young rats whose tails are so intertwined that any attempt to pull the knot tightens it further. A rat king doesn’t live long: the animals, which cannot coordinate their actions (each one pulls in its own direction), die of hunger and deprivation. Representative democracy, that fresh system of yesteryear, has become a low-oxygen environment. No wonder the country is in respiratory distress.

– Forum 2020 – running rings round Antwerp’s planners

Antwerp’s traffic planners got themselves into trouble by ploughing ahead without popular support. Manu Claeys, the author of Stilstand, told the story of how Forum 2020 and Ademloos (‘Breathless’) united business and community in a nine-year campaign to successfully oppose the extension of the Antwerp ring-road round the city’s north-west quadrant (the infamous Oosterweelverbinding).
Anxious to be seen to be doing something – anything – the region pressed ahead regardless and signed a pre-contract with BAM, but a referendum has reduced its road-building plans to a halt. Compensation must be paid. “It’s in the run-up to elections that accidents happen” Claeys said. A more deliberative democracy would run more smoothly. And so it shall come to pass: next year parliament is to vote on a law which would provide for public consultation before any formal objections are submitted.

– Sustainable villages

The Netwerk Duurzame Dorpen (Sustainable Village Network) brings together 83 Dutch villages, 2/3 of them in Friesland, which have decided not to wait for the government to act, but to install their own solar panels, communal vegetable gardens and recycling systems. The development pattern is generally that the villages are fired by the issue of energy, then move on to address other issues.

Government response

– Tuscany – a regional law on participation

Tuscany is the only European region to create a law on public participation, and Rodolfo Lewanski, no lesser personage than the ‘Independent Authority’ charged with regulating its application, explained how it worked.
Law 69/07 was the brainchild of the region’s president, and included a ‘sunset clause’ which means that it expired in March of this year (it has not yet been prolonged). While it was in force, it addressed the issue of who represents diffused interests on such matters as the environment or health. It recognised the need to reinvent democracy given the public’s falling trust in representative initiations and the greater role of the media. With a budget of €650,000 a year, it gave financial and methodological support to 116 projects, four-fifths of which were submitted by public authorities and the others mostly by citizens and schools. It aimed to proactively manage conflict by adopting the following principles:

  • inclusion – it worked with random microcosm of the people concerned
  • informed opinion – it went deeper than the ‘raw’ opinions sampled by opinion polling
  • dialogue – through active listening and the acceptance of diversity
  • deliberation – weighing the different arguments
  • consensus – finding the common ground between the stakeholders and at least understanding your opponents
  • influence/empowerment

There were some ironies: the municipality of Pisa staged a deliberative process on the Castelfranco waste site, and adopted the result – only to have it overturned by the very same regional council that had adopted the law in the first place! However the law has led to some cultural change as local authorities have appointed councillors for participation and trained their officials in how to involved citizens.


1. What progressives should propose is social enterprise | Toby at tipp(l)ing point - 15 November 2013

[…] • our economies need to be based on a combination of self-employment and co-operation (18:00 in the video). He calls it “the reconstitution of free labour” • civil society involvement in experimental ways of providing social services (23:00 in the video) – exactly what social so-operatives and social enterprises are doing • politics needs to be enriched with participative democracy […]

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