The Essence of Dutch Local GovernanceBuilding better futures in the Netherlands and beyond
What makes Dutch local governance stand out? Students undertaking a master’s degree at the University of Utrecht dig into this question every year, in cooperation with VNG International. Every year a different student, a different policy domain and different conversations. In their search for characteristics of Dutch local governance, the students carry out in-depth interviews with civil servants working at local governments. What do they say when asked what is typically Dutch about their local approach? The municipalities which we work with differ in size, degree of urbanization, and are situated in different parts of the Netherlands. Every research results in a case, which shows how these characteristics work out in practice. Based on the similarities across the different policy domains, this web page showcases the essence of Dutch local governance, summarized by the following four characteristics: cooperation, solution-oriented, consensus and stability.
Four characteristics of Dutch local governance highlighted
Dutch local governments are aware that they do not necessarily have all the answers to the complex issues arising in their cities. Therefore, they choose to collaborate and cooperate with other relevant stakeholders from an early stage, to identify possible challenges and to jointly formulate answers to them. Stakeholders, including (semi-)public organizations, private parties, citizens or other local governments, are thus involved in the whole policy-making process. The strong cooperation with different actors makes it possible to access and capitalize on a broad range of knowledge, information and ideas. This leads to integrated, innovative and inclusive solutions, benefiting all stakeholders.
In general, Dutch local governments have a pragmatic and entrepreneurial attitude towards the problems in their territories. The local governments work towards the most efficient and achievable solution, reviewing current policies and approaches where necessary. This attitude enables different parties to work together and more importantly, it depoliticizes the debate. This characteristic is strongly related to ‘consensus’, as support of all different stakeholders is sought to make sure that policies work and solve the targeted issues.
Consensus is deeply rooted in Dutch local governance, but still sees innovation. An important element of consensus is that you actively search for broad support for policies and actions. This requires that the different involved actors are willing to seek compromises and to share power. Consensus will be reached more easily if the issue at hand is depoliticized, so that politicians and decision-makers can take a pragmatic approach. This practice is often referred to as ‘the Poldermodel’, a term that was established in The Netherlands, based on the practice in this country. It refers to a consensus-based manner of decision-making, in which different governmental and civil society organizations or private sector companies work together and cooperate on relevant issues.
Dutch local governance is known for its stability. This characteristic builds on the previous three characteristics. Since policy decisions are based on broad involvement of stakeholders, pragmatic in character, and based on consensus, newly elected politicians feel less need to completely overturn the work of their predecessors. Instead they opt for building on what is already there. This way, a waste of resources is avoided and the sustainability of actions is warranted. Another factor contributing to this continuity is the fact that civil servants do not work in service of the state or of certain politicians, but in service of the municipality. Therefore, civil servants do not occupy their position for one political term only; they tend to stay for a longer period of time in their functions, enabling them to build close contacts with other organizations, groups and individuals which are important for their policy area. Moreover, they get the time to truly understand the opportunities and challenges within their policy domain and develop expertise, skills and knowledge within their function. These are crucial to serve and support the decision-making process.
The four characteristics in practice
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Background of the cases
The content of this web page is based on research done in several Dutch municipalities, by students of the Master’s programme on Public Administration and Policy of Utrecht University.
The municipalities which were included in the research differ both in size and in their degree of urbanization. Through interviews with practitioners from local governments, as well as desk research on different local policy domains, the students searched for characteristics of Dutch local governance. Based on the similarities among the different policy domains, this web page showcases the essence of Dutch local governance in four characteristics.
To validate whether these characteristics are indeed typical for Dutch local governance, the results were discussed with practitioners from all over Europe (and beyond). This gave an insight in the differences and similarities between local governance in the Netherlands and in other countries.
Frans Mencke (picture), city manager of the municipality of Hoorn in The Netherlands, was strongly involved in the set-up of the concept of “The Essence of Dutch Local Governance”.
For more information on the concept and this webpage, please contact project manager Jessie Post (left) by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Working with Dutch local government experts guarantees a pragmatic look at societal challenges, aimed at concrete solutions “
“The change of climate is the biggest challenge we are facing today. Less emissions are the only solution: a gain for nature, climate and a healthy living environment. The solution will be an integrated approach in which governments, (non-profit) organisations, businesses and individuals cooperate together. “
“Continuity is a big part of the Dutch political system. When big problems arise, there are immediately certain mechanisms such as cooperation between all levels of government, research, consultations and think tanks that come into action to solve them “
“Because of their horizontal approach, Dutch local governments can easily connect to many different stakeholders, thereby building upon a wide variety of gathered knowledge “
“Dutch local governance is not only characterized by pragmatism and cooperation, but also by its commitment to involve citizens and societal needs in governance processes “
“Together with other countries we can learn from this integral, comprehensive long-term thinking, the inclusive, innovative and sustainable way of how ideally Dutch projects come about. The power of this approach lies in its ability to connect, connect people with places, connect the physical with the social needs and opportunities, and to overcome our challenges by increasing sustainability and resilience “