Tag Archives: Governance

Being a citizen professional or a professional citizen?

Two years ago, I launched a citizen initiative in a park close to where I live. My motivations were to act as a responsible and engaged citizen – as I had been working on this field for quite some time – and to experiment moving from a passive attitude to an active one: the park seemed to be abandoned from the City Council, it looked really dodgy and I became scared of going there to throw away my compost. After having read the book on the Incredible edible, I thought to myself that I could maybe become an actor of change. That was the beginning of a personal transformation, learning about what makes citizen activism possible and pushing city administrations to evolve.

Faider_MaisonettePhase 1: incremental step, first learnings

In August 2015, when I shyly shared my ideas about changes to be brought to the part with my fellows from the compost, I was scared that they would laugh at me. The opposite happened: they all agreed, and had lots of ideas about changes for beautifying the park – which gave the name to our movement: “Embellissons le parc Faider”. That day I created a Facebook group. In the following weeks, with a neighbour, we managed to get in contact with the City Council, a sustainable development officer came to meet us in the park, got to understand our expectations, and promised to relay our requests.

We were quite naïve, I suppose: our original thought was to make things change, yes, but in co-creation and co-decision with the City administration. We did launch a movement, but not the one we expected.

Phase 2: waiting and feeling alone

Indeed, the sustainable development officer organised an internal meeting where our requests were dealt with: accepted or rejected, without the possibility to negotiate. Especially where we asked for a communication and feedback mechanism with the administration… More than that, we waited a few months without any news or answers to our emails. Worst, the sustainable development officer left, as he was there for a maternity leave replacement…

We were left with no news about the next steps, nor contact person, we did not know what would happen to our requests, the validated as well as non-validated ones.

Faider_Fêtes de voisinsPhase 3: knowing the politicians makes the difference

In March 2016, by chance, a colleague of mine informed me about meetings organised for local elected representatives to meet with the citizens. I went there to ask for a particular point that we got refused: installing a community garden in the park. It appeared that there was a newly elected Deputy Mayor with this competence. He totally approved our request. We chatted and it appeared we had done the same studies and that we had friends in common. Brussels is small and this easily happens. After this meeting, his head of cabinet went to meet us in the park and promised to make a few reparations. Some of these reparations took more than a year to happen… But then, we gained visibility. We also organised a Neighbours’ day – which the Deputy Mayor attended – , which made our group grow from… 2 to a couple more actives, a dozen of interested and quite quickly up to 100 on our Facebook group. By then I created a blog to centralise some important information about us and our activities.

There was a lot of energy and many ideas during the Neighbour’s day, a community was emerging…

Phase 4: waiting and feeling alone (again)

Yet, the motivation dropped quickly: the enthusiasm that we had around a festive event did not follow. Also we did not have any news from the City Administration on the various reparations that were to take place. The physical interactions work best than virtual ones: for politicians and neighbours it is the same.

I learnt for myself that the original plan was welcomed by many neighbours, that they were happy to follow but not to lead. They did not have any comments nor suggestions. I started feeling lonely and lacking motivation to this whole process – to which, obviously, nobody forced me.

Faider_New playgroundPhase 5: highlights of the year

After this general drop of energy, in September 2016, we managed to get a group of 5 motivated people to launch a community garden: we got the authorisation and funding to do so. A small group of citizens therefore became active around it. In parallel, we obtained a new playground for children – the previous one was destroyed and dangerous: families and children were highly enthusiastic about it. We organised a party to celebrate it – and the deputy mayor came.

We got new promises and hopes from the Deputy Mayor. We felt we started a real collaboration with the City Administration.

Phase 6: waiting and feeling alone (again)

Yet, some important issues remains unsolved (reparation of fences, regular cleaning of the park, access to water, ….)… We were not receiving any news from the City Administration… I was suggested by the “educateurs de rue” (sort of “neighbourhood managers”) to write a registered letter to the City Council. That was the only possibility to make the politicians accountable – it was said to me. When the following meeting for local elected representatives to meet with the citizens was organised in March 2017, I made a speech for greater co-creation of the city, also asking for – at least – answers. It appeared the Deputy Mayor had never received my registered letter. It got lost in the administration. He then asked me why I had not written to him directly.

I learnt that communication with the City Administration is tricky and as its own modalities. That the politicians have the decision power and should be the ones I should be in contact with directly -not the adminsitration. At least in this City Council. But that I should meet them and not write to them if I wanted a clear information and follow-up.

Phase 7: where it becomes a political project

The following months saw unexpected changes in the movement. After the March meeting, we organised a “to attack!” gathering to decide what we would and could do without the approval of the City Administration: we did not want to wait anymore and we knew we were more effective and efficient. In parallel, a neighbour with a project in the street opposite to the park started to develop his own projects. He wanted to be associated by name to our movement but was doing his own activities against the ideas of the original movement – in values, scope and governance models. We had by then became a group of a dozen motivated people. Yet, he came to me to have a strong, personal and aggressive argument. Which got me scared.

My neighbours gave me a role of representative, leader, of the movement, whereas I thought I was merely “coordinating their ideas and projects”. They were doing many more things than me and I did not feel legitimate for that.

Faider_IdéesPhase 8: the question of institutionalisation

We discussed that with the Deputy Mayor who suggested we would set up an NGO to have more power. I shared the idea. Everybody was happy for me to set it up and run it, not to be responsible for it. But it is only at this point I realised the expectations I had given voice to while being the initiator of this project. I was naively thinking that I could launch an idea, coordinate it and that it would run smoothly. I should I have left this position earlier or taken a clear leading role.

There were many active citizens, doing many small and big things on a daily basis. Yet, what they wanted was an official voice and representative, somebody to fight for them.

Phase 6: a new order

I have now left. My neighbours understand it and support me. This has created a community against the opposing neighbour– and for some shared values. One of my neighbours took over the “communication and coordination” role, as she said there was too much to fight for. Now, I am curious to see how it is going to evolve.

This project took a lot of my energy. I had some stressful moments and got scared. What saved me emotionally was to take some distance from it via the analysis of what was going on for my own reflexions and work on city governance and collaboration between public authorities and city administrations. I am more than ever admirable for the active citizens and what they go through. As for the way city administrations can further collaborate with citizens, I have some further thoughts and ideas to share and experiment :).

Faider_CNRIEN Faider_GardenFaider_Deputy Mayor

How can city administrations better cooperate with citizens?: A case for in-house intermediaries*

European, regional and local public administrations are increasingly facing budget cuts. Yet, these concern mostly their internal budgets and affect in particular their human resources: the pool of employees decreases whereas the amount of work remains the same or increases. This is particularly the case with the rise of citizens’ initiatives, transition processes and movements, and new (co-creation and participatory) governance methods, be they top-down – inscribed in strategies – or bottom-up – led by spontaneous grassroots movements. At the same time, the financial package available for contracting increases: it is not so much for questions of legitimacy or transparency that authorities contract more and more some tasks of public service delivery. Rather, it is due to the fact that certain tasks cannot be carried out internally: either because of a lack of internal capacity or the fact that these (new) tasks are not inscribed (yet) in new strategies and cannot be managed by someone from the administration. What are some of the consequences of contracting service providers for such projects?

  • The administration is becoming increasingly distant from the ground and does not have hands on the street-level experience;
  • The administration relies on contractual arrangements whereby the flow of information is provided through reporting, but misses out the immersion in the reality;
  • Changes in project coordinators in the administration break the trust and continuity in the conduct of the projects – notwithstanding the efforts to ensure a relevant transfer;
  • The administration remains an administrator of data and people, with a “checklist approach” but not of knowledge and skills; and,
  • In some instances, the administration gets in a dependent position where the contractor – with its local knowledge and skills – leverages on its own agenda, leaving the administrator in an undermined position with a loss of control of the process.
Local administration seeking intermediation with projects on the ground ©Marcelline Bonneau

Local administration seeking intermediation with projects on the ground ©Marcelline Bonneau

The organisation being contracted also – and generally – tends to behave as a “contractor”:

  • The project is not his/hers and as such the empathy towards the beneficiaries of the project can be limited, while they might feel a gap between the object of the project and the support they receive;
  • The project is carried out within a strict contract whose working conditions can limit and frame firmly the amount of time spent on a project: this limits the capacity to go beyond, reflect and experiment on new and innovative developments of projects – usually taking place in constantly evolving environments;
  • The project is bound by the rules of public procurement which might downgrade the quality of services for a lower price; and,
  • The project might suffer from changes of contractors and loss of information, even deeper than in the changes in the administration, as the information goes from one organisation to another.

However, another approach is increasingly used by public authorities: that is to internalise the public service delivery related to the implementation of projects. It is borne by the neighbourhood managers in Ghent (BE) and Amersfoort (NL), or to some extent by street educators in Brussels (BE), is sometimes referred to “Street level bureaucrats” in the literature (Agger and Poulsen 2017). We will call them “in-house intermediaries”. Who are they? Administration’s employees who deal on daily basis with target groups (e.g. citizens) and their projects. They have various professional and personal profiles: they can be with or without prior working experience in the administration, they are of a wide range of ages, they have a university or vocational background and/or an experience as grassroots activists. Their selection, and way of working, is based on their individuality and personality. They have to be open and curious; to be able to network, moderate, mediate and negotiate; to possess a political sensitivity; to act fast and be creative in identifying (human, financial, technical) solutions; to stimulate and lead processes (URBACT REFILL Network 2017). They work partially on the ground, partially in the offices of the administrations. They are the key connection between what is happening on the ground and in the administration. They benefit from the insight from the field work, with empathy and in-depth knowledge and understanding. At the same time, they know the rules and functions of the administration and provide the immediate feedback for making the public services evolve. In sum, they are “inside out” as François Jégou would say.

Adopting such an approach implies for the administration to face directly the –non-evitable- issue of conflict: of interests, agendas, strategies, priorities, or emotions. The in-house intermediary is at the heart of these clashes, which is a hard task. Yet, as such a role exists, it forces the administration to identify a solution. Such conflict which is part of the daily life of the in-house intermediary therefore provides the energy for progressive forms of collaboration (Agger and Poulsen 2017).The administration also gains in efficiency as the information is available in-house and dealing with a problem is done within its own structure.

At first sight, such in-house intermediaries are however not a panacea. Installing such a scheme might depend on the geographical scope of the area covered. Their role might be dedicated to specific topics, or one employee could be affected to such a role in each relevant unit. Their recruitment and the way they operate can be very evolving: even though they operate under a strict framework from the administration, their autonomy is their freedom as well as their main constraint: they need to operate very independently and to find their way through. In some instances, this might create a difficult balance between the different hats they possess and the legitimacy they possess towards both their employer and their target group. Yet, this requires a change of posture in the role that the administration plays in delivering public services, as it forces the administration to go beyond its traditional neutrality and to act as full societal stakeholders, involved in public agenda setting and implementation.

How can a city move towards a more engaged and direct way of delivering such public services? One low-risk approach is to start by testing out this scheme. To go on the ground and experiment some ways of interacting at the same time as collecting feedback on the needs, perceptions and expectations. Such an approach can go along with the lines of testing out new ways for solving problems with local actors (Agger and Poulsen 2017). This can “easily” be done for example with the recruitment of a skilled and well-briefed trainee. Another approach is to recruit a sort of “experienced community manager” who would work closely with the administration, not as a provider with a client, but in a partnership mode. This second option though might trigger issues of public procurement as mentioned above. Finally, a lot of such public service delivery goes hand in hand with a good communication and transparency: for all the parties to be honest and straight to the point, to express wishes and fears, limits and possibilities but also to look for solutions together. This should be the basis for a more advanced and integrated form of implementation of public service delivery.

*This article is based on:

Agger, Annika, and Brigitte Poulsen. 2017. “Street-Level Bureaucrats Coping with Conflicts in Area-Based Initiatives in Copenhagen and Malmö.” Scandinavian Political Studies, March.

URBACT REFILL Network. 2017. “REFILL Magazine #2.” To Be Published Soon…

What can cities learn from the participatory democracy experience of Saillans?

Saillans'City Council building ©Marcelline Bonneau

Saillans’City Council building ©Marcelline Bonneau

In 2014, a group of citizens of Saillans – 1 200 inhabitants in Drôme, France – concerned about acting directly for their city, and in the light of increased well-being, presented themselves, apolitically, for the mayorship of the city. They won the elections and paved the way for a new type of city governance. They particularly sought to address two main caveats in the traditional way city councils and city governance in general work: on the one hand the Mayor and the deputy mayors’ appropriation of all the city power;  on the other, the low participants of inhabitants,  merely asked to express themselves through elections once every 6 years.




The city governance focuses on three main pillars: Continue reading