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Home Opinion Mutual councils as antidotes to populism
Social Democracy • The Netherlands • PvdA

Mutual councils as antidotes to populism

Martien Kuitenbrouwer - 07 June 2012

Co-operative models offer local councils the chance to respond to the deep antipathy towards both traditional state and market solutions   

The Amsterdam West district council has encouraged community-led initiatives and mutual policies for several years. As a result, in Amsterdam West, there is now a growing amount of mutual initiatives, in care, welfare, housing etc. and these have generally led to better social cohesion, client satisfaction and citizen participation in the district. The implication of this success is that other local administration bodies must change their way of working significantly. Nevertheless, the growth of mutual initiatives has not led to governmental retreat, but to different forms of governmental and political involvement. Without government, I would argue, mutual initiatives would have difficulties to survive.

About Amsterdam West

Amsterdam West, with its 133, 000 inhabitants, is one of Amsterdam's seven city districts. It is made up of 22 neighbourhoods; varying from very wealthy to very poor. 177 nationalities are represented in Amsterdam West; the Moroccan community is the largest. Each district is governed by a council, made up of 29 elected councillors, who together elect a board, which is responsible for day-to-day government. The board consists of three aldermen and one president; the chair of the district board.

A new way of working for local administration

In Amsterdam West, the district administrators have introduced a relatively far reaching form of buurtgericht werken or 'community oriented work'. All 22 neighbourhoods develop their own agenda each year. These neighbourhood agendas together form the basis for allocation of the district budget. In addition to this, all neighbourhoods have a 'neighbourhood budget' (around 50,000 euro each year) which can be spent on neighbourhood priorities which come out of the neighbourhood’s agenda. Apart from that, each neighbourhood can select its own 'community led initiatives' which are selected through a neighbourhood-organised voting system.

We have introduced 'welfare new style' giving way to community groups to organise their own welfare activities and in return providing them with free or affordable accommodation (huiskamers). This way of working has allowed for a fair amount of mutual initiatives to flourish.

Do-it-yourself initiatives

Over the past number of years, we have seen a growing amount of do-it-yourself initiatives flourishing in Amsterdam West, varying from alternative youth services, to initiatives which reclaim ownership of homecare. Some examples:

'Connect': After years of disastrous crime rates, combined with poor prospects for the youth of the Kolenkit district, a group of local Moroccan men and youth initiated 'Connect', a training programme for young men, in order to provide 'community safety guards' in the area. Local youth were trained and offered work experience in teams working alongside the police. Connect grew to be the largest service provider in Kolenkit, now offering youth work, girl empowerment training, care for young disabled people and mother and father groups. They are now subsidised by the district council. They work closely together with the local mosques. Recently, they have set up a 'hate crime team' who intervene in confrontations between, for example, gay men and Moroccan youth or other sensitive disputes.

'The Book store': When it became evident that the Amsterdam housing crisis was getting worse, two local artists set up 'the Book store'. They approached one of the largest housing associations and asked if they could 'use' one of the big apartment blocks in the Kolenkit. They now run a service where local people, together with artists, have 'adopted' the apartment blocks which were ready to be knocked down, rent it out for next to nothing, in return for 'doing up' the building, and making it liveable, also with art. A similar initiative has been set up with the Amsterdam Hogeschool: students can 'rent for free' in return they must do community work such as homework groups for kids. Both initiatives are very popular.

Buurtzorg: A local nurse was fed up with the way thuiszorg (traditional Homecare organisations) had developed into organisations run by alienated managers and in accordance with technical financial targets. Client satisfaction was very low as was employee satisfaction. He set up a new small organisation, run by local professionals who were given a large deal of autonomy in how to organise their work, in co-operation with their clients. Targets were dropped; client 'self control, autonomy and satisfaction were put first. This resulted in a successful organisation which now has teams all over the country. Client and employee satisfaction is enormous. It is also a lot cheaper.

These kinds of initiatives are to be found all over the country, both in the cities and in more rural areas, where many public and market-led services have failed or disappeared.

New roles for local administration

These DIY initiatives and the community-led agenda have emerged due to budget constraints and dissatisfaction with both governmental and market provided services. In order to accommodate these initiatives, their way of budgeting has shifted more in favour of a community-led agenda. Local civil servants have changed their way of working significantly, becoming facilitators and mediators rather than policymakers or welfare service deliverers. However, this has not led to governmental retreat. We see a great demand for governmental presence, especially when the basics fundamentals are at stake: 'clean, whole and safe'.  The local administration needs to provide this back-up. Another prominent role for local administration is to 'safeguard' public space. Equal access to welfare and care has to be ensured as well as free access and use of public space. Mutual initiatives must not crowd out people with another (or no) religion, sexual preference or any other discriminative aspect.

Rethinking the role of government and new opportunities for the PvdA

The role of local administration changes, but the demand for local political presence is still high. The demand for local political presence can be best translated into a demand to ensure equal access to common goods and 'neutral' public space. The PvdA (Dutch Labour Party) has been accused of being technocratic and alienated from large sections of the electorate. In communities such as in Amsterdam West, loss of faith in governmental institutions, such as the police, youth care, housing associations and education is sometimes fierce. The PvdA is seen as the godmother of many of these institutions. The PvdA is largely blamed for the bureaucratic tendencies of the 'big state'. At the same time, the breakdown of many of these state institutions and the turn towards market or quasi-market institutions is also blamed on the PvdA. The rise of both left wing and right wing populist parties is the direct consequence of alienated public services, combined with fear of undefined and uncomfortable feelings against globalisation. Fear of immigrants, and the anti-Islamic agenda of the Geert Wilders’ far right PVV (Party for Freedom), however, seem to be much fiercer in national politics than in local politics. Local political presence is therefore essential.  The demand for local political leadership is also a call for 'touchable politics' that can take a moral, rather than technocratic stand. This calls for direct democracy rather than representative politics.

Mutual initiatives are a new interesting paradigm for PvdA politics, especially on a local level. They are often everything governmental or market-led services are not: organised on a human scale, highly personalised, with real 'touchable' ownership and visible accountability. Local directly chosen politicians are needed to align with local mutual initiatives. This can provide the PvdA with a strong answer to the populist agenda.

Martien Kuitenbrouwer is president of the board of Amsterdam West district council

This memo follows on from the international workshop "Moving Forward with Mutuals and Co-operatives"

This initiative is organised by Policy Network in partnership with the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), the Brussels‐based thinktank Gauche Réformiste Européenne and Solidar

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Social Policy and Changing Welfare States.

Tags: Martien Kuitenbrouwer , Social democracy , The Netherlands , PvdA , mutualism , Amsterdam West , Kolenkit district , Geert Wilders

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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