Our local government is not doing well. Not for years. Many attempts have been made to improve, but almost all have failed. The reason was the strong lobby from the established parties. After all, there were many jobs at stake for councilors and mayors. With the rise of local parties and a greatly changed political landscape in The Hague, the time seems ripe for a turnaround. After all, society needs a strong and efficient local government that is well connected to society. And that is often lacking.
What happens? The scope of our board no longer matches the tasks the board faces. And the culture in many city councils is that you talk a lot with limited results. The solution lies in choosing a different scale through the establishment of twenty-five mini-provinces and direct election of the mayor. An adaptation of the structure and of the culture at the same time.
First, let’s look at the scale.
Our provincial boundaries were established centuries ago and then gained importance. Since then, social life has developed strongly. It is no longer the case that life only takes place in the municipality where you live. People often work, play sports or use care facilities elsewhere. Daily life takes place in a region and no longer exclusively in a municipality. Nevertheless, the municipal boundaries are still the starting point and the administration is organized accordingly.
In order to meet the need for greater efforts, numerous joint regulations have been created between the municipalities. This so-called ‘extended local government’ lacks democratic legitimacy. Councilors complain a lot that they have almost nothing to say about it. Why not scale up to the province? The scope of the province is just too large for many of these tasks. This applies especially in the Randstaden. In addition, the scope of the municipalities’ tasks is increasing. All the extra tasks end up directly in the viscous and shadowy middle management.
Apart from these problems of scale, local authorities are struggling with a crumbling authority. Confidence is falling, which means that turnout for municipal elections is lower each time. The fragmentation makes it increasingly difficult to form coalitions. Twenty factions in a city council are no longer an exception. Try to make a decision with it.
Due to the desire for regulation and the desire to pour everything into orderly procedures, decisiveness has dropped tremendously, so that we have ended up in a defensive bureaucracy. It is therefore hardly to blame the current generation of administrators and councilors that they no longer have the time to connect with the community they are supposed to serve. The system eats up time and they have their hands full trying to figure it out together. In long meetings with empty public galleries and almost no interest from the local media.
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We therefore need to move to a different scale, which is more in line with the residents’ living environment and which is more robust, so that more administrative power can be developed. Redistribution of municipalities is the first thought, but meets with rightful opposition. Fortunately, residents often still feel attached to their municipality, and we must protect that. So let’s not make the mistake of taking residents from their municipality. An obvious alternative is therefore the adaptation of the provincial borders. It will arouse few emotions.
Twenty-five regions have been formed in the Netherlands through a natural process which is experienced as logical and recognizable by most inhabitants. These are the regions where we have now organized security (the Security Regions). The new provincial government must be established on these borders. Provinces with their own recognizable identity, such as Groningen, Friesland, Drenthe, Utrecht and Zeeland, will continue to exist. In terms of scale, these provinces are able to take over tasks assigned to the municipalities. The other provinces are split up.
In the current Noord-Holland we get, for example, the provinces of Amsterdam and Omegn, Gooi- en Vechtstreek, Kennemerland, West Friesland and Kop van Noord-Holland. South Holland will be abolished to make way for the provinces Hollands Midden (Leiden and surroundings, ed.), Haaglanden and Rotterdam-Rijnmond. The tasks are then redistributed.
Everything that is local stays with the municipality. Think about quality of life and safety, daily management and maintenance, issuing building permits and promoting the well-being of residents. Everything that is supralocal goes to the provinces. Such as large-scale physical planning, maintenance of the infrastructure, physical security, reception of refugees, youth care and tasks that, from an efficiency point of view, can be better carried out on a larger scale than the municipality. The extended local government will therefore be cancelled, and all tasks will once again be neatly divided between municipalities or provinces and will therefore fall under the direct democratic control of the elected bodies.
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Nothing further needs to change in the governance of the 25 provinces. The provincial councils are directly elected by the people, and the president is appointed by the crown. Proven management experience and managerial qualities are the selection criteria and political color should not matter.
Now the culture in local government is changing.
The current culture within most municipal authorities can be characterized as introverted. People are very busy with meetings and with each other. It is therefore understandable that few citizens are interested in becoming a councilor or councillor. An evening in a public gallery will discourage rather than excite.
About twenty years ago, an attempt was made to breathe new life into local politics by introducing dualism. Councilors were no longer members of the municipal council. It would bring back the political debate and interest the citizens again. Unfortunately, this operation appears to have backfired. Since then, the number of councilors who die prematurely has been greater than ever, and this is not conducive to the prestige of politics.
It is unlikely that local politicians will be able to pull themselves out of the swamp by their hair. Therefore, a radical step is needed that meets the tendency for local political parties to become bigger and bigger and have taken over in many municipalities. The radical step is the direct election of the mayor by the population.
The mayor must then be enabled to actually implement the program he or she has been elected to. Therefore, the mayor appoints the councilors himself from now on. And fire them if they underperform. The position of the municipal board takes on the character of a supervisory board and can be reduced.
Municipal syrup mill
Thanks to the voter’s direct mandate, much power rests with the mayor. And that is precisely the point. There is a desperate need for persistence to be created so that decisions are made effectively. In the current municipal syrup mill, there is no one really in charge, and the work is crippling. The elected mayor is expected to be closer to the people than the current mayor. After all, it takes a lot of persuasion and communication skills to win the voters’ favor in a soapbox election campaign. In addition, the mayor knows that he or she must show results after four years in order to be re-elected.
Objections will be made to the fact that the elected mayor is not chosen on the basis of documented administrative experience, as is currently the case. It should not be a problem, especially not with a smaller municipal and purely local supply of tasks. In my opinion, the need for change is strongly felt in local authorities.
Changes were held back by vested interests. Now that the local political landscape has changed and the traditional governing parties such as PvdA, CDA and VVD are less powerful, the playing field is open again. It is therefore time for a new attempt with the aim of giving the Netherlands a clear, decisive and less viscous public administration.
Bernt Schneiders is a former mayor of Haarlem, Heemskerk and Landsmeer and former chairman of the Dutch mayors’ association.