Public Horizons: transforming the public sector

How could the public sector transform in such a way that it has a better chance of addressing current social, ecological ánd economic challenges? This is the question French magazine Horizons Publics is all about. A few weeks ago, Public Horizons sat down virtually with our director Sophie Bloemen and Amsterdam Democratization & Social Affairs alderman Rutger Groot Wassink, to discuss how Amsterdam is rethinking/should rethink its actions, its policy paradigm and why this is urgent.

Horizons Publics (HP) aims to be a reference magazine for public decision-makers by placing this public transformation at the heart of its editorial line. They observe that “the context of public action is more than ever marked by the new expectations of citizens and the increased demand for quality public services, but also by financial constraints and the environmental and climatic urgency that requires us to review our lifestyles, production and consumption patterns”. This, we agree to. Our work in the urban context alludes to transformative city action for years now. Below is an English translation of the interview, but, in case you read French or just want to enjoy HP’s lovely design, you can view issue #21 in full here (interview on page 60):

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HP: Rutger Groot Wassink, could you describe the political context before and after the 2018 elections and your own responsibilities as Alderman in the municipal team since 2018?

RGW: I’ve been in the City Council since 2014. The former City Board was more centre-right oriented and led by the liberals and social-liberals. Since the 2018 elections, we have a centre-left City Board led by a coalition composed of the social-democrats, the social-liberals and the left-greens. I’m Deputy Mayor for social affairs, housing of undocumented and diversity. I also introduced democratization in my portfolio. As an elected politician, one of my main motivation is that we should redesign the relationships between government, citizens and markets. We try to do so with all kinds of projects and the commons is one of them. But it remains very hard to change those relationships because we have to work in a very vast administration. So in a sense, we have incorporated the municipalist ideas and ideals into our programme. And it’s a very interesting experience to see how to incorporate these policy principles. Whatever we can accomplish, it’s a necessity to give it a try from my point of view. We have entered the last year of our mandate and although the Left collapsed in the last national elections (March 2020), I’m still confident we’re going to be just fine in the next municipal elections (March 2022).

HP: Sophie Bloemen, could you explain the relationships between your organization Commons Network and the City of Amsterdam?

SB: Commons Network is a collaboratory working on socio-ecological transition and models for a new economy. We are advocating for the Commons at the European level but also towards the City of Amsterdam. Just before the 2018 elections, we wrote a publication on “Urban Commons” focusing on the cases of Berlin and Amsterdam. Afterwards, we were asked to write a Commons transition plan including issues and proposals regarding food, energy and the use of public spaces. Since 2019, we are also cooperating with the Fearless Cities think tank, the 99 Van Amsterdam, a few days a week and we develop ideas and support the Cities of Change Forum which has started in April after its cancellation last year because of Covid-19. It’s interesting to see how all of sudden the Fearless Cities ideas became mainstream because of the crisis: community and locality were valued, unseen professions valued! As we were developing ideas and writing a report for the City, the new context provides a kind of momentum for our ideas and advocacy.

RGW: To be honest, before we started to work on the Commons, Amsterdam was full of initiatives but it wasn’t something that was part of the policies or even of the discussions within the administration. We are happy that we could cooperate with Commons Network because it influenced the whole administration and strongly contributed to have these ideas on the table.

HP: Rutger Groot Wassink, what are your political agenda and priorities regarding the transformation of the governance of the City and the relationships with the citizens?

RGW: Our main goal was to redesign how government, citizens and markets interact. It’s a quest to look for new relations. We were really inspired by Barcelona and what Barcelona en Comù was doing. But it’s very different here as Barcelona en Comù is not a political party and I’m member of a political party, the Green-Left, which is way more complicated! The main goal of my political agenda was: investigating, questing to see how these relationships can be changed. Of course we had very concrete policy proposals. For example we introduced a participatory budget system for parts of the city and we have it running now with 8 millions allocated in several boroughs. We also tried to lower the barriers for referendum and we cooperated together with the initiatives in the city to think what should be done. Financially we have made several arrangements to get them funded. Juridically we tried to set up neighborhood rights which also led to deep cultural changes. I think we managed to work in a three-dimension approach: legal, economical and cultural. The assumption that citizens can sometimes have greater ideas than the administration and that they are underestimated was already embedded in our coalition programme. Of course this administration might find it repulsive and consider this assumption an insult to their professionalism. We are aware it’s still a cultural challenge to be addressed. Nevertheless participation must be strengthened in order to build an ecosystem for the Commons, and we start to see the Commons benefit from a more obvious status and a base through the creation of citizens-led coops in food, housing, energy… Some of them have been there before and some of them are embraced by the city government. Coops in housing especially are given a chance. Even though we started with quite easy concrete actions, our political aim still remains high!

SB: it’s clear that efforts have been made, and there is a strong willingness at the City level. The creation of the department of democratization by the new government is a powerful symbol! Participatory budgeting is another great example but it’s still in an experimental phase and I fear it won’t go further and stay limited to small projects in a few neighborhoods instead of being expanded to the whole City budget as a co-decision system. We’re still far away from that ideal.There is still a long way to go in terms of mindset. As Rutger said, it requires a cultural change within the coalition itself. We need more story telling and political pressure to take them further. For instance the participatory budget rationale can be implemented in other domains where more power is given away by politicians. Urban farming, free open spaces… citizens initiatives are thriving everywhere in the city but it’s still complicated to engage with officials as the overall system is not facilitating the Commons, or collective initiatives. So we see a lot of frustration in the city with some of the platforms, the coops, the neighborhood initiatives. We have reached an interesting moment where the political and economic are starting to merge towards coop initiatives to take the power back. How the city will handle and respond to that will be key!


Horizons Publics #21

HP: Rutger Groot Wassink, how do you handle this shift from citizen led organization towards more economic demands? It seems that it started from the Democratization Department and now develops into another type of advocacy vis-à-vis the City Government…

RGW: yes indeed and it’s a very good evolution! In the Dutch context, we are more than happy with initiative on soft policies. But when it comes to changing economic structures, people become nervous. Despite our political coalition agreement, there are people in the City Council who still question why should citizens decide given they’re the elected ones. Besides citizens coops are also complicated for many business actors because they don’t always fit in the patterns of rules that we currently have. In a sense, the Covid crisis triggered a lot of initiatives all over the city. In almost every neighborhood we had food initiatives not brought up by the government but by people. But when the administration tries to support these initiatives, we are stuck in a bulk of rules, it’s almost impossible to give location, money because of our legal tax system… In the end it’s not a question of democratization but of effective governance.

HP: Did you face resistances from the civil servants and the traditional administrative mindset?

RGW: First of all, I want to state that there are a lot of civil servants enthusiastic and keen to working in this new direction. They work very hard and try to do their best. After three years as Alderman I often ask myself whether I should have mainstreamed my mandate instead of creating a specific City Department. I changed my mind over and over again but now I think it’s better to have a separate department because we have the possibility to put weights on the other departments. For example, when there is a road to be built, we make sure the involved agents already figured out what kind of participation shall be put in place. We are working together with the other City Departments to have participation as an infrastructural design which means you can’t come up with a clear vision and roadmap when the citizens get to decide. Maybe the next step is to mainstream what we have done.

SB: I think we still lack a real ownership from the other City Departments. The Commons remains a vague concept there. For us, it’s a different way to look at the city from a systemic point of view. Even though I totally agree with Rutger that you need to start somewhere, I still think we miss a comprehensive vision of the Commons in other areas. Support for energy, housing coops could have been part of the political agenda and City organization from the beginning. Fundamentally, the Commons is really also about economic change. Commons organization also means democratic control over the production processes. As commoners, we look for a deep political-economic shift. We need to have structural institutional changes allowing public-civic partnerships for instance. These ideas and proposals are being developed within the Co-City Urbact programme between cities which is co-led by Cristian Iaione but there is little engagement with local commoners nor social pressure. For us at CN, the next step shall consist in legitimizing and giving decent space to the Citizens initiatives to manage city collective resources. A public-civic collaboration has to be launched and the idea of a coop incubator that was part of the coalition agreement should get significant public funding.

RGW: yes we will start the incubator as it’s a key mechanism for the Commons ecosystem. In hindsight, ok, maybe we should have had someone with a broader mandate to overview the commons policies, but in a coalition it’s always complicated. From my point of view, politicians must change the discourse and it’s a long run. In the next phase we should internalize this position more at each level of power in the City government.

HP: What are the legal dimensions you managed to change and what is still need to be addressed?

RGW: regarding the referendum system, we changed the rules to make them easier to be launched and got rid of procedural blockages. We’re still working on a specific policy which aims to clarify when and how citizens are able to discuss and decide. Our regulation on the Commons will come up before the summer. Our second priority is the neighborhood rights: we know how to deal with them but we lack a robust system to support and finance them, yet it’s a necessity if we want to strengthen bottom-up grassroots organizations and their initiatives for the socio-economic Commons in the city. I hope they will help me to push this political agenda! But I think we need a cultural shift as much as legal changes. They are both necessary.

SB: yes we definitely need financial support for socio-economic commons experiment such as Rue Paré, a centre for informal care economy and networks which have gained enormous importance and visibility in the Covid times. A lot of people with immigration background are organizing themselves and this should be valued. It’s a good example of commoning, collective self organization around care needs. In this sense, the social agenda really relates to the commons agenda. Nevertheless public-civic partnership regulation needs also to be approved at the national level.

HP: Sophie Bloemen, don’t you fear that commons might be used as a lever for urban gentrification to increase the quality but also the financial value of the neighborhoods?

SB: yes indeed, there is always a risk that the Commons are perverted by capitalism. The practices and the theories of the squatting movement in the 80ies and 90ies were very clear and consistent, people were very principled about them. But then the policies turned them into a financialization opportunity. Now we need to be aware of that and reverse this trend: the places and the infrastructures where social commoning is taking place should not be temporary or used as a tool to increase the market value of the area!

RGW: one of the main reason I strongly believe in municipalism is because large cities face the same challenges such as climate change but also rising inequalities. I think gentrification is an accelerator of rising inequality. In Amsterdam gentrification proceeds from the financiarization of capitalism and the huge impact of capital in the housing market. It is so massive that we are almost in trench war with the National Government on this because we took all kinds of initiatives to fight against this reality, for example we passed the obligation to live where you buy and if you rent your estate, it has to be cheap. But the National Government didn’t let us do that! Neither do they fight against the Royal Family members owning 500 houses throughout the city which aren’t rented out cheap. So if you look at the gentrification process, we’re highly dependent on the national level that can only regulate the housing market. A rather large part of the city is made of social housing (42% ??) which is now State-controlled corporations but the National Government is strongly in favor of selling those houses. It frustrates us very much!

HP: Can you tell us about the famous doughnut model that Amsterdam first adopted as a political template? And why did you decide to play a leadership role in the European Municipalist movement?

RGW: well to be clear, there is no such thing as Amsterdam’s leadership on municipalism because it’s a leaderless movement! We have had a good relationship with Barcelona since a long time and we find them very inspiring. Then we have considered if we can preach the municipalist philosophy in Northern parts of Europe and that’s why we decided to organize an online Conference in June where we hope to get several City Boards. And hopefully a large political meeting will take place in September after a lot of events, activities which are organized in a decentralized way all over Europe. The basic idea is that we face the same challenges as large cities and the solutions won’t be coming from the National Governments but from the Cities. We have to learn from each other and for example a cities network at the European level on local commons policies would be very helpful. In a sense, you have to be wanting to cut off some relationships with the National Government because for example if you want to have this doughnut economics you will get in conflict with the national level and policies. That’s why I’m so happy to work with Kate Raworth because the outer rim of the doughnut which relates more to the sustainability is quite easier to implement than going into the inner circle of the doughnut where you get to the social economic structures. That’s the challenge we face: making the next steps work on the social dimension, because it’s a holistic approach, not only the outer rim, and it’s time to work on the other aspects as well.

SB: I would strongly second what Rutger said: indeed the adoption of the doughnut by the city has started with the outer rim and there is a whole City Department in charge of this. For CN it’s clear that if you really want to achieve the doughnut, it means socio-economical change. Kate Raworth in her book doughnut economics talks about market, state, household and commons as the main economic areas. So let’s see how this will be translated in the City policies and whether it will help us to change the discourse and get more political consistency…

HP: Have you started to implement the doughnut model?

RGW: some things have already been done: we have started to work on living wages for example. But there are all kinds of different aspects of the doughnut we need to explore in the coming months. What has been done? What can be done? What are the experiences of other City Boards? For example we are starting a pilot with the Community Wealth Building network. This won’t be a radical fundamental change of the administration by the 1st of July but we are exploring what interventions should be done and could be done. And to be frank, I would like to run the next political campaign on this programme! This is what we stand for. We should have a better vision and understanding of what could or must be done. I’m sure my colleagues in Paris, Grenoble, Barcelona, Milan, Copenhagen… agree with the doughnut model and the Covid crisis made the value and the necessity of this model even more urgent!

SB: yes no one opposes the doughnut model, but if you really implement it, you have a post-capitalist society! …

RGW: maybe we just shouldn’t tell them that, in a way, we try to focus on postcapitalism…

HP: Maybe tell them it’s just about eating donuts!