Participation project name: Stem van Groningen

A backdrop of citizen action

The CONSUL DEMOCRACY story at the North-Netherlands city of Groningen begins with some powerful citizen action. In October 2017, the Coöperatieve Wijkraad (Cooperative Neighbourhood Council) emerges in Groningen when increasing citizen actions, petitions and protests demand a more structural channeling of people's participation in politics.

The Coöperatieve Wijkraad is a cooperative organization where eleven randomly selected local residents of the Oosterpark district of the city sit side by side with six of the district's elected councillors. Together they make decisions about Oosterpark and to do that an informed way, a panel of 400 residents - selected through sortition - is regularly asked to give its opinion on matters through online surveys.

This is the backdrop to which CONSUL DEMOCRACY comes into the picture. In light of the Coöperatieve Wijkraad model's success, the Groningen municipality decided to launch a larger-scale participatory democratic initiative involving, also, a digital democracy tool.

The voice of Groningen

The Stem van Groningen - Dutch for the Voice of Groningen - platform went live in October 2019. The platform was designed with the aim of giving citizens more decision-making power in relation to the local government.

The first participatory act on the platform was that citizens could allocate a EUR 25,000 budget for the improvement of their Oosterpark neighbourhood. Thousands of citizens submitted ideas, participated in the discussions or voted in favor of their preferred projects.

Importantly, the endeavouor was partly digital, partly in person. A series of physical information meetings were organized where people could ask questions, converse and develop their ideas about the projects. The consultation resulted in the adoption of eleven proposals for implementation, following a final vote on the Stem van Groningen platform.

Over the years the platform use has spread to more than ten city districts, including those in the city center as well as on the urban outskirts. And crucially, numerous projects have been implemented by the municipality following a priority vote on the Stem van Groningen platform.

Participatory culture of the North

The Northern ones of the twelve Dutch provinces differ from their better-known counterparts in the West in some important respects. The centralizing forces of cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam, acting as major pull factors for capital investments, a global corporate sector, and tourism, lead to a situation where stark hierarchies exist between public administrations and people.

In the two Northern provinces of Friesland and Groningen, a different policymaking culture exist. The situation is less hierarchical and, hence, provides potential fruitful ground for equal collaboration and meaningful participation.

Historically, a tradition of 'village councils' exists in the Netherlands, who may act as advisory bodies to the local administration. Although one can find village councils throughout the country, they are most prolific in Groningen and Friesland, where they have played major roles in local decision-making. It is in this context that both the Coöperative Wijkraad and the idea for digital democracy rose to prominence.

The role of the Ministry

This is not to say that the national government in The Hague didn't contribute to the project in some important ways. In 2017, the city of Groningen participated in the ‘Local Digital Democracy Lab’ (henceforth: the Lab) initiative organised and funded by the Dutch Ministry of the Interior which also kickstarted a Consul Democracy pilot.

Groningen reached out and began collaborating with other municipalities on the question how to organize meaningful citizen participation digitally. The Ministry of Interior advised the municipal team at Groningento to use open source software.

To host the platform, Groningen considered three open source online participatory solutions: Consul Democracy, YourPriorities, and OpenStad. Ultimately, the municipality chose Consul Democracy as it had the most relevant functionalities and a year later, in 2019, the Stem van Groningen was launched.

Lessons learned

While Voice of Groningen is an independent public sector-led initiative in its own right, over time, the City of Groningen began to contribute to the existing open source community that had already been built around the Consul Democracy software.

It mainly does so through Buro Radstake and Democrateam (Consul Democracy Certified Company). The Dutch Buro Radstake is a citizen participation and tech company that has helped over ten Dutch municipalities - Groningen, Enschedé, Oldenzaal, Dantumadiel, province Friesland, and others - implement both the technology and the participation processes that it enables. Some of them have aired recently in 2023.

One of the key lessons from the experiences so far, in the words of former project coordinator at Groningen city, Nephtis Brandsma, is that 'the goal and the structure of the process should be very clear beforehand. Why do you want to engage with your citizens, to what extent, what will you do with their input, how does the feedback-loop look like, etc.'

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