New administrative practices in a participatory context.

The Amsterdam West experience (Netherlands)

Pierre Bauby, Mihaela Similie, 2014

Deploying participatory governance at the city level involves changing administrative structures, the practices of city officials and their interactions with citizens. The Amsterdam West district case study is an example of an adaptation of the municipal structure that brought municipal staff closer to the residents of the neighborhoods to enable greater citizen participation. Instead of focusing on participation procedures, they focused on creating opportunities for interaction between actors.

This sheet was written on the basis of the note by Martien Kruitenbrouwer and Christophe Sente published by the Jean-Jaurès Foundation in 2014. .

In the Netherlands, starting in the 1990s, a trend developed to pay more attention to the opinions of users and consumers. Citizens began to be involved either through surveys, consultative referendums or the development of more interactive forms of governance1.

A particular example is the city of Amsterdam, which has introduced a structure ('Greater Amsterdam' and seven districts - ‘Stadsdelen’) and methods of governance that aim to be as close as possible to the daily concerns of the inhabitants. These developments have taken place since the squatter revolts of the 1980s.

A practical case in the district of Amsterdam West is remarkable for the originality of its model of participatory democracy and the role played by public officials2. Since 2010 the area has been managed by its own local government. This former industrial area of the city has particular social difficulties (poverty and linguistic exclusion, weakened middle classes) that motivated the introduction of participatory democracy. The objective was to complement the centralized planning approach at the definition and implementation stages of local policies with a bottom-up participatory approach that develops the empowerment of the inhabitants. Citizen participation targets all local public services with a triple objective : «  to give citizens a taste for « living together " ; to put sociability at the service of the development of self-managed services ; to limit and rationalize the intervention of public authorities  »3.

The approach was as follows:

«  Amsterdam West was divided into neighborhoods and each neighborhood is under the responsibility of an official who spends most of his working time there. He is surrounded by a «  Buurtpraktijkteam ", a small team of about three people (one police officer, one person with an educator profile, one person specialized in social services).

During the implementation of the local public service reform, these officers were literally taken out of their offices and sent into the field to make contact with the population. The method of making contact varied according to the characteristics of the areas, but most often it consisted of three successive actions

  • identifying a strategic area for the development of a first local project from the resources of the central administration: the area is thus chosen either because it is deserted by the inhabitants, or because it is very busy, or because it is degraded

  • physically install the team in the field : sitting on a bench for a few weeks, the officials question and engage passers-by in conversation during the day and go door-to-door from late afternoon onwards when citizens are supposed to have returned home ;

  • process the information received in return for the following message: « We are civil servants at your service, tell us about your difficulties in the neighborhood, your needs, but also the initiatives that you would like to help develop. This contact allows us to correct an analysis of the population’s needs, carried out upstream based on statistics.

The next step consisted in settling the local teams in a building in the neighborhood that was atypical of bureaucratic standards; often, a former social housing unit or a former youth center was used. The teams then pursued two objectives. The first was the organization of neighborhood meetings, the agenda of which had been structured taking into account the information collected in the first phase. The invitation to these meetings was made exceptionally on paper and, preferably, by personal contact and word of mouth. The second objective was to orient the collective discussion of the agenda in such a way as to encourage the formation of local communities of mutual aid and exchange of services.

The establishment of these communities was accompanied by field staff and, when necessary, by central services as facilitators. The teams of local officials also sought to introduce participatory budgeting mechanisms into this empowerment process: citizens were invited to set priorities and make choices within the financial possibilities available to them.

The development of an initial project focused on neighborhood youth (sports activity ; mutual aid of mothers ; vocational training) often triggered the participatory process and spillover effects.  »

Kruitenbrouwer M., and Sente C., 2014, p.3 - 4.


The degree of institutionalization and proceduralization of the participatory experiences implemented in Amsterdam West is very low and cooperative mechanisms are more important than elective ones.

The experience of Amsterdam West serves as a model for other experiences in cities in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

1 CEMR, 2006, Controlling, Cajoling or Co-operating? Central governments’ policy approaches towards local government on the issues of performance and cost-effectiveness, Brussels, May 2006, p. 18.

2 Based on the note by Martien Kruitenbrouwer and Christophe Sente published by the Fondation Jean-Jaurès in 2014.

3 Kruitenbrouwer M., and Sente C., 2014, Participatory democracy : the experience of Amsterdam West, Fondation Jean-Jaurès, Observatoire de l’innovation locale, Note n°27, 9 October 2014, p.3.


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