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Job Cohen calls for more democracy at village level

The scaling up of municipalities means that local authorities are too often losing sight of citizens. This warning was given by Job Cohen on 30 November on his departure from Leiden University as Thorbecke professor. ‘The Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations has got some work to do.'

In his farewell speech Cohen made it clear that he is concerned about the increasing size of municipal authorities. Economies of scale have meant that many municipal authorities have grown enormously, which is not in the interests of citizens. 'As mayor of Amsterdam I learned that a finely meshed structure has a lot of advantages. Smaller local authorities are a better barometer of tensions in a neighbourhood.' 

More than a lick of new paint

Former politician and academic Cohen is afraid that citizens will feel their voice is being heard less if this scaling up of municipalities continues. 'We wilol have to put new democratic structures in place at neighbourhood and village level if this continues. The Thorbecke House [the division into State, provinces and municipalities, Ed.]  is a must. There's a lot of work to be done by the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Affairs.' 

This lecture marked the end of Job Cohen's role as Thorbecke professor, a position he has held for the past five years. The chair was installed in 1987 to study municipalities 'as an administrative, political and legal system'. Cohen's remit was to look at law and policy of decentral government authorities such as provinces and municipalities. 

Citizen participation

Cohen's farewell was marked with a conference on citizen participation, citizen intiatives to direct government policy or even to take it over completely. All too often active citizens run up against all kinds of obstacles if they want to take some responsibility for their direct environment, commented Professor Willemien den Ouden (Leiden University) in her opening address. In some cases this is the result of complex legislation, in others it is caused by an impenetrable government structure, and difficult issues relating to liability can be a further cause. 

Nonetheless, the government will have to find a way of facilitating these kinds of intiatives, commented Professor Tine de Moor (Utrecht University). There is no shortage of such initiatives, whether they are small-scale cooperative activities for green energy, citizen budgets or collective insurances for the self-employed. ‘I am in favour of shared responsibility for citizens, but for that to happen, citizens and governments have to treat one another with reciprocity, reasonableness and solidarity.’

Medicine worse than the disease

Failure to do that means that the medicine may turn out to be worse than the disease, Cohen said. 'Citizens have to see that their involvement serves a purpose, that things really do change. The government and citizens have to seek mutual understanding and commonality.' As an example of a successful collaboration, Cohen mentioned the G1000 in Enschede, where a citizen council determined how the city should handle the problem of fireworks. 

At the same time, Cohen commented, citizen participation is not a miracle cure. ‘Leiden research has shown, for example, that citizen initiatives are still too often led by one authoritative person, and that they tend to exclude people. It is by no means a democratic alternative for the kind of collective arrangements that used to be offered by the state.'

Financing in networks

During the conference a useful  new instrument was launched to help civil servants in this changing arena. Whereas the financing opportunities for citizen initiatives were previously very limited (subsidy or no subsidy), they now exist in many different forms: from competitions to revolving funds where the money comes back into the pocket of the government. Using financiereninnetwerken.nl civil servants can now use a kind of voting guide to determine which financing instrument best suits a grant application. The instrument was developed by staff at the Faculty of Law at Leiden University, in collaboration with the provinces of North Brabant and South Holland. 

Text: Merijn van Nuland
Images: Arash Nikkhah
Photo: Job Cohen on his farewell, with 
Jantine Kriens, Director-General of the Association of Dutch Municipalities (VNG).
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About Job Cohen

Professor Job Cohen (Haarlem, 1947) has held the Thorbecke chair at Leiden University for the past five years. In this position he studied and taught the law and policy of local authorities. Cohen's farewell concludes a long academic career. He studied in Groningen, obtained his PhD in Law in Leiden, and served two terms as Rector Magnificus of Maastricht University between 1991 and 1997. Cohen is of course also known for his political career: he has been a member of the Dutch Upper House and House of Representatives, State Secretary, political leader of the PvdA and mayor of Amsterdam. 

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