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A government that works with citizens brings hope, but also many dilemmas

The promise of personal, democratic and effective government has enormous appeal. The welfare state is tottering, the security of livelihoods is at stake. A new government is supposed to bring comfort. It is encouraging, but it also brings with it a number of dilemmas, says anthropologist Anouk de Koning of the Social Citizenship & Migration research programme and PI of the Crafting Resilience and Prototyping Welfare research projects.

Bestaanszekerheid is the central theme of this month’s national elections. Officially translated as “social security”, the Dutch term also implies a more existential security. The theme gains currency amidst alarming figures of growing poverty in the Netherlands, as the seams of the welfare safety net are unravelling. In Amsterdam, international NGOs run a food aid program. People in need of mental health care face depressing waiting lists, and the number of so-called 'economic homeless' unable to find affordable housing is rising.

The once solid welfare state is coming apart at the seams after decades of neoliberal erosion. Vindictive and discriminatory fraud hunts deepen the malaise enveloping the state. This failing welfare state evokes discussions of bestaanszekerheid. Yet, policy circles are also awash with optimism. They seek to reinvent the state as a nearby, friendly partner who simply does what is needed in an efficient way. This vision pivots on an integrated approach in which governmental actors and institutions work together to effectively address intractable social problems. That state is organised nearby, in the neighborhood, in close collaboration with citizens, giving them a say and more responsibility. Citizens, in turn, no longer encounter a myriad of anonymous institutions but one professional or civil servant, a familiar face that represents various organisations and departments 'at the back end'.  

Social neighbourhood teams were presented as the panacea for a host of problems.

An intimate and effective state

This dream of intimate, personal and effective governance was first launched in 2015 as responsibility for social assistance and youth welfare was transferred to municipalities. Across the country, social neighbourhood teams were presented as the panacea for a host of problems: fragmented and inefficient services, overbearing professional involvement and too little say and responsibilities for citizens against unsustainable costs. Since then, this integrated, intimate approach has become the standard answer to bureaucratic fragmentation, diminished budgets and intractable social problems, from the urban policy laid out in the 2021 National Plan for Livability and Security (NPLV) to the 2023 Healthy and Active Living Accord (GALA). In the slipstream of such programmes, the Dutch state is being remodeled at the neighbourhood level by policymakers, policy officers and social professionals who make and implement policy and deliver services in close collaboration with citizens. 

Complex care at the local level

Who would say no to such a win-win situation: more effective and democratic governance and a more humane welfare state for less money? Yet the experiences with the new youth system should give us pause. It has become clear that complex care cannot be organised at the local level and that the reliance on 'markets of care' on tight budgets leads to gaping holes in mental health care provision. Anticipated financial gains were not realised. Instead, budgets were constantly falling short. In my ethnographic study in Amsterdam, I saw how youth professionals who embodied the welfare state’s familiar face had to navigate unwieldy welfare landscapes with 'main contractors' and 'subcontractors' that were hampered by long waiting lists for child protection services and specialised youth care. Families were indeed no longer anonymous numbers who were ping-ponged between institutions. Instead, youth professionals were left deeply worried about families in need with no solutions forthcoming.

A student of mine, Mony Klaus, examined how the same core ideas were rolled out in the National Plan for Livability and Safety, a prestige project of the outgoing government. The Plan promises integrated policymaking with various partners at the local level, including citizens, to address wicked social problems in the Netherlands’ most difficult districts. The policy was to kickstart the formation of local alliances that could effectively address enduring problems with the aid of additional funds. But Mony found that networking among professional actors ate up everyone’s time. Project officials did not receive sufficient means and training to accomplish this complex assignment. No one really knew how to involve residents – one of the programme’s main premises.

Working with residents and clients can create a governmental apparatus that is more empathetic and democratic.

Reality check

The promise of more personal, democratic and effective governance and welfare has enormous appeal. After decades of New Public Management with its dispiriting market logics, the renewed trust in civil servants and social professionals is heartening. Working with residents and clients can create a governmental apparatus that is more empathetic and democratic. But, as our Crafting Resilience project documents, this is a complex operation full of dilemmas. Whose wishes and views are prioritised in collaborations with residents, and what about democratic mandates? How to work with marginalised populations that distrust state actors, and how to reckon with institutional power? What about the inordinate time spent on networking among professionals and the danger of fuzzy responsibilities and accountability? How can pioneers of this new way of working succeed in governmental landscapes that hardly facilitate their collaborative and integrated approach? And can wicked social problems be solved at the local level at all?

Before a next government decides to continue the remodeling of Dutch welfare landscapes, they would do well to consider these questions, starting with a reassessment of unrealistic expectations of efficiency gains and financial savings.

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