(Un)understood citizens Not part of a category The consequences of gas extraction

Participation on steroids

Wednesday evening, 8 p.m. A residents’ evening at Village Hall de Pompel in Overschild. I parked my car on Meerweg among the construction materials because there is a lot of reinforcing going on in Overschild.

It was the farewell week of Susan Top, secretary of the Groninger Gasberaad. During the day, she walked from village to village with prominent figures involved in the gas extraction issue. On this Wednesday evening, she recounted the state of affairs for those who wanted to hear. There was a small group. The die-hards, she called them, they had not yet dropped out.

This week she was interviewed by the NRC. A snippet from this:

“A lot of people think the problems are solved. The gas tap closes, a blow of money goes towards Growingen, done.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the homes are still unsafe. “There you can only fill a cup of coffee halfway because otherwise it will overflow, that’s how crooked the houses are.” Moreover, the seriousness of the bureaucracy in Groningen remains underexposed, while as a result more and more Groningers are dropping out, Top observes. “Many victims have become totally numb, because they have had to make choices for years, the consequences of which they cannot oversee.”

Reports full of errors about their homes, which they have to correct themselves. Government letters suddenly reconsidering promises made. Envelopes with six leaflets inside that you have to do something with. “The responsibility lies entirely with the public, while these people did not ask for the earth quakes. It was done to them,” Top said. “But the government lets them swim first, then drown. They just let them down. I really find that unimaginable.”

She sighs. It is not just the fault of one minister or of NAM, she says. There are flaws in the system made in recent years.

From: NRC, Sept. 27, 2021. These people did not ask for the tremors. It was done to them, Mark Middel.

Weaknesses and incomprehensible patterns

In my previous job, at the Executive Agency of Education, I also investigated flaws in the system. I called them dark patterns.

I learned that in government, we can only design the system world with the wisdom of the citizen. Only by first looking at the living world of citizens can you devise a good system world. If you don’t, things will go wrong. All the best intentions notwithstanding, government then goes into overdrive and bureaucracy grows like algae in a summer canal.

That effect reinforces itself. The less you know citizens, the less you talk to them, and the less you know them again. I explored this earlier in the child care benefit scandal. There Janet Ramesar called on the government not to reduce her and so many others to victims, but rather to ask her to help and invite her as an expert. After all, she knew better than anyone else what was wrong.

What is participation?

Since working at the National Ombudsman, I am learning a lot about participation and voice. It strikes me that much of the literature is about participation in the public domain and especially in your community. For example, in your neighborhood, at a solar farm to be built or the station neighborhood that is going upside down. There are participation guides, ladders, and manuals for professionals on how to organize this.

In addition to this public-space participation, you have two more levels of participation, I think. And in Groningen, those are upside down.

LevelsWho should open the door?
Your own life, your own homeYourself
Your environment, the public spaceYou meet in the middle, the government organizes
The system of governmentThe government

You have the individual level, of your own life and your own home. Here you are the boss. In the earthquake area, the government knocks on your door and you “must” participate in your own reinforcement operation. Your home is not safe, the government says. You lose control of it; the government takes it out of your hands.

The third level is that of the government itself. That’s how she makes the system world. How it decides which counters to have. What the customer journey of your experience how you do business with the organization looks like. How she sets up objection procedures that you have to go through if you disagree.

Again, citizens would like to have a say. They want the government to know how to deal with them. This is precisely where participation is much needed: we can only make a good system world from the perspective of the citizen. If we don’t, then we put all our wrong assumptions about the citizen into the systems and processes. It is not surprising that these then do not match reality.

How can we connect to reality if we make the system world behind closed doors?

Stories are there for the taking

In my job at DUO, I was always looking for enthusiastic students to do an assignment for us. Or who enjoyed visiting us at Kempkensberg. Then I dragged my colleagues into the cafeteria: look, a real student who wants to talk to you. And wants to share how she uses our services, what goes wrong and what could be better. I always had to look carefully for these types of students. Most were reluctant to share their stories with DUO and make time to do so.

When I started at the National Ombudsman in May, I discovered: in Groningen, the stories are there for the taking.

For example: Groningers have actively united in advocacy organizations, such as the Groninger Gasberaad and the Groninger Bodem Beweging. Groningers very faithfully keep an eye on their own files and know very well how to explain to you where things are pinching. Some keep a blog. You come to them, they show you whole timelines of how it all happened.

One of them, Nicole van Eijkern, emailed me a black-and-white book she made with acquaintances. For problems they encountered, they thought of possible solutions. There are books like I’m Waiting from Dagblad van het Noorden for which dozens of residents have been interviewed.

There are even two special knowledge platforms that have focused purely on the issues surrounding the consequences of gas production, the Kennisplatform Leefbaar en Kansrijk Groningen and Groningen Perspective.

How much participation, wisdom and knowledge do you want?

Participation on steroids

If I had still worked at DUO, my job as a citizen researcher would have been redundant in 1 fell swoop. Citizens report themselves in Groningen. It is participation on steroids and it should be the dream of the learning government.

I think it is a telling sign that Susan Top is quitting.

Whether that feels like giving up? “Yes, actually a little bit,” she says, after the silence. “Because you don’t quit thinking that it’s all settled and done now.” […] “Actually, it’s shocking how many issues that were already on the agenda in 2014 are still on the agenda now.”

From: NRC, Sept. 27, 2021. These people did not ask for the tremors. It was done to them, Mark Middel.

During the residents’ evening in Overschild, she told of an encounter that morning at a family in the midst of reinforcement. One wall was torn down and behind it they found to larger cracks than was anticipated. The NCG-owned operation was shut down. First, the IMG had to re-measure the damage. Phone calls. Scheduling a new visit. The construction workers drove off in their van, and just like that, days and weeks pass. And the residents … yes, they are waiting again. It is one of the consequences of the government’s separate counters, while from the beginning residents had asked for one counter.

Working together as equals

How then? It starts with wanting to see reality. With listening and hearing stories.

Also at the residents’ evening was a young guy who had just worked at the NCG for 3 months. He had quit a great job in Amsterdam, he told us. He worked in the IT department, basically had no contact with residents, but wanted to hear firsthand from residents how they saw it. Found it a bit exciting too, if he was honest, the NCG had not the best reputation. But he asked a lot of open-ended questions and was curious about the answers. He was one of the last to go home.

It is something small, and the Groninger who has been waiting for years will read this with a heavy dose of cynicism. But ultimately, this is where it starts: asking open questions and listening. To then acknowledge reality and invite the other as an equal partner. Adapt the processes together. Together, tease out loopholes in the system, reinsert them and straighten them out.

The initiative for this lies with the government.

The photo at the top of this blog was taken by Nicole van Eijkern’s daughter on the morning of the residents’ evening. It is the last part of their old house to be demolished.