The silent majority speaks
‘The “rebuilding of the Netherlands”, which is necessary to realise the Climate Agreement of the Netherlands, will not succeed with old-fashioned citizen participation. We need to modernise our toolkit’, says Ed Nijpels, chair of the Climate Agreement Progress Consultation and crown-appointed member of the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands (SER). That modernisation is provided by TU Delft researcher Niek Mouter. With the Participatory Value Evaluation (PVE) tool, his team organised a citizen climate consultation in response to a motion from the Dutch House of Representatives. Nijpels and Mouter talk about citizen participation in the case of difficult issues.
There appears to be rather fierce public opposition to strict climate measures. Examples are wind turbines and solar parks, but also the Dutch kilometre levy or a meat tax. Such measures have a considerable impact on people and do not always make the contact between policymakers and – at times very angry – citizens easy. The input from citizens is desperately needed, nevertheless. Ed Nijpels: ‘At municipalities, provinces, water boards and the government, I encounter the realisation at all levels that you cannot achieve major transitions from behind your desk or through the political system. You have to ensure that citizens are part of the process. I am optimistic about the efforts that people make to accomplish this.’
Nijpels continues: ‘The current energy transition is sometimes compared with the transition to natural gas in the 1960s. Back then, the cooking stoves in people’s kitchens had to be replaced by cookers that worked on natural gas. But what we’re doing now goes much further than that. What is more, today’s citizen is very much used to having an equal say. And social media also plays a role in that. The contours of our democracy and all of the associated institutions acquired their form in the 19th century. It is, of course, quite absurd to think that the democracy of our ancestors is still suitable for the issues we currently face. The world has changed completely. So the very least you can do is think about how the democratic toolkit can be modernised with the use of, for example, contemporary technology.’
A coherent advice from citizens
That is what Niek Mouter did with a team of researchers. They added a highly promising new instrument to the toolkit: the Participatory Value Evaluation (see box). He did five experiments with it, including a citizen consultation about climate policy among 10,000 citizens. And that took just 20 minutes of those citizens’ time. Mouter: ‘We developed the method as an alternative to the Social Cost Benefit Analysis (SCBA), which is frequently used in the case of plans for new infrastructure. Policymakers did not appear to be that interested in the social value calculations that we produced with this. Instead, they saw the SCBA more as an instrument for participation. As a result of that, in the NWO research project Participatory Value Evaluation: a new assessment model for promoting social acceptance of sustainable energy policies we developed the PVE and tested it as a participation instrument. Some cases were more successful than others. The approach worked particularly well for the energy policy in the region Súdwest-Fryslân. There we combined a citizens’ assembly (see box) – a process of four meetings – with the PVE. In this process, the citizens formulated a coherent advice that could count on support.
Listen to silent majority
In society, there is a lot of know knowledge that policymakers can make good use of, states Mouter. With this approach, you can obtain that knowledge. And the PVE method also enables us to reach groups other than the people who always take part in citizen participation. That is often a small and extremely critical group that always consists of the same people who have a lot of time available. ‘ The broad group of citizens in the middle strata of society is not heard. But with a PVE consultation, you very much reach that majority, and then the silent middle strata suddenly gain a louder voice. People also appreciate the nuanced manner in which they can give their opinion via the PVE. They would rather not share space with participants who have extreme opinions.’ Nijpels philosophises aloud that the PVE approach might well be applicable to other thorny political issues, such as nuclear energy. Mouter: ‘Nuclear energy, Schiphol Airport and gas extraction in the Province of Groningen are definitely on my PVE bucket list! Public opinion about these issues definitely contains shades of grey. A PVE enables us to give a voice to the nuanced opinions about these issues. And then it will also become clear which conditions government policy must satisfy to be able to count on widespread support.’
Take content and process equally seriously
Ed Nijpels does, however, add a caveat to this. ‘Instruments such as a citizens assembly are very vulnerable. For example, it is all too quickly said that the composition of such a group is not representative. You need to keep on explaining how it works. Combining both instruments, as was the case in Súdwest-Fryslân, seems to be ideal in my opinion because then the instruments somewhat attenuate each other’s risks. We still have more to learn in this respect.’
Another difficult point, according to Nijpels, is the political status of participation processes. ‘Politicians are very adept at causing accidents with new forms of democracy, such as the referendum law in the Netherlands but also the climate assembly that Macron appointed in France. Macron did not keep to the agreement to take the recommendations from the assembly seriously.’ That mistake was not made with the use of the PVE, states Mouter. ‘Our PVE includes the standard question: “How should politicians act on this?”. Usually, only a very small minority says that politicians must literally adopt all of the outcomes. A participation process should preferably not be too long and intensive. That allows participants to maintain some critical distance with respect to their own recommendations. In addition, politicians need to respond seriously to what emerges even if they do not adopt everything. Either way, meticulousness and starting in good time are the most important aspects of designing participation processes. So do not spend months discussing participation only to rush through the process in a couple of weeks.’
Enough material on the table
The necessary knowledge is now on the table. The question is: how can this knowledge be used more in practice? Mouter: ‘As a researcher, I have, over the past few years, become increasingly grounded in everyday practice. And I’ve learned an awful lot from that. I would advise all researchers in this area to do the same. Do not simply work together with the field but genuinely work in the field. And vice versa, the field can learn a lot from what we know as researchers. After all, there are few policymakers who have a good overview of insights from the literature.’ Nijpels, in turn, hopes that we will receive a nice Christmas present from the coalition negotiations. ‘I think we cannot possibly ignore the outcome of Mouter’s research and the report from the Brenninkmeijer Committee that strongly calls for the involvement of citizens assemblies with respect to climate issues. As the Climate Agreement Progress Consultation, we have strongly emphasised this in our letter to the informateurs (coalition-forming negotiators) at the end of October as well. Mouter’s research was also a response to a motion that was almost unanimously adopted by the Dutch House of Representatives. So now there is definitely enough material on the table for the politicians to make a decision about this.’