26 April 2019

Shifting role of local government: from steering to facilitating

In residents’ initiatives that aim to boost a city’s climate resilience, municipalities aim to place less emphasis on steering and focus more on facilitating, according to Utrecht University climate scientists in an article in the journal Environmental Policy and Governance. This is bringing about a shift from residents’ participation to government participation, but there are also potential drawbacks.

Verticaal bos
Bosco Verticale in Milan: the greening of public spaces can be done in all kinds of ways.

More and more towns, cities and villages are adapting to climate change, increasing their resilience to its negative consequences. Examples include greener neighbourhoods or water reservoirs that collect water in the event of heavy rainfall or flooding. Until recently, many of these projects were initiated by municipalities, but citizens are increasingly taking the lead themselves. Municipalities are stimulating this process, but their role is also changing.

Organisational change required

“Our research shows that local governments aim to place less emphasis on steering and more on facilitating”, explains primary author Dr Heleen Mees from Utrecht University. “But that calls for organisational change within local governments, which is not always easy. They need to become more flexible and be able to take on different roles depending on the stage that the residents’ initiative has reached. Or they need to take on different roles for different projects, marking a shift from citizen to government participation.”

Benthemplein in Rotterdam
Benthemplein in Rotterdam has been designed to fill with water in heavy rainfall. A reservoir of excess water forms as a result.

Potential drawbacks

This shift in participation also has potential drawbacks. Some local government officials dealing with residents’ initiatives are encountering resistance, for various reasons. Often, the municipal organisation lacks the flexibility needed to deal with the various demands of citizens’ initiatives. Others have faced resistance from colleagues, worried that the role of the municipality or their own role in the organisation could be undermined. This is unjustified, in the view of the researchers, because local government is unlikely to shrink, and at worst will simply change.

Risk of increasing inequality

Finally, the officials involved raise questions with regard to the results achieved. Many climate initiatives start life in relatively prosperous neighbourhoods, which tend to be more enterprising and have a stronger knowledge base. If the initiative is placed with the citizen and government authorities focus more on their role as facilitators, less prosperous neighbourhoods will not be encouraged to take action. “That does nothing to boost community cohesion and can actually encourage inequality”, insists Mees. “Local governments will need to take account of that.”


The publication From citizen participation to government participation: An exploration of the roles of local governments in community initiatives for climate change adaptation in the Netherlands is available open access on the Wiley Online Library website.