What is the value of groups of one in Dutch municipal councils?
The number of groups of one in Dutch municipal councils is increasing. The Dutch municipal elections of March 2022 saw the election of 593 groups of one, an increase by 60 compared to 2018. What is the value of groups of one? They could contribute to the representativeness and legitimacy of municipal governance. But they could also reduce the counterbalance that mayors and aldermen experience. Hans Vollaard, Lars van Rooij and Barbara Vis of Utrecht University investigated the actual functioning of groups of one at the request of the Nederlandse Vereniging voor Raadsleden . Their report 'De potentiële waarde van eenpersoonsfracties in gemeenteraden' (The potential value of groups of one in municipal councils) is particularly topical because a petition to raise the electoral threshold – a known reflex against the supposed downsides of small political groups – was filed with the Dutch House of Parliament.
The number of groups of one is increasing. After the elections of March 2022, a municipal council housed 1.8 groups of one on average, and that number can still increase further due to breakaways within parties. In almost half of the municipal councils, there were breakaways in the previous term - more than before.
Fragmentation can represent diversity
However, the increase in groups of one does not meet undivided enthusiasm. The most prominent attention they get is under the rubrics of fragmentation, segmentation or splintering of municipal councils. Various mayors see fragmentation as a problem. Nevertheless, there is also appreciation for this too sometimes, because it simply represents the diversity among Dutch residents in the municipal councils. If this diversity is then also reflected in the decisions municipal councils make, municipal governance would be more likely to gain legitimacy.
What stands out in many discussions on groups of one is the lack of factual support of the functioning of groups of one. As long as that lack exists, it is also difficult to indicate the actual value of groups of one and whether or not raising the electoral threshold will be a gain or a loss. The research by Vollaard, Van Rooij and Vis is a first step to address the lack of knowledge on groups of one, by asking groups of one themselves how they can be of value to municipal councils.
The conclusions drawn by the researchers in their report are named 'preliminary conclusions' as they are based on the experiences of a varied, but relatively modest selection of groups of one who wanted to participate in the investigation. It is for that same reason that they speak of 'the potential value of groups of one'.
- The first preliminary conclusion is that groups of one admit to having generally limited influence and not always having the capacity to take on complex issues. But they also indicate that they CAN make a difference in certain situations and in certain (also complex) issues. There are also several other factors at play in this, such as the council member's experience and expertise, the numerical proportions in the municipal council and the relations between coalition and opposition.
- The second preliminary conclusion is that groups of one mostly deal with the same challenges as other groups, which are often barely any bigger in the segmented party-political landscape of municipalities in the Netherlands. Thus the matter of the value of groups of one is mostly a question about the values of groups of one in general. A cooperative angle, a keen eye for one's own priorities, visible devotion to residents, an open collaboration culture in municipal governance and sufficient support matter to all groups in order to be of value – and not just to groups of one.
- The third preliminary conclusion is that there will be both good and bad groups and groups of one, which involves all kinds of influential factors other than group size. That applies both to contributing to representativeness and the legitimacy of the municipal council as well as providing a counterbalance to the mayor and aldermen.
Even though further research to determine the value of groups of one is needed according to Vollaard, Van Rooij and Vis, they do make some recommendations based on their findings, focused on specific target groups:
- In this research, fellow groups of one emphasise the importance of visible devotion to residents, setting priorities and acting in connecting roles in order to be of value as a group of one. That is the recipe for effective representation of residents and acting effectively within the municipal council.
- An open collaboration culture within the municipal council, and between the municipal council and the mayor and aldermen is important in order to have groups and groups of one function properly. That requires investment in the mutual relations, throughout the entire term.
- The Nederlandse Vereniging voor Raadsleden (Dutch Association of Aldermen) could further consider setting national standards for group support. Is their main interest the local autonomy of municipal councils, or do they want to undo the inequality that comes about when smaller groups and groups of one can count on more support (such as group budget and commission members' speaking rights) in one municipal council than in another one?
- The Nederlandse Vereniging voor Raadsleden could then choose to collaborate with the Kennispunt Lokale Politieke Partijen (Knowledge Centre for Local Political Parties) to use more resources for the forming of regional Whatsapp groups of local political parties (the biggest group of municipal council members in the Netherlands combined), so they can keep each other up to date on developments in municipal and regional politics – which is of great importance because of the many regional collaborations.
More information and full report
On Monday 17 April 2023, the researchers present the report to the Nederlandse Vereniging voor Raadsleden in a digital self-employed persons festival.
Would you like to know more about this research project? Please read the full report or contact Hans Vollaard: firstname.lastname@example.org.