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From preferences to policy: turnout, accountability and policy responsiveness in Dutch local government

Date:29 November 2022
Researcher Harm Rienks
Researcher Harm Rienks

Our society and our societal problems have evolved, whereas many of our democratic institutions barely changed. According to Harm Rienks, who will defend his PhD at FEB next week, we need to improve our democratic institutions to make them more effective in solving our modern societal challenges. He strongly believes that any change in our democracy should be preceded by good research, since this mitigates some of the risks that are associated with tinkering with democracy. That is why Rienks dedicated his PhD to investigating how democracy functions and testing this using data about Dutch local democracy.

One important function of democracy is to translate the preferences of voters into policy, which is called policy responsiveness. In his dissertation, Rienks, who now works as a postdoctoral researcher at Wageningen University and Research, shows that Dutch local elections are competitive and that voters use these elections to hold parties accountable. “Theory suggests that this should lead to policy responsiveness. However, I do not find any direct evidence of policy responsiveness. That is, to my surprise, I do not find that changes in the composition of the local government lead to changes in local taxes. As such, I would still like to investigate if voting does influence other policy areas, such as environmental policy.”

Policy responsiveness & quality of democracy

Many citizens believe that voting should matter for policy. For many people this is a reason to go out and vote and this gives legitimacy to public policy in democratic countries. “Albeit voting should matter for policy, this does not mean that government should always and directly do what a majority of citizens want, because this could, for example, lead to a tyranny of the majority. That I do not find direct evidence that voting influences policy might partly explain the low voter turnout in local elections or clarify to a certain extent why citizens grow increasingly dissatisfied with (local) government”, the postdoctoral researcher speculates.

Compared to many other countries, the Netherlands has a well working local democracy. That is to say, it ranks high in international comparative democracy indexes, indicating that its democracy is of a relatively high quality. Rienks: “Because I don’t find any direct evidence of tax policy responsiveness in Dutch local government, one might worry whether policy responsiveness exists in other countries with a local democracy of a lower quality.”

Not all bad news

However, it is not all bad news. Rienks’ dissertation also shows that voters hold parties accountable in local elections. “Through their voting behavior Dutch voters, for example, give parties an incentive to put competent and (somewhat) honest candidates on the ballot. This helps to uphold the quality of our local governments, something from which we all benefit, and which for me personally already is sufficient reason to vote.”

Having completed his dissertation, the next topic that Rienks would like to delve into is how having a representative voter turnout (having a voter turnout that accurately reflects the municipal population) influences the degree in which citizens are content with local government. “However, in my current employment at Wageningen University I’m investigating how the transition towards a climate neutral EU can be accelerated. This also involves politics and multi-level governance. I’m still looking for ways to combine the research I’m doing now with the research I did on Dutch local democracy.”

More information:

Harm Rienks will defend his PhD on the 8th of December. You can read his dissertation online.