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The underexposed downsides of local self-governance and civic self-reliance

24 January 2020
Hiska Ubels

Municipalities in shrinkage regions are keen to emphasize the importance of civic involvement in improving the local quality of life. Self-governance and self-reliance regularly lead to successful projects aimed at sustaining village facilities. Hiska Ubels concludes that innovative forms of self-governance also have their downsides, which have unjustifiably been overlooked. She will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 30 January.

Ubels investigated a number of such initiatives in Beltrum, Nieuw-Dordrecht, Ee and Ulrum and found that citizen self-governance processes can be somewhat erratic. ‘These initiatives tend to have a positive effect on the self-governing abilities and civic power of the small group of residents who are directly involved,’ says Ubels. ‘But that’s not the whole story. An important lesson from my research is that, in the end, municipalities must always retain ultimate responsibility for local quality of life and welfare.’

Success factors

Successful and long-term forms of self-reliance almost always involve direct interests or a revenue model, Ubels concludes. ‘Shrinking villages benefit from enthusiastic leaders who, over time, also deliver tangible results and continue to enjoy broad public support. It is also important that civil servants and administrators have a flexible and open mindset and that local residents have access to the municipal organization. Targeted professional support is also essential for overcoming the differences between government and citizens.’

Voluntary self-reliance is unrealistic in the long term

In her research, Ubels identified three main limitations of self-reliance. For example, she concludes that self-reliance in shrinking villages on a voluntary basis is unrealistic in the long term. ‘Initiatives often rely on small and therefore delicate core groups. Moreover, volunteers do not always have the right skills to be able to deal with the complex issues that they face. The often high level of commitment required and pressure to be accountable to the partners and fellow villagers involved increases the risk of people becoming overloaded and of conflicts and volunteers dropping out. Citizens appear to be particularly willing to commit to temporary projects with a clear start and finish.’

The hidden financial and social costs of volunteers

Municipalities often shift responsibilities to citizens in order to save costs. In their cost-benefit analysis, however, they ignore the hidden financial and social costs of volunteers, says Ubels. She shows that citizens’ projects require years of intensive effort, which go hand in hand with countless individual and social risks. It also appears that, contrary to what is often assumed, these initiatives do not necessarily result in a higher degree of social involvement and cooperation.


Ubels also has reservations about the democratic character of citizens’ self-governing initiatives. The volunteers involved are not always representative of the village and it is very difficult to keep fellow villagers engaged in initiatives. The amount of time and effort needed to achieve the objective runs counter to the desire for democratic dialogue with the village. Countervailing powers therefore stand less of a chance. This is certainly a risk in complex collaborations with external partners and funding. Ubels: ‘There are also plenty of residents who can’t or don’t want to get involved in initiatives to improve the quality of life. Then there is a risk that their interests and needs will be overlooked.’

More information

  • Link to her PhD thesis entitled: Novel forms of governance with high levels of civic self-reliance
  • Ubels investigated the citizens’ initiatives Kulturhus Beltrum (municipality of Berkelland), Dorpscoöperatie Nieuw-Dordrecht (municipality of Emmen), Dorps Ontwikkeling Maatschappij Ee (municipality of Dongeradeel) and Project Ulrum 2034 (municipality of De Marne)
Last modified:03 June 2021 11.23 a.m.
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