Safeguarding public values is a task of the government, but in the built environment, private parties are increasingly often lending a hand. As these parties all have their own interests, it is a balancing act to sustain things that are intended for the general public, states Lizet Kuitert in her PhD research. 

Installing a wheelchair ramp represents a clear value: ensuring access for everyone. So this is a job you can easily leave to a private party. But it becomes considerably more complex in an area development situation where major social issues need to be resolved, such as social inclusion, sustainability or reducing heat stress. Governmental bodies struggle with new values such as these in area development, which come in addition to more traditional values. Often they need the specific expertise of private parties for this. “Public clients don't look at such challenges in the same way as the private parties in the building industry,” says Kuitert. “That is an advantage: private parties are able to think outside the box to a greater extent and to present innovative solutions. But it also makes things more complicated, because public clients have to check that the collective interest is safeguarded.”

City park

It is not only businesses that have different interests and values than the government; the same is true of individual citizens. When they are involved in the planning process it does not always lead to a result that serves the public interest. For example, when redeveloping a square into a city park, the municipality of The Hague decided to work closely with local businesses and residents. Contractors as well as other parties such as artists were invited to take part via a tender pool. Furthermore, the municipality wanted people from the immediate vicinity to help design the park or to get involved in the project via an apprenticeship or practical training place, for example, as part of 'social return'. The idea was to create a park by and for the residents. 

That sounds refreshing, but the reality proved a tougher nut to crack. Kuitert, who followed the project in The Hague as a case study, noted that small parties had great difficulty with the chosen tendering approach. Citizens were not only occupied with the interests of the neighbourhood as a whole. Decisions on such things as where to position a waste bin, lamppost or bench unintentionally exposed the fact that other values were important to them. In the end, a more traditional party took on the main task and local businesses were involved in sub-projects. 

This is a good example of how safeguarding public values often leads to a balancing act on the part of governmental bodies. Talks she had with governmental and semi-governmental organisations such as provinces, water boards and universities confirmed this struggle. Even within a single municipal organisation, values may vary. A management department often finds other issues more valuable than a development department, which tends to attach great importance to innovation. And the perception of external parties may differ from this. 

Public clients are increasingly choosing the kind of network collaboration that the municipality of The Hague chose in the park project. For public organisations, this demands a totally different way of working. “As a public client you have to give indirect steering by managing relationships, to ensure you still achieve the values for which you will later be held to account,” explains Kuitert. 

In short, it is no easy task to keep everyone on board in public-private projects. Because it is not always easy to predict where values may get in the way of each other, Kuitert developed an instrument for this. ‘Speaking of values’ maps out what values are discussed in the objectives of a project or programme as well as what values the parties involved bring in themselves. A series of questions is used to create a picture of where these may potentially conflict with each other. She also developed seven strategies for people to learn how to deal with conflicting values. These show that it really is possible to prevent conflicts, for example by consciously resolving the objectives one by one, by bringing the parties involved to the table at an earlier stage, or by setting it up as a test project. “If you can get people out of the bureaucratic context, they are often more willing to think outside the box, and that can be a first step towards a successful collaboration.”

Published: May 2021