In the context of the Heat Transition Vision Utrecht, a PVE was carried out in November 2019 for the municipality of Utrecht, in order to obtain advice from residents of the municipality about achieving the target of making 22,000 homes natural gas-free by 2030. A majority of the participants PVE thinks it is a good method to get involved, but what do the policymakers themselves think? We asked Dietje van Eif and Mirjam Harmelink, both policy officers of the municipality of Utrecht and closely involved in the participation process, about their experiences with PVE.
Less time investment for the civil servant
It is often said that there is too little time to spend in/at government for citizen participation. Both Mirjam and Dietje experienced the time investment as less compared to conventional participation methods. Mirjam indicates: “A PVE certainly takes less time. You reach other people. A conventional participation method quickly takes a lot of time. You have to prepare conversations, make a program, reserve a room, collect results and provide feedback. With a PVE, the effort per person reached is lower. Of course you have to do work to collect information about the consequences of the different approaches, but this is work that you would otherwise be doing anyway.”
Dietje: “Yes, the time spent on our side is much lower, or at least a lot less, compared to a traditional participation process. What I liked is that we have placed a reminder on Social Media to participate in the survey. Placing this was done in no time, but we have reached many extra people with relatively little effort. That is different from the traditional way of participating.”
With a PVE, someone can give his or her opinion at his or her own pace, in his or her time: people can participate at their own pace.― Dietje van Eif
Participate at your own pace
Both Dietje and Mirjam indicate that a different target group has been reached with the help of the PVE. People who come to residents' evenings are often already professionally interested, or are often so driven that other people have little or no opportunity to speak. Mirjam: “People who took part in the PVE are people who don't have the time or don't want to make time to talk at 7.30 in the evening or who can invest half a day. With a PVE, someone can give his or her opinion at his or her own pace, in his or her time: people can participate at their own pace. This gives you a broader picture of what is going on among the residents in the city.” Dietje adds: “The advantage is also that you give residents the opportunity to express their opinion in an anonymous setting. Certain people can sometimes dominate a residents evening, if you're lucky you'll have another in the audience who says now I want to say something."
Useful information from the PVE
Dietje: “The results of the PVE are not very different from what we had expected beforehand: it was more of a kind of confirmation. The PVE yielded: it remains a complex issue, and everyone's position is different. Due to the substantive arguments about the approaches, it has become clear to us that the approaches are sometimes interpreted differently by residents than we mean by that approach.”
Mirjam: “What the reactions in the PVE have taught us is that we should tell the broad story about the heat transition much earlier. Why do we do that? Why do we present people with an issue to make 22,000 homes natural gas-free? And what will happen to the residents? We are going to focus much more on the whole story, i.e. the rationale for why the government does something and why choices are needed for that.” Dietje: “Yes, we now also use that insight in how we organize our participation: by explaining very clearly what the considerations are, instead of just asking citizens for advice.”
What the reactions in the PVE have taught us is that we should tell the broad story about the heat transition much earlier― Mirjam Harmelink
The pitfalls of a PVE in these kinds of questions
The PVE can give the municipality many advantages, such as a less time investment for civil servants, a larger audience reached, a different audience than we normally reached and new insights from the results. However, according to Mirjam and Dietje, there are also a number of pitfalls of the PVE. Mirjam: “I think the catch is that your options are overcooked. Those 4 approaches in the PVE limited the choices for participants. You steer the discussion in a certain direction and you can start thinking in certain boxes, from which you can no longer escape. That also applies to the attributes and impact that you show.” Dietje noted that the subject of the heat transition did not entirely lend itself to 4 clearly defined choices. “The PVE has helped to form the assessment framework, but the strategies presented still contain so much that is uncertain. If you really have something clear about what we're going to do A, B or C, it's easier to present it. However, PVE helps to sharpen the process and dilemma for the municipality, because you think about what should be presented to the residents.”
The importance of citizen participation
Mirjam thinks it's important to know what's going on: “If you're going to renovate locally, it's even more important to know what's going on. People know their environment best. This question is very much like: what do I actually think, what has the most or least impact on me? You also need to know whether there is support or not.” "Whatever you get back, you can calculate it all theoretically, but that doesn't mean it's going to happen in reality. And what's fair is different for everyone." says Dietje. "Citizens also ask to be involved. They want to know when they can still have influence in the process. It is a bit from both sides. Involving citizens in policy is also expected to some extent in recent years."
At the municipality they are constantly making decisions in uncertainty. Mirjam: “For us it is also a kind of learning process. Working on a topic every day may make you forget that not everyone knows the whole story. And then, thanks in part to the PVE, we find out that you have to tell people that too.”