Expert article
Project
WESH – We.Service.Heerlen Heerlen, The Netherlands
Edit 23 May 2022
by Harald WOUTERS, UIA Expert

WESH: looking for ways to further engage and continue

WESH Heerlen
Bongerd Heerlen (source: Brightlands)
We have interviewed Mr Pieter Bonnema, Senior Project Manager at the Municipality of Heerlen and Project Coordinator of We.Service.Heerlen (WESH).

For a year or so, Heerlen is experiencing how Heerlens Heitje works for the community. City maintenance tasks are performed by enthusiastic citizens, local shops are seeing the digital coins cashed in and the project partners are intensifying their effort to engage others and share their experiences. Project Coordinator Pieter Bonnema takes pride in what the team managed to achieve so far: “Our Heitje is getting recognised all over the city and beyond. We have turned scepticism into optimism, by showing that rewarding citizens for public space maintenance tasks really works.” At the same time WESH had a couple of setbacks and is still speeding up. “If you ask me, the numbers of participating citizens and shops could have been higher” Pieter continues. “I hate to bring up Covid-19 as an excuse, but for us the whole situation was a serious challenge. Shops were closed for quite some time and people did not go out, since they weren’t allowed to gather.” As things settled back to normal the Project Coordinator is already looking beyond the UIA project period: “Primarily we need to engage more users and shops, but we should also focus on how to create a longer lifespan for the platform.”

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Pieter Bonnema

Pieter Bonnema
Senior Project Manager WESH
Municipality of Heerlen

Interview

“The easiness of innovating is rather business logic, that does not always work the same way for a public organisation.”

It’s like a bonus

“When we started the idea of WESH, my colleagues at the city maintenance department were very clear about one thing,” Pieter Bonnema recalls. “The labour hours of the municipal maintenance staff were not allowed to be cannibalised by the tasks performed by citizens.” So basically this meant that the maintenance tasks on the WESH platform would be work for which the city maintenance workers would not have any time. “It’s like a bonus to what we already do in tidying up the public space,” Pieter tells us smiling. In that sense the project would not become a threat to the jobs of the municipal staff and the public space would be maintained even better. Normally the reason to implement technological innovation is to make work easier or processes more efficient, but Pieter describes a different reality when it comes to public entities. “The easiness of innovating is rather business logic, that does not always work the same way for public organisations,” Pieter explains. “Sure a municipality wants to innovate and work more efficiently, but we simply don’t have sufficient resources and people to change that fast and that drastically. Only very large cities can afford an entire innovation department, who help them organise and execute the structured municipal processes differently.”

A local entrepreneur explains the benefits of joining Heerlens Heitje to a delegation from the neighbouring city of Sittard-Geleen

Heerlens Heitje
Source: Municipality of Sittard-Geleen

Easier to say goodbye to

Although it has only been a year since the official launch of WESH and only six months since the city-wide rollout, Pieter’s priorities now lie in embedding Heerlens Heitje within the municipal organisation: “Since WESH is an add-on to our city management activities, it was easier to have everyone here agree on starting the project. But at the same time this posed a risk. The lack of integration of Heerlens Heitje in our processes, makes it a lot easier to say goodbye to the project when the term is over.” Pieter is advocating to his colleagues to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as he sees a number of possibilities to scale up the platform. “Heerlen is widely known for projects that engage people and reward them for desired activities or behaviour. We already have Buurtdeals for example, where citizens can decide on developing an empty plot into an outdoor gym or a vegetable garden. Or Buurthelden, where kids can earn toys by collecting litter in their neighbourhood.” The WESH-platform provides a way to integrate and accelerate of all of these standalone projects.

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“If we reason from having our residents helping us in managing the city, I see all sorts of contributions possible on a much larger scale.”

The tip of the iceberg

WESH has been working as an eyeopener and stimulant to improving civic participation in Heerlen, which has been a major challenge for decades. Statistics show that the city performs poorly in terms of number of volunteers and levels of trust among citizens in institutions and each other. “With WESH we’ve been able to explore engaging citizens with a digital coin, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg,” Pieter explains. He sees opportunities for Heerlens Heitje to improve vitality, reduce loneliness and increase sustainability within the city. Through WESH, Heerlen gained attention from other initiatives with local cryptos and that led to knowledge exchange. “Rotterdam introduced its Dam coin, football club Fortuna has one for its fans,” Pieter sums up. For Heerlen it is much more interesting to seek for collaboration if digital coins target a community challenge, such as sustainability or vitality. “There is this EnergieKnip, where digital coins can be spent in hardware stores on home isolation. It’s a major success in Emmen,” Pieter says enthusiastically. “Then there is another initiative called Fitcoin, which stimulates an active lifestyle”, he continues. “We did our experiment here, they did theirs. It would be wise if we could use their effort and learning right here and vice versa.”

A delegation from Sittard-Geleen visiting Heerlen to learn from the city's experiences with the digital coin

Heerlens Heitje

Source: Municipality of Sittard-Geleen

Smart Citizen

According to Pieter the recent municipal elections in the Netherlands provide a window of opportunity for the city of Heerlen to develop a new vision on civic participation. “If we reason from having our residents helping us in managing the city, I see all sorts of contributions possible on a much larger scale,” he predicts. “We are known for all of these community associations, for example. If we can let their members participate jointly, I can tell you we can make a tremendous difference. But first, we have to develop a new stance as a public organisation on how we delegate various managerial tasks to our citizens.” The city of Heerlen is working on a Smart Citizen programme, which is about improving digital skills for citizens and enabling them to participate in tailor-made digital services. “I see a clear fit for incorporating Heerlens Heitje,” Pieter continues. “Not only because we have an easy-accessible service platform, but we provide empowerment to the community and have the ability to pass along valuable feedback by our citizens.”

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“The civic participation platform is creating new opportunities for involving Heerlen’s community. So I truly believe we can continue this approach in some sort of way.”

Creating new opportunities

Heerlens Heitje still has to catch up on its prospected potential, because of its long preparation time and Covid-19 complications. “Right now we’re still engaging people to perform tasks and convincing local entrepreneurs to join in. But it really helps if we can provide them more outlook than until the end of the year when this UIA project ends,” Pieter sighs. But at the same time he is looking for endurance of the local cryptocurrency beyond the UIA project period. “You have to be realistic. A lot of European projects simply stop when their contracted period is over,” he states. For Heerlens Heitje Pieter thinks it should not end there: “The civic participation platform is creating new opportunities for involving Heerlen’s community. So I truly believe we can continue this approach in some sort of way.” Therefore Pieter is currently developing future scenarios for the digital currency in Heerlen. “I’ve been telling our management team that we have three options for the future of Heerlens Heitje. In short those are either quit, continue in the current framework or broaden to other functionalities. I really hope we can get a green light on the third option and explore other areas of civic engagement.”

The vibrant city centre of Heerlen during Tuesdays market

Heerlens Heitje

Source: Municipality of Heerlen

 

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