In March 2021 the We.Service.Heerlen (WESH) project is going live in Heerlen, the Netherlands. The platform, the transaction software, the currency symbol, the media campaign, the pilot users, the partnering shops; all is set for launch. At T minus one month we are talking to Robine Gielkens, one of the WESH team members working for the Municipality of Heerlen. “You can consider me the rush-goalie of WESH,” she says as she introduces her role in the project. And oh boy, has she been rushing around lately to get everything in place. As excitement is steadily reaching peak levels for the team, the Junior Project Manager explains the eagerness of finally seeing all of the hard work into action.
“If you see all that’s involved to get citizens to actually perform some of our easiest public service tasks, you can get the feeling that we’re cracking nuts with a sledgehammer.”
Lend us a hand in tidying up
“Since I’ve started working at the Municipality of Heerlen, the atmosphere has been very welcoming. Maybe it’s the vibe of Southern Netherlands, but for me it felt just as comforting as stepping into a warm bath,” Robine starts off smiling. She never expected to become a public officer at first, studying Facility Management, working as a Team Manager at Heerlen’s IKEA and even considering working as a teacher for some time. Her all-round experience has proven very beneficial for her current role in WESH. “It all started out as this fun idea”, she was told when she joined the team. “Why don’t we just get citizens to lend us a hand in tidying up their own neighbourhood? Then we can be happy that more maintenance work can get done.”, she adds. “And citizens are happy because their living space improves. Wait, the citizens need to earn something in order to join in, right? Well, I’ve heard this cool stuff about blockchain,” Robine looks back. And next thing they knew, they were in the midst of creating a full-blown innovation project: We.Service.Heerlen.
Allmost all people have good intentions
“If you see all that’s involved to get citizens to actually perform some of our easiest public service tasks, you can get the feeling that we’re cracking nuts with a sledgehammer,” Robine says, as she grins in honesty. For painting a park bench, for example, the equipment list features over a dozen items: from a paint brush, roller and white spirit, to painter’s tape, rubber gloves and caution signs. According to Robine, people involved in WESH could still come up with new possible risks: “What if someone decides to keep a paint roller or a can of paint? What if they decide to not perform the task at all? How do we retrieve our stuff then?” Robine believes the only answer to these questions is having faith in the good of people: “In the end, almost all people have good intentions. If someone really decides to steal a roller, after downloading the app, registering, applying and picking up the materials; let him have it. The best solution is working trust-based and just making it happen. As a municipality we try to foresee all possible wrongdoings and problems that very likely won’t even occur at all.”
"Getting people involved and rewarding them for their work, is at the core of what WESH is about.”
No claim culture
To set the right conditions for starting the project, the WESH team had to contemplate many different aspects and scenario’s. “What happens when someone gets injured, for example?”, Robine asks. Making sure that citizens are insured might sound over-precautious, but in this case better safe than sorry. Adding: “Just when one of our citizens is performing a paint job for us?”. She explains that If something happens to one of her colleagues at the municipality, the public authority is well-insured. But not for tasks that are passed on to Heerlen’s citizens. So the municipality had to alter its insurance, to actually cover delegated tasks. “But then again, our responsibility is limited to what’s necessary for performing the tasks. We believe our citizens are responsible for their own handling, we can only provide safety instructions. Thank goodness there is no real claim culture here, that would make WESH virtually impossible,” Robine sighs in relief.
Rigid systematics and wage innovations
In the preparation of WESH, the most difficult hurdles to take were in the discussions they had with the Dutch tax authority. Obviously the national government sees work as taxable. Their quite rigid systematics seemed not designed for these type of wage innovations. Robine explains: “After our Mayor and Alderman went over to The Hague, to ask for an exception status for WESH, the national tax authority gave us two options. If we kept wages for the tasks up to 5 euros per hour – or 5 Heitjes in our case – it would be considered voluntary work. For anything above that amount, people are obligated to report this income annually.” The municipality deliberately chose to have citizens earn 10 to 15 Heitjes per hour, since this would provide a much better incentive for people to participate. “We wanted citizens to earn a little extra money with this,” Robine states, “especially those who are having a hard time financially. So only 5 euros an hour was a no-go to us.” The cap on the maximum one person can earn on the platform, is set to 1,500 Heitjes or euros a year. “So citizens won’t get VAT-taxed afterwards for the income they earned by participating. And we can get as many people to join in as possible.” During the discussions the municipality achieved that people only have to report annually what they actually did earn.
You’ve worked hard, you deserved it
Robine underlines that during the preparation phase the citizens of Heerlen have been at the centre of the team’s attention: “The project is really about them, about getting them involved, to join in and have them improve their own neighbourhoods.” Of course the project serves more purposes: citizens helping the municipality out in tasks that otherwise wouldn’t be done. Or providing more clientele to shops and bars in the city centre, by rewarding a local currency. “But in the end getting people involved and rewarding them for their work, is at the core of what WESH is about”, Robine concludes. The rewards in the form of Heitjes can be cashed-in at local bars, hairdressers, restaurants, tobacco shops, and so on. When asked if they would consider only healthy products to be bought with the Heitjes, Robine makes it very clear: “We really wanted to keep the platform as accessible as possible. We’re definitely not going to patronise”, she says as she shakes her head. “We want to grant people what they want to buy with the coins, just like regular money. If you want a beer after helping us out, go right ahead. You’ve worked hard, you deserved it.”
"If we have at least a few people participating and improving their wellbeing and surroundings, to me the entire project is already a major success.”
Be contagious to join in
With the launch of the platform coming up in March 2021, Robine and the team are getting really excited to go live: “Each week we have a new milestone in the countdown, from a flyer and graphic work to the official press release.” Robine continues even more brightened: “We are living forward to it with the entire team, because this is what we have been waiting for. Seeing the project into action and seeing citizens actually doing what we have been preparing. That is a big thrill.” For Robine the success of the project, depends on the number of engaged users they are able to reach. When asked to give a prediction about the active users, she calculates in threefold: “If we manage to triple the users each time around, the project will be considered successful. So at the end of this year we can have around a three hundred active users. Somewhere around mid-2022 we will have a thousand users and a year later three thousand.” She believes the project will have to grow steadily and be contagious for people to join in. But still, she does not expect miracles: “I can give really high hopes and numbers, but we’re certainly not going to change the lifestyle of a couch potato,”, she says jokingly. “We have to make sure we can convince Heerleners to join in. If we do manage to have at least a few people participating and improving their wellbeing and surroundings, to me the entire project is already a major success.”