During the course of the UIA project We.Service.Heerlen (WESH), various challenges arose around participation. The success of any digital platform depends on the number of active users and the provided appealing content, so the participative approach of WESH has been seen as a critical factor from the start. The incentive for citizens to perform tasks on the platform lie in the variety of places where the Heitjes can eventually be spent. We are zooming in on the specific participatory approach of the project, to understand how both citizens and entrepreneurs were engaged. The infographic further explains the participatory process of WESH, as well as the results and challenges that occurred. Furthermore it zooms in on the specific pains and gains of the citizens and entrepreneurs that joined in.
Joining the platform or not
The citizens who joined in on the WESH platform stated that their main reasons to participate were (1) to improve their neighbourhood, (2) be more meaningful and (3) get rewarded financially. Their limited time, unattractive type of chores and unavailable chores nearby were the main reasons to not participate. These were countered by including quicker and other type of chores as well as the citywide availability. Citizens were also reluctant in participating because of the necessity of declaring the number of hours worked and the subsequent fear of having their individual allowances cut. For entrepreneurs to join in a look out beyond the project period of at least one year was established. Their reasons to participate was to (1) supporting the local community, (2) promote their business and (3) gain extra turnover. Entrepreneurs found it an easy to use initiative, but saw the temporary aspect as a down side. The reimbursement of their direct sales by the municipality also showed some practical concerns.
Heerlen's citizens were used in a promotional campaign for engagement
Source: Municipality of Heerlen
During the public launch of WESH in March 2021 a partial lockdown due to COVID-19 was still in place, whereas opening hours of shops were still limited. During the Winter of 2021-2022 a second hard lockdown was set in the Netherlands, which allowed only take away for all non-essential retail and all hospitality services as well as a night curfew from 8 PM on. It was strongly advised by the government to stay at home and only go out when needed. These restrictions made it by times difficult for both the entrepreneurs to join in as well as citizens to perform their tasks. According to the municipality 185 tasks in total were completed and approved by late 2022, which accounted for 1,150 hours of work in total. By that time 21 local entrepreneurs had joined the platform. Both were lower than anticipated at first, but the numbers were still growing later during the project when the COVID-restrictions were loosened.
Engaging users and content
The participatory approach of the citizens was mainly focussed on engaging them as users of the platform. For the development of the solution itself they were only indirectly represented via the neighbourhood association GMS. The people involved in GMS provided feedback on the participatory approach, given their experience in developing social innovation initiatives to stimulate the community. During the project there were various mechanisms are in place to supervise the results and impact of the project, since Statistics Netherlands (CBS) was involved in the partnership. They conducted an oversampling of the effects on the local social cohesion. For the continuation phase and adding new functionalities to the platform, users received survey questions on the smartphone app in 2022. These provided interesting insight on how the various tasks were received and suggestions for the follow-up. For example, the users deemed the availability and diversity of the chores too low. The engagement of platform content was conducted by city centre management organisation Heerlen Mijn Stad. When they found out it became increasingly difficult in 2022to attract local entrepreneurs to the platform, a look out beyond the project period of at least one year was established.
Power and wisdom of the crowd
By monitoring we have seen that most citizens that are engaged by the WESH project are intrinsically motivated citizens and in a lesser extent the extrinsically motivated. The latter are targeted mainly by the city’s social policy, such low income or unemployed households and citizens of which their health and wellbeing is relatively low. Heerlen’s historic reasons for rather low civic engagement and reasonable distrust in public institutions, make WESH an interesting real-life experiment. Bridging the gap between citizens and public authorities are in fact topics that are on the agenda on all levels of governments across Europe. Not only by increasing citizen engagement, but also to create more trust or political interest and making more use of the power and wisdom of the crowd. For the European Commission regaining citizens' trust and revitalise the EU democracy are crucial in our age of information. Not only by developing a more responsive, transparent and participatory decision-making process, but also by having citizens participate directly in public processes. We can state that engagement creates understanding. WESH has shown that citizen potential can be activated by simply rewarding their help.
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