1. Executive summary
In 2019 the Municipality of Heerlen and its partners developed We.Service.Heerlen (WESH), an integrated community engagement project under the EU’s Urban Innovative Actions initiative (UIA). The WESH-consortium consists further of CoTown as technical supplier, Brightlands Smart Services Campus for business support, neighbourhood association GMS for user engagement, city centre organisation Heerlen Mijn Stad as content provider, Statistics Netherlands (CBS) for monitoring and the Dutch Associonation of Municipalities (VNG) for upscaling. Via the WESH smartphone app, citizens of Heerlen can apply for easy public space maintenance tasks assigned by the municipality. Completed and approved tasks are rewarded with local digital coins: Heerlen Heitje (1 Heitje = 1 euro). These can be spent at local shops, bars and cultural organisations within the city. The goals of the project are (1) increasing civic engagement, (2) improving the public space and (3) stimulating the local economy.
In March 2021 WESH was launched publicly by ten volunteers of the neighbourhood association and covered by multiple local and regional news reports. Alderman Claessens received multiple requests from television and printed media about the project. WESH has shown national interest as well as from cities in the Nordics and Central Europe. These were particularly curious about the approach on civic participation and the rewarding system. After lengthy discussions with the Dutch tax authority in the preparation of WESH on taxing the performance of the tasks, the project received an exemption for VAT. After the first months in action the WESH-team notices reluctance of some citizens for registering, fearing repayment of allowances. As a result the team lowered the wage for the tasks from 15 to 5 euro an hour to make it voluntary work.
The UIA initiative identifies seven operational challenges for implementing a collaborative innovation project. Each of these are translated to the current state of the project at the of writing this Journal in October 2021, with their corresponding risk level:
- Leadership (low risk): Heerlen’s Mayor and Alderman reached an exempted status for WESH after discussions with top officials of the tax authority, under the condition that the work hours were registered annually by citizens in their tax return (up to 1,500 euro a year).
- Procurement (medium risk): to avoid a vendor-locking in scaling up WESH, the software source code should become publicly available. The Dutch Association of Municipalities (VNG) is discussing this issue with the municipality and the technical supplier of WESH.
- Participative approach (high risk): crucial to the success of a digital platform are the content and users. Some citizens seemed reluctant to participate, in fear of having allowances cut. As of early October 2021, the app has over 550 downloads, 155 users, 130 tasks posted, 50 tasks completed and 15 shops involved.
- Cross-department working (medium risk): the ties between the spatial and social domains of the Municipal organisation should be intensified further. Municipal workers involved in WESH belong to the spatial domain, but beneficiaries of the project are targeted by social policy.
- Measuring and monitoring (low risk): in-dept surveys on the liveability of the various neighbourhoods of Heerlen are conducted in the project by Statistics Netherlands (CBS), including grading of the public space before and after the project’s implementation.
- Communication to beneficiaries (medium risk): communication has a primary local focus, since only Heerlen’s citizens and local entrepreneurs can join in. The media outreach of the launch was very regional at first, but has shown Dutch and international interest later on.
- Scaling up (low risk): scaling up the methods, conditions and approach of WESH are foreseen as part of the Public Services Lab, which the municipality, Brightlands Smart Services Campus and VNG have set up. In this lab they develop new digital services for public authorities.
2. Project update
2.1 Bringing an integrated idea to life
In 2019 the Municipality of Heerlen and its partners developed an integrated idea around community engagement and blockchain technology into an experimental project: We.Service.Heerlen, abbreviated as WESH. Under the European Commissions’ Urban Innovative Actions initiative, the WESH-consortium, led by the Municipality of Heerlen, has been able to develop, prepare and test the ground-breaking solution within the city. The French startup CoTown, resident of the local Brightlands Smart Services Campus, is the technical supplier of the project. The Brightlands Smart Service Campus itself provides business support. Local neighbourhood association Grasbroek- Musschemig-Schandelen (GMS) is involved to kickstart the project with its citizens. Local entrepreneurs are engaged by the city centre management organisation Heerlen Mijn Stad. Statistics Netherlands (CBS) monitors the effects of the project by surveying citizens on the improvement of their wellbeing and the perception of the public space in Heerlen. The Dutch Association of Municipalities (VNG) provides expertise and possibilities to scale up the standardised IT solutions to other municipalities.
The WESH project contains three main software features: (1) a smartphone app for citizens to show public space maintenance tasks and their rewards, (2) a web application for entrepreneurs to receive payments or see involvement of peers and (3) a dashboard tool for the city authority to commission tasks to citizens and make transactions to entrepreneurs. The innovative aspect of the solution is a digital platform to delegate service tasks of the municipality to its citizens. By downloading the WESH smartphone app and registering, citizens of Heerlen are able to apply for accessible and relatively easy public space maintenance tasks assigned by the municipality. When a task is completed by the citizen and approved by the public space maintenance department of the municipality, the citizen will be rewarded with local digital coins: ‘Heerlen Heitjes’ (1 Heitje = 1 euro). These Heitjes can be spent at local shops, bars and cultural organisations within the city who have joined in. The goals of the project are therefore in threefold: to increase civic engagement, to improve the quality of the public space and to stimulate the local economy of the city centre of Heerlen.
The WESH-platform functions as an urban marketplace between the municipality, its citizens and local entrepreneurs. As for any platform, the content offered on the platform as well as the user engagement, are crucial to its success. So engaging citizens to perform the tasks as well as providing places to spend the coins are essential. Therefore easy access and minimal hassle for participation of both citizens and local entrepreneurs are requirements in WESH. Respectively, in the app and on the web portal, a very easy process in registration, administration and guidance are provided. When the digital coins are earned by citizens for performing the tasks, they can be cashed in at participating bars or retailers. Afterwards entrepreneurs can exchange them at the municipality in the same way as vouchers.
2.2 Public launch and first months in action
After a meticulous preparation by the partners of WESH in 2020, a demo of the platform was operational at the start of 2021. After three months of testing and altering of the platform’s demo version, WESH was officially launched in the city of Heerlen in March 2021. Publicly both the app and the digital coins were named ‘Heerlens Heitje’, with Heitje deriving from the Dutch saying ‘Heitje voor karweitje’ or bob-a-job. On 20 March − national clean-up day in the Netherlands − a first group of 15 volunteers started working on the first commissioned tasks in their neighbourhood Grasbroek-Musschemig-Schandelen (shortened as GMS). Although the audience during the public launch itself was limited due to covid-19 restrictions being in full effect at that time, it was covered by multiple local and regional news reports. After the launch, Heerlen’s Alderman Mr Charles Claessens, who is responsible for city maintenance, received multiple interview requests and television invitations about the project. Among others, the Alderman was featured in Dutch articles of VNG Magazine and on the blog Smart City Plaza. The project received attention from cities throughout Europe, especially from the Nordics and Central-Europe. These were particularly interested in approach on civic participation and rewarding system.
In mid-2021, three months after the launch of Heerlens Heitje, the WESH-project team had a chance to reflect on how certain choices that were made during the preparation of the project worked out in practice. During the preparation of the project there were many discussions with the Dutch tax authority on taxing the wage for performing the tasks and registering it as income. Basically, the tax authority ruled that anyone who performs some form of work and is rewarded for it, must pay tax. The WESH team managed to receive an exemption for VAT. During the first weeks of the platform in action, the neighbourhood association noticed that some citizens were reluctant to register in fear of future consequences by the tax authority. This fear is mainly due to the fact that people are afraid of losing various allowances, after all the earned Heitjes are added to the aggregate income as euro. In theory, this could mean that when the limit is exceeded by only one euro, all relevant allowances over the past year must be repaid. Although the chance of this is not very high, but the consequences are such that citizens refuse to create an account, just to be on the safe side of things. This fear was further fuelled by a national scandal in the Netherlands in 2020 over ethnic profiling and wrongfully cutting allowances by the tax authorities. As a result the WESH-team lowered the wage for the tasks from 15 to 5 euro an hour to accommodate it as voluntary work. The corollary result is that there are no more interruptions or obligations at all towards the tax authorities, both in VAT and income tax.
3. Challenges and emerging lessons
3.1 Challenges overview
For the preparation and implementation of WESH, the UIA initiative identifies seven operational challenges, that are seen as the most relevant and cross-cutting for implementing a collaborative innovation project within the urban sphere: (1) leadership, (2) procurement, (3) participative approach, (4) cross-department working, (5) measuring and monitoring, (6) communication to beneficiaries and (7) scaling up. Each of these seven UIA challenges are translated to the current state of the WESH project, at the time Journal no. 2 is written (October 2021). That means halfway the three years of the project period and approximately 6 months of the implementation phase. The state of the challenges are depicted as risks, coded accordingly as traffic lights: green is low, yellow is medium and red is high. The challenges will be addressed one by one in the detailed analysis below. For each challenge, a critical analysis anchored to the project activities development is presented as well as the emerging lessons learned from that specific challenge.
3.2 Detailed analysis
3.3 Conclusion and emerging lessons
Cities across Europe can learn valuable lessons from WESH in general, as well as specifically in the current status of the project. A lot of effort went into the preparation of the project, such as setting up the technical platform, alignment of partners and their responsibilities, incorporation in processes within the municipal organisation and engagement of both citizens and entrepreneurs. But still there were obstacles that were either unforeseen or deemed less important beforehand. Of course the COVID-19 situation fits the first category, which has very likely slowed the impact of WESH. But the legislations and framework conditions within an EU Member State count for the latter. They can be decisive in having an innovation project succeed or fail. If we continue to have hesitant responses of national authorities to experiments that touch upon the economic system and proceed rather rigid tax regulations, we surely miss out on the beneficial effects for citizens and even possible future revenues.
Bridging the gap between citizens and public authorities are 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 participating directly in the public processes. We can state that engagement creates understanding. WESH shows that citizen potential can be activated by simply rewarding their help. The approach and methods used by the project can be applied to other sorts of applications, where stimulating desirable behaviour is favoured, such as sustainable or healthy activities. WESH is therefore an interesting case of governance innovation, whereas even core municipal services can be crowdsourced by using technology.