Molenwaard Nearby – providing municipal services without a town hall
The former municipality of Molenwaard was the Netherlands’ first local council to operate without a town hall. This innovation came about when three local authorities merged together into one municipality. Despite becoming a much larger municipality they still wanted to stay close to the community. They decided to no longer have a service desk in the traditional sense of the concept. Instead, the local authority goes out into the community and is, therefore, always nearby.
An average-size municipality of just under 30,000 inhabitants in the western part of the Netherlands, Molenwaard was created on 1 January 2013 through the merger of the Graafstroom, Liesveld, and Nieuw-Lekkerland municipalities. Prior to this date, these three local authorities had already merged all their administrative operations and started to think about what would ultimately become the Molenwaard Nearby concept. They looked into how the three local authorities could harmonize their policy and processes, as well as how they, despite becoming a much larger municipality, could still stay close to the community. The accommodation was also an issue they discussed, as they had to decide where to build the new Molenwaard town hall. They put together a business case that showed that a new town hall would cost Molenwaard around fifteen million euros, while each municipality had only set aside one million euros for a new town hall. Aside from that, it was the height of the recent economic crisis and it was simply not a sensible move to spend so much taxpayer money. It was in this context that the following question emerged: ‘What exactly do we need a town hall for?’ This is what set the ball rolling. The funds the three municipalities had reserved were spent on implementing the Molenwaard Nearby concept, which marked the start of the great rethink.
The municipality operates based on the idea that any place is suitable as a workplace for civil servants, given that their workplaces are hosted in a Virtual Office that can be accessed at home or at one of the existing village halls, local clubs, or even cafés in one of the municipality's thirteen villages or at one of the buildings where the local authority rents office space. For personal dealings with citizens, the local authority basically goes out to where citizens or businesses are. They are mobile, digital, and nearby.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The Molenwaard municipality was the first in the Netherlands to abandon the idea that a local council needs a physical town hall where citizens can go for all kinds of council services. Citizens can now apply for a wide range of products electronically. The only products for which citizens still have to stop by one of the council’s locations are a passport, ID card, or driving license. Applications for these products are handled by appointment, whereby citizens can choose where they want to apply in the various villages.
The local authority has fully digitalized its internal processes, enabling its employees and the municipal executive to work anytime and anywhere. Given that the mayor and the members of the municipal executive do not have a fixed office, they meet local residents at home or at a school, while local businesses can schedule appointments on their own premises. Municipal council meetings are also held at different locations. This, too, is Molenwaard Nearby.
What is the current status of your innovation?
In 2019, Molenwaard merged with the Giessenlanden municipality to form the Molenlanden municipality (approx. 43,500 inhabitants), which is made up of 21 villages. This merger prompted a reorientation of the vision with respect to the community-based approach to municipal services. It took time to align the two municipalities’ respective innovation processes. In the new Molenlanden municipality, too, the concepts of participation, a community-based approach, and closeness to citizens come first.
Providing municipal services without a town hall is one way to put citizens first, but not the only way. The Molenlanden municipal authority is, for example, also working on a 360-degree customer record. All applications submitted and services used are logged in this record, as is the number of times a local civil servant has accessed someone’s personal data. Citizens have access to their records and can enquire about the purposes for which their data was processed.
Collaborations & Partnerships
The municipal clerk at the time is seen as a visionary in making the switch to working without a town hall, which he propelled with the help of his advisers. The current municipal clerk shares his enthusiasm. The vision was not only backed and conveyed by management and the municipality’s top administrative level, but the idea was also embraced and internalized by the municipal executive and the municipal council.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
There was an extensive focus on getting civil servants involved in the development. Management sets an example to show what would be expected of employees. There were workshops and an e-buddy system that had employees with technical questions help each other out. Celebrating milestones reached along the way and recognizing employees’ good work stimulated further innovation.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Prior to the merger, the three municipalities had set aside one million euros each to build a new town hall. Instead of building a new town hall, these funds were invested in the implementation of Molenwaard Nearby. Molenwaard Nearby makes the municipality's services a lot cheaper to run. The local council is one hundred percent digital, while still offering customized solutions for complex products or services, including having specialists visit citizens at home. Thanks to Molenwaard’s Virtual Office, civil servants can use any location as their workspace, and council services can come to citizens and be offered on-site. It has increased proximity between citizens and their local authority and made council services a lot more personal.
Challenges and Failures
The former Molenwaard municipality faced numerous complex, societal challenges that put a great strain on the local authority’s limited capacity and financial resources. It forced the local authority to take a smart approach to how they operated and connected with the community.
The local authority later also found out how developments can thwart their innovation program. When Molenwaard merged with the Giessenlanden municipality, the focus (temporarily) shifted to ‘the here and now’. It was a challenge not to be consumed by the issues of the day, but instead, stay focused on innovation.
Internally, each department and domain developed their own vision with respect to providing municipal services that are closer to the citizens. The concept of ‘putting customers first’ was fulfilled differently in these various approaches. The challenge was to align these approaches and ensure synergy between the domains.
Conditions for Success
Before the merger, the Molenwaard local authority had turned its shortage of capacity and financial resources into an opportunity to innovate and organize services in a smarter and better way. But also after the merger with Giessenlanden, which brought back the traditional town hall, the local authority kept committing to their service approach of ‘putting citizens in control’. The Molenwaard Nearby concept changed how the local authority saw its own position: ‘citizens are in control, and we adapt to that’.
Another key success factor was that the local authority simply got started with the Molenwaard Nearby project one day, without overthinking it. Citizens turned out to have great adoption capacity and were very open to the change. The attitude of the administration and the management team was another important factor for innovation’s success. They kept their backs straight and continued to meander towards realizing their vision, even when they were put under serious pressure.
An innovation such as the Molenwaard Nearby concept can easily be replicated by other local or regional authorities comprising several towns and villages. That said, providing municipal services without having a town hall is not the only way to forge closer ties between a local authority and its citizens. It is about a different mindset where roles are reversed: not the local authority, but the citizens are in charge.
The local authority has learned to take the underlying vision for innovation as its guiding principle, even when a merger shifts priorities or changes things. There are several ways to realize the ambition of bringing services closer to the community and better aligning them with the community’s needs: not only by working without a town hall but also by using customer files that put citizens in control of their data.
Another lesson is to allow scope for differentiation, i.e. to not rigidly focus on one solution that works for everyone. Some citizens, for example, prefer to pick up their passport in person. Services can be offered in different ways, so as to get them to different groups of residents.
The local authority has been prioritizing knowledge sharing with other (local) authorities and knowledge institutions, both in the Netherlands and internationally. These interfaces with other organizations, in turn, are a fertile breeding ground for new innovations.