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Citizenship and Humanisation of the Public Sector

Sustainable citizens’ initiatives and democratic legitimation (completed)

  • Start: 2015
  • Status: completed

The full project title is: Sustainable citizens’ initiatives  and democratic legitimation: new relations between citizens and government. A regional learning and research consortium. This project, completed in 2019, examined how interactions between municipal authorities and citizens’ initiatives develop within the new municipal constellation in which citizens’ initiatives are assigned a greater role. The initiatives were examined with a view to the criteria of democratic legitimation and the sustainability of policy. 

View the report


How sustainable are citizens’ initiatives in care and welfare? Can vulnerable citizens rely on these initiatives when the government steps back, also in the longer term? Should these efforts be supported through grants? Is it justifiable for informal initiatives to receive support at the expense of professional providers? These and further questions are addressed by the SURF-project headed by Evelien Tonkens (UvH).

In the Netherlands, a growing number of citizens dedicate themselves to care and welfare in their own neighbourhood or community. This is very much in line with current policy, in which citizens are expected to assume more responsibility. But when government tasks and responsibilities are transferred (to a certain extent) to citizens’ initiatives, which often have a more informal and spontaneous character, what are the implications for the sustainability of policy?

Not much is known about the sustainability of citizens’ initiatives and the factors that have an impact. What are the conditions for the sustainable commitment of the initiators? Other questions pertain to how the citizens and municipal authority relate. How does participative democracy relate to representative democracy? How do the interactions between municipalities, citizens and citizens’ initiatives play out in a changing municipal constellation, with a bigger role for such initiatives?


The project leader was Prof. Evelien TonkensShe worked with researchers Maria van der Harst and Dr. Femmianne Bredewold.


This project was a collaborative venture involving the University of Humanistic Studies, Movisie, Landelijk Samenwerkingsverband Actieve Bewoners (National Collaboration of Active Citizens), and the municipal authorities of Landerd, Bernheze, Sint Michielsgestel and Boxtel.


The project was funded by NWO (first round VerDuS SURF Pop Up 2017) in a funding programme for small projects of short duration that fit the theme of the VerDuS programme Smart Urban Regions of the Future (SURF). 

Anticipated results

New roles for municipal authorities

Tonkens: "Our consortium consists of five municipalities in the province of Noord-Brabant: Landerd, Bernheze, Sint-Michielsgestel, Boxtel and Helmond, plus the Landelijk Samenwerkingsverband Actieve bewoners (LSA), Movisie and the University of Humanistic Studies. The participating municipalities want to find out how they can facilitate citizens’ initiatives and how to design their own new role with respect to such initiatives. What are the conditions enabling a renewal of local democracy and the sustainability of active citizenship?"

Four types of interaction

The research team performs qualitative research to explore four types of interaction at the local level. It concerns, first, the interaction between the municipal council and the municipal executive; second, the interaction between (municipal) civil servants and citizens’ initiatives; third, the interaction between citizens and citizens’ initiatives; and fourth, the interaction between citizens actively involved in initiatives.

Learning community

Tonkens: "We wish to facilitate the building and exchange of experiences between all participating parties, and to produce publications and recommendations to practically and concretely support the parties. Together with the societal partners, a ‘learning community’ will be formed that will convene five times in all, spread across the year. Each of the five municipalities will be represented by an alderman, a civil servant and a citizen."

Also see (in Dutch)


Prof. Evelien Tonkens,

In this project we investigate the course of interactions between municipalities and citizens' initiatives in the new municipal constellation in which citizens' initiatives will play a greater role.