The social theory

Paul Vader

Many governments struggle with ways to involve citizens in policy implementation. How does a municipality ensure that it performs its representative function in the best possible way based on democratic principles? How does it maintain contact with the citizens it works for, in such a way that is they carry out what is needed? And who actually determines what is needed? And if you involve citizens how do you prevent dialogue from stagnating on levels such as a loose sidewalk tile or the number of parking places in a street?

In recent years, Professor Hans de Bruin of the EVM knowledge centre and researcher Petra de Braal of Solidarity University have researched these questions in the municipality of Veere. This resulted in a method called the “Sociale theorie van een duurzame, samen lerende maatschappij” (the Social Theory of a Sustainable, Cooperativele learning Society). Key concepts are togetherness, connection, democracy and shared values.

Reflection and meta reflection

Hans de Bruin: “The backbone of social theory is reflection, and even reflection on reflection (meta-reflection). This way you can find out on which assumptions people have formed their opinions. Instead of talking about the problem itself, you try to discover what blind spots or biased views they hold.” This broad dialogue (brown circle in the diagram, see figure below) reveals ethical principles that are used in the democratic process (yellow). Petra de Braal: “The question that is explicitly asked is whether the outcome of the broad dialogue is who are we, and what do we want with each other and what can we expect from each other. This approach prevents blockades from being created by people who have the power to create them. This discussion is rarely or never conducted. Municipalities have been given a different role in recent years, for example in healthcare, but the evaluation criteria with the cooperating parties have not changed. As a result, they do not know whether they are doing the right things for their residents.” Social theory offers a way out of this. Social theory describes in a cyclical process (see figure) how the government, citizens and societal organizations can do the ‘right things’ in the ‘right way’ through continuous dialogue. The democratic authorities, such as a municipal council, can do nothing else but incorporate these principles into policies. Because those principles have a broad support.

Sustainability plan Veere

It all started with the sustainability plan for the municipality of Veere. Hans de Bruin: “When we were asked to help with the realisation of the sustainability plan, it was important that HZ took a neutral position and that the citizens would be involved in the process.” The plan that emerged after discussions with citizens, businesses, the city council, in short, all parties involved, had a broad scope. De Bruin: “It was a holistic plan and thanks to the working method we adopted it had such a broad support that it was accepted by the council without any views.” That did not happen without a struggle. Some participants had difficulty letting go of their old roles.

What is next

The application of social theory provides a framework for taking steps together. Hans de Bruin: “Great progress has been made, but our independent role is still needed to complete the process in a smooth way.” This is not only because it is difficult to leave behind fixed and comfortable roles, but because the parties involved also lack the knowledge and skills that are essential in this process. To change the latter, HZ has developed the Fit for the Future minor. The minor is built around three competencies: conceptual thinking, critical reflection and connection. The minor is currently being followed by a number of employees from the municipality of Veere. De Bruin: “The next step is that eventually all the employees of the municipality will do the minor." De Braal: “We will no longer be needed if more and more people keep the process going. Currently there are still occasional blockages that cannot be circumvented by individual employees. But that will gradually decrease as the knowledge and skills increase at all levels. "

Neo-liberalism versus connection

Democracy, social cohesion, a government that does the right things for its citizens, it all sounds so logical, but why doesn’t it happen? According to the researchers, it is due to the over-advanced ideal of neo-liberalism, which imbues our society. De Braal: “The freedom of an individual in the economic model is assumed. If you need care for your children or for your old mother, you purchase that care. There is no longer a search for a solution in the relational sphere, with proper interaction between family members and professionals. And that is disastrous for a peripheral area such as Zeeland, which should get its strength out of its relationships. We have a mutual care relationship with each other. Ensuring quality of life or sustainability is not something you do alone. You do that together. We sometimes forget that we depend on each other.”

De Bruin: “That missing social component is reflected in the essential steps of our model. Ultimately it is about liveability: the well-being of a person in relation to his or her social and physical environment.”

IT research?

But how does an IT lecturer end up in a theory about a socially learning society? De Bruin: “Looking at systems and recording their (human) behaviour and structures has always been at the basis of research conducted by the EVM knowledge centre. A society is also a system to which you can apply system thinking. IT is needed to record the knowledge and the expertise. It is a tool that we also use in our research in the municipality of Veere. The ‘grammar’ of the Expertise Management Method (EMM) describes human actions. You use this to record how you are being treated in complex situations, or how you are not treated. And we do that in a semantic wiki, such as the Project Portfolio. ”

De Braal: “Our research starts with the big blue circle: doing. Because by doing you obtain real knowledge. We are not remaining on the sideline and we study the underlying mechanisms.”

Hans de Bruin: “In complex situations we always try to make a triple loop: bring progress to a situation, develop new skills and gain knowledge, learn from them. This is how we co-evaluate in collaboration: the sustainable, cooperatively learning society.”

Paul Vader is docent-onderzoeker bij het kenniscentrum EVM en redacteur van HZ Discovery