In Molenwaard, the Netherlands, practically all municipal affairs are handled digitally, either in people’s homes or elsewhere at locations close to citizens. No physical town hall is needed any more.
Policy ContextMolenwaard is a municipality in the province of South Holland, the Netherlands. It was created on 1 January 2013 by merging the former municipalities of Graafstroom, Liesveld, and Nieuw-Lekkerland.
In total, approximately 29,000 people reside in this new municipality, which has an area of 126 km2. During the preparations for the merger (in the period 2009–2013), the question arose of whether a new town hall was really necessary. A new town hall would cost an estimated 15 million euro, while only 3 million euro was available in the budget. As a result, the municipality decided to build a digital environment – a virtual municipality – instead of a physical town hall. The project was announced in September 2013.
Description of target users and groups
Citizens and civil servants of the municipality of Molenwaard.
Description of the way to implement the initiativeOriginally, Molenwaard had experimented with a “low-budget” physical town hall; civil servants worked flexibly in temporary buildings in an industrial area. Once the digital project was ready, however, the doors of the existing town hall – such as it was – closed permanently.
Since October 1, 2014, Molenwaard has been the first municipality in the Netherlands without a permanent physical location. Instead, 80–90% of all municipal activities take place through a portal, www.gemeentemolenwaard.nl. For other issues, local government officials visit citizens at the locations they prefer. This is possible because there are only three products that require a visual authentication: passport, drivers’s licence, and identity card.
To get the best from its digital town hall, the municipality designed the portal to be extremely simple to navigate and use. Starting at the home page, each visitor can select the reason for his or her visit, and is then led through a selection process. If they opt for an appointment, they can choose the location that suits them best. For example, passport applications are handled at six locations in the various village centres. For other services there is a wider choice of “front offices” for citizens.
In a similar way, municipal meetings can take place in many locations. The city council can meet in a nursing home, for example, or the canteen of a sports hall or a company. Often the location is chosen depending on the subject to be discussed, so the citizens involved are more likely to attend the meeting. The same goes for the civil servants, who are able to work wherever it suits them best. They set up new flexible workplaces in vacant offices, or they can work at home or in cafés if they prefer.
In addition, the municipality has created a specialized delivery service to make sure that passports and other documents reach people safely at their home or workplaces.
Technology solutionMolenwaard uses Microsoft cloud technology, with Office 365 and Azure services. In addition, Skype is used to communicate with citizens. Microsoft was chosen because its cloud computing services are cheaper than those of the other large American providers, especially Google and Amazon. Molenwaard also believes that Microsoft complies better with European guidelines to ensure that customer data is adequately protected – “even when the Patriot Act is invoked,” says information specialist Jan Meijsen of Molenwaard. Technology choice: Proprietary technology
Main results, benefits and impactsIn the case of Molenwaard, digitisation means transparency. For instance, citizens can follow the progress of administrative processes far more easily than they used to be able to. The municipality encourages this: citizens can even subscribe to a messaging service that informs them when decisions are made affecting them. Many types of data are publicly available online, including files on spatial planning. Citizens can also react digitally to council decisions. The quality of municipal governance in Molenwaard has improved as a result of the project. One reason for this is that civil servants and citizens have far more contact than in the past, both in person and digitally. Another is that citizens take a bigger part in decision-making in Molenwaard, and in implementing decisions. The quality of municipal services also seems to have gone up. According to a study by the University of Tilburg, citizens now give an overall score of 8 out of 10 to the municipal services of Molenwaard – more than before the digitisation. The specialized delivery service scores 9 out of 10.
Return on investmentImplementing the digital municipality of Molenwaard cost 3 million euro. When the benefits and the costs of an alternative system are taken into account, however, this cost vanishes: the money was already available. In any case, 3 million euro is much less than a physical town hall would have cost. The recurring costs, too, are only 5–10% of those that a physical town hall would have incurred. However, as Jan Meijsen emphasises, the goal of this project was not to save money. It was to improve the quality of governance and services. Return on investment: Not applicable / Not available
Track record of sharingMolenwaard is glad to share its experience with eGovernment, and does so often. For example, the Molenwaard virtual town hall was nominated for Smart City of the Year in the “innovative ideas” category in 2015. With regard to sharing information about the technology solutions Molenwaard uses, the ins and outs of Microsoft’s cloud computing services are widely known. Molenwaard and its IT partner OGD were nominated by Microsoft as Government Partner of the Year in 2015.
Lessons learnt1. This project was difficult to plan, since it was the first of its kind. The scrum approach proved to be the best way to deal with this: small steps, with plenty of feedback loops.
2. Freedom, trust and responsibility are key issues for citizens as well as for civil servants.
3. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
4. Patience is important. This is especially true in regard to the culture shock that accompanied the new, flexible way of working for civil servants, without regular offices or “comfort zones”. Scope: Local (city or municipality)