Raoul Beunen, Albert Aalvanger, Martijn Duineveld and Kristof Van Assche

During the IPA 2015 conference in Lille we presented a conceptual framework for understanding the evolution of local governance. Using this framework we reflect on the processes of changes in different places in the Netherlands and delineate a number of topics that have so far gained limited attention in the debates about innovation in local governance.
The attention of innovation in local governance has increased in the last years, with many actors, including national and local governments, civil society organizations, researchers, and individual citizens, advocating change. Although the motivations and assumption underlying their pleas can largely diverge, there is a strong consensus about the need to adapt institutional arrangements to fit the challenges of the 21th century. Many arguments focus on strengthening the legitimacy and inclusiveness of local governance, on improving the effectiveness of delivering public goods and services, or a combination of both. The search for new forms of local governance is given extra weight due to the budget cuts that many governments need to make. With less resources available these governments are forced to revise and delimit their role in public affairs and social welfare, something which might erode the possibilities and legitimacy of existing institutional arrangements.

Although the growing attention for innovation in local governance seems to be a recent phenomenon, we should not forget that governance has always been changing. Over time institutional frameworks need to be adjusted, to evolving internal and external conditions. One can think of the necessary adjustment of institutional frameworks to emerging societal issues or changing economic circumstances. The set of institutions designed to stabilize a community, will never perfectly fit internal and external environments at the same time, and its evolution will never be fully in sync with changes in the environment. Furthermore, even if the need to adjust institutions is observed by citizens and leadership, not every redesign is possible.

We use Evolutionary Governance Theory to understand the position and outcomes of recent attempts for innovation in local governance as part of a wider governance path. This helps delineating the possibilities and limitation for innovation. Drawing on a wide range of case studies in the Netherlands we explore how initiatives for innovation in local governance affect citizen’s and government’s views and motivations, their strategizing, their negotiations about shifting roles and responsibilities and the ways in which these are reflected in institutional frameworks.

Recent developments in local governance in the Netherlands show that the quest for novel forms of local governance might not always be successful. Pleas for novelty can in fact delimit or prevent real innovation and reduce the potential of civil society to pick up new tasks and responsibilities. Pushing for innovation can have negative consequences when it lacks a more substantial, contextualized perspective on problems and possible alternatives, and is merely looking for something new because it is new or if it is pushed by organisations whose role in the new arrangements will be limited. ​