City Council Wageningen creates an ABW Community

Interview with Marijke Verstappen, Secretary of the Municipality of Wageningen

The Municipality of Wageningen is embarking on a process of change within an organisation of over three hundred people. But before even considering the final outcome Municipal Secretary Marijke Verstappen states ‘what’s more important, than either the content or the outcome is that the organisation begins to change and that the staff feel that they own that change’.

Tim de Vos, of Veldhoen + Company, is working closely with Verstappen to move the organisation through a process that treats change as a positive energy and which requires the Municipality Secretary to take a step back.

You began working in Wageningen in October 2009. What did you find when you first started your job with the municipal government?

Verstappen: There were a lot of internal conflicts. It was an atmosphere of suspicion, and the municipal executives, the council, and the public servants criticised one another. All that led to an enormous emphasis on rules and procedures. It’s something that municipal organisations have a tendency to do anyway, because the national government keeps a firm grip on the municipal authorities and insists that they account for their actions in all sorts of ways. So almost by definition, what you get is a culture that lives and dies by the rules.

There was a kind of buzz

At the same time, there was a kind of buzz when I arrived. People wanted something different, they were open to change – although they had no idea why. During one of my first meetings here, one of the staff said she was hoping someone would shake things up again in the organisation. She’d worked for Wageningen ten years earlier, and when she returned she found that things had gone very flat. Everyone at that meeting nodded vigorously in agreement.

And you naturally had some ideas about how to do that?

Verstappen: As a matter of fact I didn’t. Although that’s often what happens, the new municipal secretary arrives, stands up in front of the group and says “Here’s what I’m going to do”. And the group thinks: “Now what?” I think it’s arrogant to believe you can push your own ideas forward when you’ve just arrived and don’t even know how the organisation operates. That only leads to resistance. And everyone immediately thinks that those ideas are cast in concrete and can’t be altered. I tried to get the group to see me mainly as a colleague. “This is who I am, I’ve come here to do good work and meet good people, I hope I can learn here and make mistakes, I’ll probably fail miserably at times and I hope you give me the chance to redeem myself when I do. What am I going to do? I don’t have the faintest idea.” Well, my message came as quite a shock to them.

So what did you do?

Verstappen: I mainly listened, so that I could find out what was going on inside the organisation. I also read a lot, in order to avoid the path my predecessors had taken [The Municipality of Wageningen had already run through several municipal secretaries – Ed.]. In other words, I started by giving myself and the staff some leeway for embarking on a change process. It was vital to empower people to make changes themselves. From the bottom up, in other words. In my previous municipality, Nederbetuwe, I’d learned that some really lovely and unexpected things can happen then. People need to be given space and trust. I find the outcome less interesting. My first aim is to get people to change. Only after they realise that they can make a difference does something new come about.

But wasn’t it necessary to give them something to work with in the beginning?

Verstappen: I’m a firm believer in the Rhineland organisational model, which is based on expertise and cooperation. That’s very different to the Anglo-Saxon model, which works on the basis of vision, objectives and verifiability. I launched an initial project based on the Rhineland model with twelve staff members who were prepared to tackle our work culture. They immediately asked me what the purpose was, how much budget was available, and how many pages long their report had to be. “I don’t know that,” I said. “But what I do know is that we want to work together on making a change. Here’s my wallet. Surprise me. I’ll support you and help you in whatever way you wish. How long should it take? You tell me.”

So what happened?

Verstappen: Well, a few people thought I was bonkers. But I felt sure that those twelve people would not abuse the power they’d been given. And they didn’t. They organised a conference that cost a hundred euros, “Whistle while you work”. About a third of the staff attended. The topics included what it actually means to take responsibility, to cooperate, and to deal differently with rules and procedures. The conference led to workgroups being set up that have continued exploring these themes. What I did and still do throughout the process is raise issues for discussion, sometimes to the point of irritation. For example, at the start I said “Screw the rules”. When someone proposed prescribing a format or procedure, I’d say “Why? How is that going to help you, change you?” That gets people thinking about why they do something. My role is also to be a facilitator. I keep offering them more leeway, non-stop. Every once in a great while I intervene, if I genuinely think that things are going wrong. And even then, I’d rather not discuss content; I restrict my comments to the process, emotions and relationships between people. Because as soon as I say something about content, it’s immediately seen as cast in concrete.

At a certain point, you decided to call in Veldhoen + Company. Why?

Verstappen  After six months I noticed that people needed more guidance after all. I was afraid that the fast-flowing stream that we’d created would gush into a delta and slowly dribble to a halt. So I wanted an accelerator to keep us moving forward and offer us some guidance without forcing us in a specific direction. Wageningen’s problem is that the administrative organisation is spread out over different buildings, many of them fairly old. That’s why I thought Activity Based Working (or a new way of working) might be a good accelerator, because we could combine mental change with physical change and the switch to digitisation that we were making. Remarkably, the Works Council said it wanted to talk to me about a New Way of Working without really knowing what it entailed. Because I’d already worked closely with Tim in Nederbetuwe, it seemed like a good time to get Veldhoen + Company on board in Wageningen too. His job was to slowly make the changes more visible in tangible ways.

And so you came along with a bunch of flashy presentations about The New Way of Working?

De Vos  No, not at all. I also made sure not to propose any solutions. What I mainly tried to do is get staff members to understand and be aware of how a New Way of Working might offer the organisation more direction as it develops. How it could help them change existing routines and patterns of behaviour. Once that awareness has been created, there’s a stable basis for seeking out suitable solutions. The potential solutions offered by a New Way of Working are so numerous and have become such common knowledge that ownership has to lie with those who will be affected by it; the municipal government’s employees. Our experience in the field has shown us time and again that awareness and ownership will lead to a level of ambition far beyond what someone like Marijke or even Veldhoen + Company could have come up with.

The Netherlands Want to know more? Contact
+31 6 46 18 49 21 tim@veldhoencompany.com