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Civic Engagement as Policy Implementation

Here in the U.S., we tend to associate non-governmental agencies (NGOs) with underdeveloped nations, undertaking projects such as the installation of wells in Africa, education in Central America, or sustainable agricultural practices in Southeast Asia. NGOs operate “over there,” and are rarely framed as a domestic endeavor.

We certainly have NGOs operating domestically in the U.S., but typically they are formed as a non-profit organization. A mission statement is established, a business plan developed, a target audience identified, and private fundraising follows. With any combination of luck and effort, the organization solidifies, and perhaps expands beyond its base, be it neighborhood, city or an under-served population.

Americans also see “civic engagement” with a rather fuzzy view, thinking that it references volunteer activities around one’s community. Volunteering for such activities as Habit for Humanity, or fundraising for the United Way, or participating in a cancer-awareness walk can certainly help build a sense of community, but I shy from defining “civic engagement” in such a manner. This hews closer to what I call “community involvement.”

Civic engagement is any activity – voluntary or paid – that ultimately relies on citizens to provide a check and balance on governmental activities, to ensure that government lives up to its service in balancing the multiple interests of citizens, communities, populations, etc. This can and does include attending city council meetings, school board meetings, and so forth. Yet, in the U.S., civic engagement is almost always followed by “but I’m too busy.”

Too busy? And yet, and yet, we’ll sit in restaurants, we’ll stand by the coffee maker at work, complaining incessantly about how government isn’t working for us.

Little wonder: We’re holding up the coffee queue rather than constructively participating in civic engagement.

And if the little that remains of civic-engagement opportunities in the U.S. consists of the trivial, then let’s make it our job to turn it into the substantive.

Case in point: There’s a growing movement in some major cities towards “participative budgeting.” At first glance, it seems engaging. Citizens decide on how municipal budgets are spent in the community.

Yet, there’s a problem with many participative budgeting initiatives. The budget under discussion usually represents only a miniscule percentage of the larger budget, but that larger budget remains off limits to citizen participation.

So let’s make the entire budget “participatory” by pushing for initiatives such as local financial oversight offices.

But there is more than attending meetings or pushing for legislative changes when it comes to civic engagement. Once we push past the tried and true, we find that the barriers between “civic engagement” and “community involvement” are not so firm after all. In fact, simply by training our focus on other countries, we can find any number of approaches to civic engagement/community involvement, approaches that remain largely novel to us here in the States, but provide substantive blueprints for proceeding into the future.

The Bureau for Social Development, Amsterdam

I consider myself fortunate to have developed a long-standing online relationship with Edgar van Lokven, owner of the Amsterdam-based Bureau for Social Development (Dutch: Bureau Voor Maatschappelijke Ontwikkeling, or BMO). We share similar outlooks on how the confluence of government and local communities should operate, particularly when it comes to civic engagement and community involvement.

Civic engagement is often discussed in idealized terms but in actuality, it’s difficult for public or private organizations to remain committed to a vision. And as soon as an initiative or policy implementation veers from a predetermined course of action, it’s all too easy to push aside the idealism, step in, and remove the work from the hands of the stakeholders.

BMO Mgmt

The BMO Management Team: Malica Al Fahmi, Edgar van Lokven, and Ching-Men Leung

This is what I find attractive about Edgar’s BMO: The organization goes out of its way to ensure the right staff is in place so that the neighborhoods and boroughs it serves in Amsterdam, staff of like ethnic backgrounds that can quickly overcome mistrust and suspicion. The BMO is a firm believer in engaging the residents in the very process of implementation. This not only helps dissolve suspicions, but provides the residents a sense of control over their own neighborhoods.

Establishing Trust

Unlike many public initiatives that target specific populations in the U.S. that rely on bureaucratic agencies from the government, or non-profits that rely solely on fundraising, the BMO is an independent and private company, responsible for its own activities. The BMO is engaged by governmental ministries and non-governmental organizations on an as-needed basis, an implementation-for-hire bureau, if you will. This organization emerged out of a need for residents, community organizations, boroughs, municipal services, housing associations, institutions and various levels of government to pursue high-quality implementation of projects, carried out in numerous city neighborhoods, boroughs and beyond.

“Most of our assignments are typically ‘street level’ and/or have to do with ‘community building’,” Edgar reports. “Though we have always done advisory work at a strategic level, about 90 percent of our efforts consist of working with residents in deprived neighborhoods and working with grassroots organizations, primary schools, local community organizers, housing corporations, and so forth.”

So how does the BMO earn the trust of the neighborhood residents in which this organization labors?

“A few factors come to mind,” Edgar relates. “First we make sure we can make contact with hard-to-reach residents in their own language, if necessary. When you look at the photo on our website, you will see Dutch, Moroccan, Turkish, Surinamese and Chinese employees, male and female, with and without headscarves, young and older, religious and non religious.”

The BMO Staff

The BMO Staff

“Most employees are born in the Netherlands, others have immigrated with their parents. This mixture of different cultures, languages and ethnic backgrounds among our employees is a huge advantage for us.”

“Secondly we can make use of a ‘peer group advantage’. For instance when a Turkish female resident is approached by a Turkish female employee, it gives this particular resident the feeling that her culture, background and religious beliefs are respected and that she won’t be rejected because of it.”

From its inception, the BMO has been committed to reaching and involving immigrant residents to include the social management of public space for urban renewal, community development, the education of residents’ children, and in social and community activation and integration. The BMO’s approach utilizes a flexible and expert deployment of a multicultural team, with staff reflecting the ethnic groups inhabiting target neighborhoods.

Engaging Residents

So how does the BMO instill a sense of responsibility for the welfare of the community?

“That is a key question,” Edgar confirms. “The initial situation in most deprived and segregated communities is that residents do not feel responsible for their community because they don’t recognize their neighbors as being part of the same community. (These neighbors) possibly speak a different language, have a different ethnic background and probably have a different religion.”

“We believe that cooperation among residents for mutual benefit can be organized by defining a common goal. ‘You have to bring a ball into the game first’ before you can start organizing responsible behavior and cooperation.”

“Therefore, in our interventions we start with identifying and defining this common goal. This can be the problem of criminal behavior in the apartment block or a neglected playground or basically any issue that is identified by residents because of a lack of cooperation. By organizing cooperation among residents to tackle the identified problems, residents will experience that through mutual aid and cooperation, the welfare of the community can be increased significantly.”

The observations of Jane Jacobs have not been ignored here.

Man on street

Project Management and the Cultural Anthropological Approach

The BMO’s experience in project and interim management provides an appealing alternative for all levels of Dutch governments. The organization is able to pursue policy implementation in targeted neighborhoods, operating from the belief that neighborhood residents should first and foremost take responsibility for the welfare of their community. Using a cultural anthropology approach, the BMO focuses on the demands and needs of residents, connecting them with governmental policy objectives and priorities.

Edgar explains that a cultural anthropological approach “refers to the method whereby we make use of the social capital invested in communities that originates from cultural and religious traditions. For example, in Islam, adherents of this faith are taught to take care of poor, elderly or disabled neighbors. But this is seldom practiced, and certainly not to the extent of neighbors who don’t share the same cultural or religious background. By tapping the well of these cultural traditions and religious beliefs, we can stimulate residents to extend the practice of mutual aid and cooperation to the residents who are not identified as being of the same group.”

As a project management organization, the BMO understands the limitations encountered in immigrant communities, such as learning a second language, low levels of formal education, psychosocial problems, etc. Yet, the BMO does not hesitate to leverage the qualities of residents – ambition, community, social and cultural capital – to achieve the desired ends of public policy.

Left to their own, these limitations create a social isolation within immigrant communities, thus becoming difficult to access. They struggle to find employment “in a highly urbanized society and service-oriented economy,” Edgar notes. “Welfare dependency is extremely high among these people as is the illiteracy rate. Though Amsterdam is described as a multicultural society, its population is highly segregated along ethnic and religious lines. This situation applies to traditional labor migrants – those whose immigration started in the 1950’s and 1960’s – as well as refugee immigrants from Africa and Asia who came to Amsterdam in more recent years.

Language Lessons

The BMO has discovered that by using this approach, it draws immigrant residents out of their social isolation. Contact with other people and the neighborhood is restored through participation; residents develop a positive perspective from their active participation in society, work and education. They develop a sense of greater social control in their neighborhoods. Mothers, for instance, serve as volunteer supervisors of neighborhood playgrounds.

Another good example is the coordinated usage of community buildings, something Edgar’s organization refers to as a “multifunctional accommodation.”

A multifunctional accommodation is a “building that is simultaneously used by different ethnic and/or religious groups for different purposes,” says Edgar. “Startup management is the process in an early stage to organize cooperation among these groups to make sure the building will be used efficiently and effectively. Recently we have helped to establish a cooperative in a deprived neighborhood in Amsterdam New West that organizes cooperation among residents with the goal of talent development in the fields of culture, music, literacy as well as economic independence.”

Involving the Next Generation

The BMO looks to not only create optimum outcomes for adult immigrant populations, but for their children as well.


“Parental involvement is identified as a key factor in the success of young pupils’ school careers,” Edgar relates. “Most migrant parents in deprived Amsterdam neighborhoods raise their children in their mother tongue and expect the school to teach them the Dutch language. Most migrant children in these neighborhoods don’t get in touch with the Dutch language until the age of four and continue to use the language of their parents for the rest of their youth, only using Dutch in school.”

This, of course, hampers the opportunities of immigrant children as they age.

But the BMO doesn’t shrink from positive encouragement, reports Edgar.

“From parents they are expected to support the cognitive development of their children by opening up their cultural horizon, by developing a positive attitude towards their upbringing and by adopting and applying the pedagogic vision of the school into the home environment. We have developed programs in which we help parents to do this.”

The BMO’s clients rely on its expertise for:

  • interim management and consultancy
  • organization
  • cooperation with target populations
  • conducting research
  • methodology development
  • conducting educational programs,
  • call management and presentation

The Local Economy

No neighborhood or borough could be considered vibrant without the development of its local economy. Local small-business owners and entrepreneurs are skilled in their areas of expertise, yet can also represent major challenges. With this in mind, the BMO’s Small Business Support program provides business owners and entrepreneurs assistance with writing business, financial or marketing plans; navigating through the legal paperwork for establishing a business; applying for the proper permits; pursuing market research; attracting and hiring employees; establishing marketing communications; and forming a viable management team.


This business consulting program allows local business owners to tap the knowledge base of a team of experienced entrepreneurs, including those that are fluent in Turkish and Moroccan languages. And, as Edgar explains, “We don’t have a fixed program; we supply our services dependent upon what is asked and what is needed. For example we give advice on how to choose a proper legal form, how to set up and implement a business plan. We help with the legal formalities, for instance, with the notary, Chamber of Commerce, tax office and so forth. If necessary, we help even with fundraising, which is often the case when we deal with grassroots organizations.”

The BMO is providing 360-degree services to its constituency, by incredibly insightful means using staff from the same cultures as its target populations, and expecting these populations to engage in their communities.

I can’t help but believe that by integrating and involving these immigrant populations, this will pay huge dividends not only to the immigrants, but to Dutch society, now and well into the future.

While no program is ever perfect, the BMO relies on a promising approach in implementation, and should serve as a case study for public policy programs everywhere. Engaging immigrant populations has become a policy concern the world over. Providing these populations with a sense of controlling their destiny can not only help minimize the negative social externalities of immigrant communities, but instill a sense of civic engagement and community involvement from the outset.