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41. Sirocco

41.1. Short description

In 2009, three Moroccan fathers in Nijmegen saw that successful “neighbourhood father” projects were running in other cities in the Netherlands. Together with a local welfare worker from Tandem Welfare they visited such a project in The Hague to see how it was organised. The fathers thought that such an initiative could be carried out in their neighbourhood, Hatert, too – older residents should be able to give other senior residents a feeling of safety if they frequently walked around the area. Their seniority and attachment to the neighbourhood would give them the authority to warn youngsters if they were causing problems. A “district manager” from the municipality very much approved of this idea and gave permission to work out a plan. Because Hatert was on the list of so-called “attention areas” , the municipality had access to national funds through which the project could be subsidised. The municipality, however, asked for several conditions to be met before the project could start: firstly, the project had to involve not only Moroccan fathers but men and women from different backgrounds; and secondly, the group of residents had to consist of at least ten residents. Hence, the Moroccan founders and the welfare worker started recruiting volunteers and, eventually, around fifteen people joined the Sirocco team.

Although it was not a necessary requirement for participation, many of the participants were unemployed. Among them were native residents, but also people from diverse ethnic minorities. Once the group of participants had been formed, a more detailed plan was worked out, together with the participants. Officially, the goal was formulated as follows:

“To improve the quality of life and safety in Hatert, to improve the communication with and between residents, to increase social control in the area, to form a bridge between parents and (their) youngsters, to motivate youngsters to work on good future perspectives”.

Subsequently, the participants were given walkie-talkies and red jackets with a Sirocco logo to be recognisable and started walking through the neighbourhood in pairs. Their task was to engage in conversation with other residents and report any affairs concerning safety and public order to the neighbourhood police officer. The idea was that the Sirocco volunteers would merely deal with small, simple things. Volunteers would, on the basis of their equal position, talk with residents about issues on liveability of the neighbourhood.

The group took surveillance training provided by a regional educational centre. This consisted of basic competences, dealing with walkie-talkies, clothing, rights and obligations, etc. There were also meetings to encourage team building. After a few weeks of training, they hit the streets.

In the beginning, the project was considered very successful. Residents as well as shop owners were positive about the Sirocco surveillance teams. Aldermen, council members and political parties expressed their appreciation for the initiative. Sirocco was even awarded a price for best neighbourhood initiative from the local Socialist Party in 2010. There was also plenty of positive media coverage from the local newspaper and television. Nevertheless, at some point, the tone around the Sirocco project changed. For instance, some shop owners started complaining that the volunteers were giving them instructions on what to do and what not. There were also incidents where some teenagers intimidated the volunteers. Furthermore, cooperation within the group of participants did not always go smoothly. In short, positive comments turned negative.

Two elements in particular seem to have contributed to the escalation of problems. First, (partly) because of all the positive attention, (some) volunteers slowly shifted away from their original tasks and extended their responsibilities to other issues. For example, they were doing rounds inside shops instead of staying on the streets. Secondly, it was difficult for the professionals to explain to the volunteers that they had to stick to simple tasks, as well as signalling problems that existed in the personal lives of participants. For instance, cliques were formed within the group which made it hard to make pairs. Also, some volunteers had already experienced conflicts with youngsters in the neighbourhood before they entered the Sirocco team. The project was finally stopped in 2011, when one of the participants of the Sirocco project received serious threats from young residents. Although an attempt was made to restart the project later on with a new group of volunteers, this failed.

41.2. Conceptions and ways of addressing users

The underlying assumption of the project was that older residents have a certain amount of authority that will allow them to adjust the behaviour of younger citizens. In the official reaction of the mayor and the executive board it was stated that this “ideological” framework appeared to be unachievable. For the former project leader of Tandem, the actual goal of Sirocco was broader than this: “Actually, our intention, and also that of the people, was that if you are visible and you are interested [in other people] and you start communicating, to get in contact with residents and youngsters, you have already won 80 percent” (former project leader, Tandem).

For Tandem, it was about supporting and facilitating people who want to contribute to “neighbourhood society” by stimulating contact and communication among residents. In the case of Sirocco, this happened to be in the field of safety, but it could be on any topic. Yet, the municipality might have had more concrete ideas about the merits of the project. As the project leader of Tandem said: “A Department Safety or Surveillance will look at it from an entirely different perspective. Contribution to safety, contribution to quality of life, the big words, contribution to decreasing vandalism and things like that” (former project leader, Tandem).

Hence, the initial goal of the project was lost over time and there was a process of goal displacement. The former district manager agrees that in the end, the activities of the volunteers did not match the essence of the project anymore. For him, the essence was: “That people who live in the neighbourhood get the feeling that there are people in the public space who have a personal empathy for the well-being of residents and have time for a little chit-chat about everything, but meanwhile looking out if everything goes well” (former district manager).

According to the district manager, similar projects elsewhere perform better because volunteers stay out of the picture. Residents should keep an eye on the neighbourhood, but problems should be solved by experts. During the project, volunteers were sometimes seen as “amateur substitutes” of police officers or supervisors. Perhaps some of them indeed felt like semi-professionals.

41.3. Internal organisation and modes of working

The final responsibility for the project was laid at the former Alderman of Neighbourhood Issues. The project was co-financed from the so-called “integral safety budget”, which meant that mayor was partly responsible as well. The district manager of Hatert was responsible for finances, support and communication with other parties in the municipality. He had a lot of meetings with the project leader of Tandem. If requested, he was present at meetings with the project leader and the volunteers. It was agreed that both he and Tandem arranged external communication. Tandem was responsible for setting up the project. They used their network and contacts to involve more volunteers than the first three initiators. They also had to bring structure to the group concerning dividing tasks, education, work schedule, appointments, communication within the group, evaluation, financial accounting and making the group independent within 3 years. Other organisations involved were the (neighbourhood) police and the Surveillance Department, a subdivision of the police. In practice, the volunteers hit the streets every day from the afternoon until the evening. They had weekly meetings. Because one of the volunteers had worked as a supervisor, he helped with the coaching of other volunteers.

41.4. Interaction with the local welfare system

Sirocco shed light on the relationship between citizens’ contributions and the regular work of professionals. At the beginning of the project, it was not defined what to expect from the volunteers. Volunteers started to do things they were not supposed to do and/or which should have been left to professionals. According to the project leader of Tandem, regarding volunteers as substitutes of qualified workers placed too much of a burden on the participants. The high expectations conflicted with the voluntary character of the project:

For example, [when the municipality says] “doesn’t there have to be a signed contract”, then I think, what are you doing? You get high expectations and things go wrong. You see that a lot by the way, if people want to do something in the neighbourhood and they are confronted with the funder. The funder can’t say “that’s a nice idea, here’s the money and we’ll hear from you how it went”. […] Now it is right at the beginning, giving money, [then] rules, rules, accountability, accountability. How does that relate to activating people who want to do something?

(Former project leader, Tandem)

A similar problem appeared in the attempt to restart the project. This time, the conditions of participation were tightened. The first three initiators, especially, did not want to join under these new rules. Eventually, it was impossible to create a new group of substantial proportions. At least in part this could be explained by the high expectations that were written down. Hence, making regular policy of civil initiatives may give tensions:

If it’s made policy, know what you ask. You can ask a lot of residents, you can ask a lot of citizens, but if it is regarded as an instrument for your own goals, instead of for what the residents want, where do they benefit from themselves, how do they want to shape their lives in their streets or neighbourhood. If you don’t take that as your starting position you get all kind of issues.

(Former project leader, Tandem)

In the end, a lot has been learned from Sirocco. The district manager still believes in these kinds of projects, as long as there is good professional guidance and professionals and residents understand each other:

But I do know that the management has to be a lot… especially when it concerns safety, that you really need to be on top of it. You cannot do it without a professional, a supervisor or a neighbourhood police officer for example. Otherwise it will develop as it has developed now. […] Professionals and residents have to trust each other for 100 per cent, whether it is on the field of safety, communication, work and income or anything. If professionals and residents can reach out to each other from that specific angle – for the residents it is what they know about the neighbourhood because they live there and for the professionals it is their expertise on that field. If you bind that together, it runs very smoothly.

(Former district manager)

For the former project leader of Tandem, citizen participation will be difficult to realise when projects become associated with just one particular topic. Safety is a topic which is especially hard to make the responsibility of residents. For example, heavy criminality cannot be handled by volunteers. Hence, it might be a strategy to connect a thing like safety to a broader topic of liveability. Residents could play different roles to contribute to the liveability of a neighbourhood. When it comes to safety, actions of residents will too easily conflict with work already done by other professionals, the project leader argues.

To summarise, several lessons can be learned from the Sirocco project:

  • Tasks of volunteers should be clear.
  • The relationship of the task of volunteers and tasks of professional organisations should be clear.
  • Media attention and high expectations can affect the attitude of volunteers.
  • Professionals should be able to steer volunteers in their tasks and group process.
  • Motivations of volunteers can be ambiguous.

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41. Sirocco