The technocracy/democracy dilemma in the water sector

In recent decades, changing social and political circumstances have put the traditional technical-engineering approach to water management under pressure. As a result, water management authorities are now caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, they need their renowned expert status to fulfil their public responsibilities, such as the protection against floods. On the other hand, they also need to distance themselves from this expert status to be able to meet the increasing social and political imperative of developing into more responsive and efficient public organisations.

The book Rijkswaterstaat on the horns of a dilemma by Margo van den Brink, currently working at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences of the University of Groningen, describes how Rijkswaterstaat,one of the key organisations in the field of Dutch water management, sought to develop a new organisational identity and working style. The organisation nowadays employs more than 8,000 employees, and is well known for its technical knowledge and expertise and for bringing the Dutch worldwide fame by realising major public works, such as the Delta Works.

Drawing on New Public Management ideas, in the early years of the 21st century Rijkswaterstaat rapidly transformed its organisation into a public-oriented government business, and introduced various management tools from the private sector to improve its effectiveness and efficiency. Unfortunately, this ‘managerial turn’ in the technocratic paradigm in Dutch water management turned out to be an unfavourable one for Rijkswaterstaat’s positioning in concrete water planning projects. From a managerial control perspective, the focus is now mainly on developing and implementing projects in the most effective and efficient way so as to meet strict financial, safety and planning conditions. As a result, frontline employees have little room for manoeuvre and freedom to participate in integrated planning processes, and thereby improve the legitimacy of new water policies or increase the public support for these policies.

By introducing a relational view of technical knowledge and expertise, water management authorities such as Rijkswaterstaat could develop their role of technical experts in a democratic society. Part of this challenge would be to understand engineering knowledge as part of the social context in which it is embedded, and together with local and regional parties co-produce new plans.

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