Flexible with Flexibility – Flexibility of Dutch Municipalities

2013 – Commissioned by the A+O fonds Gemeenten, the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University conducted a study regarding the flexibility of Dutch municipalities. Based on a survey amongst 180 municipal secretaries and chairmen of the councils of Dutch municipalities, the environmental turbulence and organizational flexibility were analysed. First, a research was conducted by means of a survey in order to analyse the degree of flexibility amongst municipal organizations, while a second research zoomed in on how the municipalities treat flexibility and workplace innovation. This second study consisted of interviews with eleven municipalities, in which real-life cases on the applications of flexibility were shared. 

Only 15% of the municipal organizations have sufficiently adapted their flexibility to their environment.

According to the research, the public sector is subject to many changes. The report highlights the four foremost developments that municipalities are confronted with. Specifically, three decentralizations, large cost-cuts, and changes in the demands of the environment and the labour market require municipalities to change in order to address these developments more accurately. The first, more general, research shows large variations in the perceived degree of environmental turbulence and the flexibility at hand of several municipalities. The majority of the municipalities experiences a predictable and moderately turbulent environment. Some municipalities, however, indicate to experience high degrees of unpredictability and turbulence in their environments. The researchers state that organizations that adjust their flexibility to the experienced environmental turbulence perform better than organizations that do not adjust accordingly. The researchers suggest that more planned organizations generally perform better in stable environments, while in more turbulent environments flexible organizations excel. Results from the research point out that only 15% of the municipal organizations adequately adjusts their organizational flexibility to their environments. 

Flexible organizational forms in a moderately turbulent environment

36% of the municipalities indicate to operate in a stable environment and to have a flexible organization. This means they have a surplus of (strategic) flexibility in their organizations, while there is more need for a rather planned organization. These municipalities would benefit from a ‘routinization trajectory’, which could lead to efficiency gains. Even though the flexibility of the organization will become more limited, the attention to structuring processes and refining routines will lead to a more optimal efficiency in a relatively stable environment. The in-depth study shows that the municipality of Ridderkerk strives to achieve a more efficient way of working. The main reasons for this are the decentralization of tasks without sufficient financial means and expertise due to the limited scope of the municipality. By setting up a structural cooperation with the municipalities Albrandswaard and Barendrecht, they managed to increase their scope in order to solve this problem. The three municipalities work together on a common executive organization, while they remain independent with their own councils and boards. As opposed to a merger, this will enable them to, on the one hand, keep their proximity, uniqueness, and small scale, while having the advantage of a large muncipality in terms of efficiency and expertise. 

Planned organizational forms in a hyper-turbulent environment

The results of the first research point out that 30% of the municipalities experience their environments as hyper-turbulent, while they have a rather planned organizational form. In these cases, a more flexible organization would be a better fit. The research shows that in more turbulent environments, planned municipalities perform below the average. A complex, dynamic, and very unpredictable environment demands sufficient (strategic) flexibility, supported by an organic structure and innovating culture. This would enable the organization to develop competencies and management skills at a higher pace, and leaves more flexibility for the company. Below several examples will illustrate how municipalities adjust their organizations to turbulent environments. 

Outsourcing of tasks and external hires

The municipality of Wijchen, for example, indicates to operate in a hyper-turbulent environment due to the rise of inter-municipal cooperations, mergers, and shared service centres. By not holding on too much to existing ideas and by closely following these developments, the municipality is flexible enough to switch and respond quickly when the situation requires it. The municipality focuses especially on directional tasks, and makes less use of flex-workers. Instead, they outsource more and more tasks. Moreover, the municipality of Wijchen is working intensively to develop a strong region and inter-municipal cooperation based on the philosophy of the ‘coalition of the willing’. 

Also the municipality of Waalwijk realises that a small municipality sometimes lacks expertise. In order to address this, the municipality aims to develop a regional organization in which the execution tasks are outsourced and the governing organization specializes even further. By making available a steady percentage of 15% of the wages for external hires, the municipality can remain a small and agile organization. 

Network organization

The municipality of Alblasserdam aims for smarter cooperations to achieve a network organization. For every task the municipality evaluates which scale of execution would be the most appropriate. The three different options for every project are: doing it themselves, cooperating with other municipalities, or cooperating with external partners in the society. This shifts the focus for managers to guidance of people and processes, and to take a step back from the content. Also the municipality of Lingewaal focuses on creating more flexible cooperations in order to execute their tasks well and to stay close to their inhabitants. 

The municipality of Deventer aims for cooperations between employees, with chain partners, and with partners in the society. In this way, the municipality developed itself as a network organization, where the organization chart is replaced by a so-called ‘bollogram’ (see below).  This means that where the organization chart leads to compartmentalization and stagnation between the different departments, the new ‘bollogram’ supports fluid movement and dynamic cooperation. In this way, the municipality introduced the ‘new way of working’ and the task-pool. In the task-bench managers can offer challenging tasks that employees from all over the company can sign up for.

Cross-departmental cooperation

The municipality of Goeree-Overflakkee strives for an organization that gets the best out of their people, in which employees take responsibilities themselves, and in which they maintain their networks. In order to achieve this, education plays a major role, they say. Similarly to the task-pool of the municipality of Deventer, Goeree-Overflakkee started a project-pool in order to increase the mobility and sustainable placement of employees. This, however, makes the role of the manager more complicated. On the hand, the manager remains responsible for the content of the results of his or her department, while on the other hand the manager also needs to be able to inspire and stimulate employees in order to take on challenges in other departments. 

The municipality of Dordrecht aspires for self-conscious and committed employees that think critically and are transparent in order to achieve the municipality’s ambitions. Even though they realize that every employee is different, everyone works based on the values of trust, responsibility and initiative, in order to achieve a common goal. The municipality acts based on projects rather than departments, introduced the ‘new way of working’, and gives employees an individual budget in order to purchase a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. According to the municipality, organizational flexibility is achieved by looking for alignment where it can be found best, which places the focus on time and place independence in work. 

Also the municipality of De Bilt pursuits a directional organization in which the focus is shifted to cooperation with partners rather than execution by the municipality itself. In order to achieve a project and process based way of working, employees have been educated in accordance with the philosophy of ‘train-the-trainer’. In this way, employees were made responsible for the further introduction of project and process based work, and became more result-driven. 

Organizational development trajectory

The municipality of Amersfoort aims to achieve a switch in the way of working, culture, and the management of the organization. In order to become more dynamic, more flexible, and to be able to quickly address issues relevant to the city and its administration, two parallel projects have been launched: The New Perspective and ‘Samen-foort’ (Together forward). In the first project, the municipality is searching for a new role as government, together with the administration and the city. The project Samen-foort aims to adjust the organization and way or working to the changing demands of society and the administration. Moreover, the municipality manages several aspects centrally in order to avoid compartmentalization, for example in program guided working, front-line guidance, and strengthening the customer-contact centre.  The municipality aspired to work more topic-based in the next five years, and to set up a program organization form. 


Volberda, H.W. & Van der Weerdt, N.P., (2012), De flexibiliteit van Nederlandse Gemeenten, A+O fonds Gemeenten. The research report (pdf) is enclosed in the attachment. [In Dutch] 

Van Zijl, R., (2013), Flexibel in flexibiliteit, A+O fonds Gemeenten. The research report (pdf) is enclosed in the attachment. [In Dutch] 

Theme: flexible organisation; collaboration with ext. partners; new ways of working

Industry: Public sector

Source type: Research report