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The political-administrative sensitivity of the WODC

Opinion: Prof. Caspar van den Berg
11 December 2017
Caspar van den Berg
Caspar van den Berg

The news this week was dominated by the disclosure, in current affairs TV programme Nieuwsuur, of political interference in research conducted by the WODC, the independent Research and Documentation Centre of the Ministry of Justice and Security. A leaked internal complaint from a senior WODC researcher revealed that Ministry officials had successfully exerted pressure on the WODC in various ways in order to change research results so that the Minister’s policy would look very successful and other policy options undesirable, while reality was different.

These revelations were made just when the Ministry had founds its feet again after the painful receipts affair that led two ministers, a state secretary and the Secretary-General to step down. A new team of government members and a new Secretary-General could have symbolized a new culture and restored integrity. This new affair, however, thwarts that course. The damage done to the Ministry’s credibility is serious, not just from a procedural-constitutional point of view – political and administrative manipulation of academic research violates all norms, rules and laws in this field – but also from a content and policy perspective, given that WODC reports underlie a great deal of justice and security policy. In addition, the affair has resulted in Parliament having to fulfil its legislative and oversight duties on the basis of dubious information, which is by definition a mortal sin in a parliamentary democracy.

One of the shocking aspects of the affair is how openly officials pressured the WODC. Although government officials are expected to be responsive to the political course of their Minister, they can of course only do so within the boundaries set by the rules that apply: the work of independent research institutes must not be interfered with. The fact that officials nevertheless felt free to bluntly state in emails that ‘steering is required’ and that certain conclusions ‘could not be approved’ indicates that these officials regarded their own behaviour as normal and acceptable. This is worrying, as it suggests a mentality which considers political interference and manipulation of scientific facts to protect the Minister to be part of a government official’s job.

In recent years, a remarkable interpretation of the term political-administrative sensitivity seems to have emerged in various settings, both within the national government and at local levels. Political-administrative sensitivity in the positive sense of the word refers to administrative advisors demonstrating empathy within the political dimension of their own duties and responsibilities – taking political relations and the feasibility and pitfalls of policy into account, as well as the Minister’s responsibility for policy. This also implies that officials should provide constructive criticism, for example by developing alternative policy scenarios and providing counterarguments to the Minister’s preferred policy, so that the Minister can take a carefully considered decision and can field opposition from Parliament and society. Successful ministers encourage their officials to contradict them in order to help test and refine their own arguments.

Increased political turbulence, media monitoring and transparency regimes have resulted in increasing pressure being brought to bear on politicians to realize their political agendas resolutely and unfalteringly. Ministers operate in a more assertive, sometimes hostile environment, and this pressure is passed on to their officials. Scientific and legal facts that do not support the desired policy may then be regarded as obstacles that must be removed. This results in political-administrative sensitivity becoming the catch phrase for more and more actions being considered acceptable. The WODC case shows that we are not dealing with covert behaviour or deliberate crime here, but rather with a gradual shift in collective standards. We can only hope that the WODC revelations will generate a debate on this theme.

Caspar van den Berg is Professor of Global and Local Governance at the Campus Fryslân of the University of Groningen. Academic teaching and research into the functioning of politics and administration is one of the key themes at this new faculty.

Last modified:14 December 2017 10.18 a.m.
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