Supervisory authorities such as the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority, the Health Care Inspectorate, the Transport and Water Management Inspectorate and the Dutch Inspectorate of Education all need to provide a better understanding of why their work is useful, according to Heinrich Winter, professor by special appointment of Supervision. He argues that it is too unclear what the added value of the supervision provided by various governmental inspectorates is.
The Netherlands has a great number of supervisory authorities, such as the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority, the Health Care Inspectorate, the Transport and Water Management Inspectorate, the Dutch Inspectorate of Education and the Health and Safety Inspectorate. There is also a strong lobby from the public as well as from politics to create even more public, regulatory organizations, according to Winter, who will hold his inaugural lecture on the performance of supervisory authorities on 14 September. ‘The call for increased and stricter supervision is unremitting. It can regard anything from supervision of bailiffs or primary school aides to wanting the Health Care Inspectorate to keep a closer eye on private medical clinics where plastic surgery and circumcisions take place.’
A rough estimate puts the cost of the various inspectorates at EUR 850 million in public funds. ‘Yet at the same time, there is remarkably hardly any research in this day and age into the added value of supervision’, Winter comments. ‘This has led to a dearth of information on what its effects are.’ Although this is certainly called for, he adds, given the huge investment of public funds. If supervisory authorities had a better understanding of their effect, they would perhaps be better able to quash their inclination to react to every incident. This has led to their being forced to become more active the one day, and to take strict measures, while the next day they’re being forced to cut budgets and axe staff.
The subject is in the spotlight at the moment due to the Scheltema Committee report on the supervision of DSB Bank by De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB). ‘There has been a lot of criticism of the role DNB played and how their supervision was carried out’, Winter says. ‘The Scheltema report concludes that supervision must be stronger: more thorough, more dogged and more critical.’ Winter points out that this conclusion has no empirical grounds: ‘Although we do know that something went wrong in the past, it doesn’t mean we know how to do better in future. In general, regarding supervision, we do not know whether there is too little of it or too much. The Dutch compare burgeoning supervision to rising dough, but as long as we don’t know its effects, you could just as easily claim that there is too little supervision.’ In two reports from 2005 and 2008, the Dutch Court of Audit (Algemene Rekenkamer) also advised measuring and evaluating the effect of supervision. It was also agreed at the time that supervisory bodies would begin pilot projects to measure performance. ‘These resolutions have so far hardly been kept up’, Winter states.
According to Winter, the increase in supervision in recent decades is the result of the shift from tolerance to enforcement, the introduction of privatization and market mechanisms in many areas and the culture of precaution which has arisen in our risk-filled society. ‘Many risks which used to be a threat to mankind have been curtailed’, Winter says. ‘However, this doesn’t mean that there are fewer risks now, in fact there are more of them. Moreover, these risks are more severe than ever before. Governments are increasingly being held responsible for risk mitigation. They respond by setting rules and then providing supervision.’ This has led to our society developing more and more into a supervisory society, Winter finds. ‘The question is whether this is desirable.’
Supervisory bodies should themselves be held responsible for providing insight into the effect of their work, Winter emphasizes. ‘Research into effects has to be embedded in supervisory practice.’ He draws a comparison with legislation, where laws themselves mandate measuring and evaluating the effect of a new law after a certain period of time. Road and transport safety, food safety and, for instance, working conditions are all areas where the effect of enforcement is easily measurable using existing statistics, according to Winter. In the United States, for example, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration can ascertain whether or not it has contributed towards decreasing the number of lethal accidents caused by large lorries and buses. Winter: ‘Using the resulting figures, the organization can spell out to politicians how many traffic victims can be prevented for each extra euro of budget. That’s more worthwhile to discuss than whether or not there are too many traffic regulators.’
Prof. H.B. (Heinrich) Winter (1962) is professor by special appointment of Supervision and part-time University Reader in Administrative Law and Public Administration at the University of Groningen. He is also head of the Pro Facto research and advice bureau. He studied Public Administration & Public Law and Sociology in Groningen and gained his PhD in 1996 researching how legislation functions and supervision and enforcement.
More information: Heinrich Winter
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