The parliamentary committee that investigated the benefits affair concludes in its report that for years, parents have been burdened with serious financial difficulties by their own government. There is talk of ‘unprecedented injustice’ and the ‘rule of law at stake’. These are weighty conclusions, aren’t they?

“With good reason. The discussion about benefits is not new, nor is the struggle with their effectiveness and practicability. It is also a known fact that there are people who encounter difficulties as a result of benefits that have been wrongfully granted or not granted at all. What is unprecedented is that nothing has been done for such a long time to redress the problems that people have run into because of the government.”

The perception is that parents have been driven into the abyss by a tax authority that deliberately hounded its own citizens.

“I found the parliamentary hearings interesting for two reasons: Because of what the affair entailed, but also because of the way the affair – and thereby the protagonists within the civil service – is being portrayed. I can imagine that there are people who’ve seen those cross-examinations and thought: What kind of people are they?

“But I have also witnessed the story from the inside. Together with the Netherlands School for Public Administration, we organised a training scheme for civil servants working at the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration, specifically the benefits department. Most civil servants, and also the people who were named in this affair, are people who are very committed to the public good and have the best interests of citizens at heart. Everyone said: ‘This wasn’t what I wanted.’ And: ‘This is not what I thought we were doing.’ And yet they wrote letters in which in the opening lines they labelled people as fraudsters. That’s very strange.”

How did it get so out of hand?

“The report does answer a lot of questions, except that one. The easiest response is: it was malicious intent or indifference. This wasn’t the case; I can testify to that from my own experiences. So, the conclusion must then be that there is an institutional element that stirs up the government’s perceived mistrust towards its citizens.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Rotterdam’s mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb recently said: “Legislation is sometimes so detailed that when in doubt about whether something is human error or fraud, a civil servant is almost forced to choose the latter.” How is that possible?

“In these discussions, the distinction made by Habermas between the world of systems and the lifeworld is often quoted. It is then said that we ought to go back to the lifeworld. Or back to the intended purpose, as Wouter Hart calls it in his much-praised book Twisted Organisations1. In the past, legislation offered a lot of leeway for discretionary decisions, or room for manoeuvre. That sounds nice, but it’s not without its drawbacks. After all, the essential point of bureaucracy is that it should enable you to escape the arbitrariness of the lifeworld. It should prevent you from being at the mercy of the judgement of a civil servant who can say, completely at their own discretion: ‘You deserve a certain amount of supplementary benefit, and you don’t.’

“Therefore, a lot of procedures have been automated and protocolised. Decision trees have been constructed that are very dichotomous: You, as a citizen, have either provided correct information or you haven’t. In the latter case, you are deemed a fraudster. And if you are a fraudster, there is a set sanction – supposedly fair, because it is the same for everyone. But whatever story you may have, we will not consider it, even if you have simply forgotten to provide information.

“This is very much in line with New Public Management, the business-like method of governance that has swept like a wave through the public sector since the 1980s. An entire accountability circuit with performance indicators has been set up. There is talk of targets, KPIs, and quantifiable product units. Teams are judged on the number of incidents that they intercept. A certain amount of toughness has crept in: ‘We’re going to catch a thousand fraud cases this year!’ And we should not forget that this is also what is being aimed towards by managers, by ministers, even by the House of Representatives.”

The same House of Representatives that has now toppled the cabinet.

“I do have a bit of a problem with the role of parliament in this. The criminalisation in the benefits world did not just come out of nowhere. The House tried to shift the blame elsewhere, but it was itself one of the main instigators of this institutional mistrust. You cannot understand the benefits affair without also looking at the ‘Bulgarian fraud’ that happened a few years ago. When several million euros ended up in the hands of Bulgarian gangs, everyone was angry. ‘Never again!’, it was said in no uncertain terms. There was a huge clamour for a policy of zero tolerance, also from the general public. This is what you end up with.”

In a recent article, Daan Roovers, the Dutch ‘Denker des Vaderlands’ (‘Philosopher of the Fatherland’), makes a direct link between the heightened distrust towards citizens and the fact that Rutte has already been in charge for a number of cabinets. Is that warranted?

“I see more of a trend in wider society towards a very low tolerance when it comes to fraud. We can’t bear it when someone takes a bite out of the collective pie for no good reason. You could say that it’s just a matter of a few crocodile tears where the benefits affair is concerned. If it turns out tomorrow that a thousand people have wrongly claimed a benefit, there will be another outcry to clamp down on them. Ask people how they feel about welfare recipients – extremely negative. ‘Can’t they just go to work? Sitting on their lazy behinds all day.’ And: ‘Is there anything really wrong with his back?'”

After the incident of the Bulgarian fraud, shouldn’t the responsible minister have said: this is just part of life?

“That is exactly what should have been said. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Sometimes you make a mistake and it ends up costing a few million. Very unfortunate, but we will work it out. But no, things need to escalate over and over again. Incidentally, administrative bodies have resisted this hard political line from the outset, even at the highest level. But that resistance proved fruitless. So, these organisations subsequently go into execution mode. That’s what they do.”

MP Pieter Omzigt, who was instrumental in putting the benefits affair on the map, said: “In the Netherlands, you have solved a problem once you have shown that you are not the only one responsible for it.” What is your opinion about the extent to which responsibility is being shirked in this affair?

“We see here the classic problem of many hands. This is an accident where everyone is partly to blame, and consequently, no one is really to blame. One of the systemic errors here is that the parties involved failed to develop a shared sense of responsibility for the end result. But ultimately, responsibility was taken: The minister responsible, Eric Wiebes, stepped down, former minister Lodewijk Asscher resigned as leader of the PvdA (Labour Party), and there is now a caretaker government in place.”

It has been said that it was a calculated, soft fall of the government, with a prime minister who has largely escaped scrutiny. Prime minister Mark Rutte told a group of aggrieved parents that he felt terrible about what has happened to them and then walked away as if he has had no part in it.

“That is his hallmark quality. And it’s easier to topple a government shortly before the finish line than at the beginning. But I don’t believe this makes this resignation any less meaningful. My impression is that it is felt sincerely.”

We go to great lengths to prevent fraud because it costs public money. But this overreaching fight against fraud can end up costing even more money. As a society, isn’t it better to accept a minor amount of fraud?

“If you were to stop enforcing the law, you could conceivably save more money than any eventual fraud that might otherwise slip through the cracks. In my opinion, the business case underpinning universal basic income is that it can be provided free of rules and regulations, without all that bureaucracy. But this is not just a matter of simple arithmetic. It concerns legitimacy. In the Netherlands, we have one of the highest tax morals in the world. We still believe that the resources we share in our ‘public fund’ are spent wisely and lawfully. I think that’s a fine achievement that we shouldn’t simply throw overboard.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

In civil service circles, there is a strong desire for a return to the human scale. Will the benefits affair accelerate that process? And should the government thereby call a halt to automation?

“Do you trust silicon or carbon – computers or people – that’s the question. For complex decision-making processes, you need a certain kind of intelligence. And as great as the expectations of big data and artificial intelligence are, we all know – just ask Siri – that these technologies often leave something to be desired. Creatures that are naturally very good at dealing with complexity are us ourselves. When it comes to complicated, endlessly diverse family situations, we are very good at coming up with suitable solutions. Police officers, youth welfare workers, liaison officials – the street-level bureaucrats, as Michael Lipsky once called them – do nothing else besides that. The best thing would be to put the emphasis here: Real people who make decisions about other real people. More and more government organisations have been trying this for some time already. The Sociale Verzekeringsbank (the organisation responsible for implementating the Dutch national insurance schemes, ed.), the UWV Employee Insurance Agency, as well as municipalities in the social domain. But the challenge remains to keep things accountable and legitimate. And it is hoped that these organisations will once more get the money they need in the upcoming government term.”

Martijn van der Steen is Professor of Public Administration and vice-dean of the Netherlands School for Public Administration. He conducts research on how to deal with the complexity and uncertainty of public organisations and regularly advises public administrators and public professionals.

  1. In Dutch: Verdraaide organisaties ↩︎