'I am for equal opportunities for all'

Joyce Sylvester
Photo: Marco Okhuizen

As of 1 September 2022, Joyce Sylvester is Academic Fellow of the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance. Sylvester is a renowned public administrator. She was recently appointed as chair of the State Commission against Discrimination and Racism and has also been nominated as dike warden in Amstel Gooi and Vecht. As Academic Fellow, she will strengthen teaching and research at the faculty, by giving guest lectures, mentoring students and collaborating with researchers in the fields of local democracy, civic participation, inclusion and democratic innovation. Sylvester has a clear mission: Equal opportunities for everyone, no matter where you were born. That is very important to me, that is what I am working on.

Every person would need four or five lifetimes to realise everything they love, says Joyce Sylvester. We are doing our interview on a morning in September during her first meetings with the staff of the Utrecht University School of Governance (USG) with whom, among others, she will collaborate.

'My way lead to government and politics but I also did a PhD and have always continued to give guest lectures at universities. What is the nice about that? I can very clearly link to practice. After completing practical assignments, I always discuss with students how things went in real life. That, of course, is also my strength; I know what happens behind the scenes, behind the curtains of Senate and behind the closed doors of the city council.

As Academic Fellow of the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance, I will strengthen teaching and research regarding the themes of local democracy, citizen participation, inclusion and democratic innovation. That means, for instance: giving lectures, mentoring students during their research and possibly also introducing them to the State Commission, linking to the work of the commission.

Who is Joyce Sylvester?

Joyce Sylvester is a Dutch politician and public administrator of Surinam descent. On behalf of the Dutch Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA)), she was a member of the Senate from 2003 to 2015, from 2008 to 2015 she was acting as mayor of the municipalities of Anna Paulowna and Naarden, and from 2016 to 2022 she served as deputy ombudsman at the National Ombudsman. She was recently nominated as dike warden in Amstel Gooi and Vecht, a catchment area with 1.3 million inhabitants. She will be sworn into that position mid October 2022. She was also appointed chair of the State Commission against Discrimination and Racism, and holds a range of other board positions, varying from member of the Supervisory Board of Theatre Carré Amsterdam to member of the National Selection Committee of Judges, as well as being a columnist for AD.

Read more at www.joycesylvester.nl

Public administration should be a reflection of society

Joyce Sylvester
Joyce Sylvester

You have a lot of experience in public administration practice. Do you have a mission?

What I want to achieve, also in the State Commission, is doing scientific research on discrimination and racism: I very much want equal opportunities for everyone, no matter where you were born. I think that's very important, that's what I'm working on. I can't stand injustice and I think it's important to contribute to that myself. Also by being visible myself. This will make people say: "So it is possible, a woman of colour doing this work, it is actually quite normal. Why did I actually think it wasn't?"

I wrote an autobiography about my experiences in public administration, entitled Bent u de burgemeester? (Are You the Mayor?) Because this question was posed very often by people. A chain of office around the neck of a woman, a woman of colour - people found that hard to believe.

I am triggered by society and how the rule of law functions. What do issues like discrimination and racism do in society? What would it look like if everyone could participate? So I am also a big advocate of diversity in public administration: male, female, people with disabilities, representation of LGBTQ+. In my opinion, public administration should be a reflecting of society. And you should actually want to see that at a university too. Among teachers, among students: a reflection of society. Ultimately, for me, it should all come down to fighting inequality of opportunity.

Can you tell us something about the State Commission against Discrimination and Racism, which you chair?

The State Commission was set up by the government and is going to investigate in a scientific way what the state of discrimination is in a number of sectors (healthcare, education, housing market, executive organisations, etc.). But you can also think about sports, for instance. Just the other day there was racist cheering again, monkey noises from the stands - why do people do that? What does that do in society when you look at each other like that? It's a fascinating topic. Instead of conducting new research, we are going to take stock of existing research and see how we can make recommendations based on that. And we will be looking at legislation. What discriminatory factors are already to be found in the legislation? That's very important.

I have asked a number of prominent scientists for that committee, including Janneke Gerards and Patrizia Zanoni from this faculty at Utrecht University. I already know Janneke Gerards from the time when I chaired the committee investigating the AOW deficit of Dutch people of Surinam descent. And we are also going to involve students, we really need them. I can imagine for example that we will attract a student who will look at what has already appeared in the field of discrimination and racism on the housing market.

You are going to combine this with a job as a dike warden, that’s rather special isn’t it?

It is the oldest position in public administration. Dike wardens used to be water specialists, but nowadays it is also important for as many people as possible to get involved and participate in water management board elections, for example. The institution of water management boards is hardly known in society. That is why I was approached; because of my affinity with citizens, organising elections, making sure it ends up in all sorts of relevant places. The position of a water management board member requires administrative dexterity, especially with the climate issues we have. Involving citizens, creating support and diversity. In addition, I of course have knowledge and experience of how things work in The Hague. I also found it very interesting because I worked as a mayor in the Senate. The water management board is yet another institution, a layer in government. I'm looking forward to it.

Dean Janneke Plantenga on Academic Fellowship Joyce Sylvester

As Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance, we want to be at the heart of society, says Dean Janneke Plantenga, and we also want to be nurtured from society. Joyce Sylvester has a very interesting and rich CV, so she is a perfect fit for the position of Academic Fellow, as we have conceived it. I hope this leads to positive collaboration on both sides. Our faculty is interesting if, like Joyce, you are interested in socio-economic inequality and the functioning of the rule of law. Conversely, our students, lecturers and researchers can benefit from her knowledge and network. How does it really work, what do you run into as a public administrator and how can you bring about change? She can tell us a lot about that.

Making sure you make decisions for the problems of the future here and now is a very difficult balancing act.

Joyce Sylvester
Joyce Sylvester

So, as an Academic Fellow, you will deal with local democracy, citizen participation, inclusion and democratic innovation. Engaging citizens in public administration also seems to be a common theme in your work. How do see the relationship between citizens and government?

It's very exciting at the moment, says Joyce Sylvester. We are dealing with big issues; the climate of course, but also: people have to wait a very long time for a house; we have a crisis in the reception of asylum seekers - that makes the relationship very exciting. I notice that the government is very much looking at how to tackle these problems. The government has to come up with solutions that also have the support of the citizens living now. That makes it quite complicated. That relationship is exciting and requires maintenance.

To give a concrete example; when I was acting as mayor in Naarden, there was a shortage in houses there too. The alderman came up with a plan, started talking to developers. Then a location got chosen, and an amendment to the zoning plan was being made. But then no one wanted these kind of constructions in their neighbourhood! Yet, people do want their children to have somewhere to live. Behold the problem facing public administrators. If you push forward, you end up in the sewer of Twitter or being threatened. If you don't, in a few years you will be blamed for not providing the necessary facilities. It is a very difficult balancing act to ensure that you make decisions for the problems of the future here and now.

People want to complain about the problem but not participate in the solution?

I recently wrote a column in the AD saying: 'Governing with your earplugs in doesn’t do the job'. People are smart and really do understand that we cannot go on like this. In my view, you can't satisfy everybody, but you really have to listen to people and involve them in the considerations being made. And after the discussions, at some point, a decision is made.

To give another example: in the Senate, I was the driving force behind the abolition of fur farming in the Netherlands. This really was a process of years. I was a senator for twelve years; when I entered it was on the agenda, when I left the proposal to abolish it was finally there. Step by step we said that we didn't want this in the Netherlands anymore. You start by announcing that: watch out, policy change is coming up; please go and choose another profession. Some then said: that's interesting; I'm going to start a campsite or a cheese factory. Those people are the first movers. But you also have people who don't move. After ten years, they find out that the government actually does start tightening legislation. That small group then has to stop... and starts to protest. But in my view the government has been very careful for years. These are interesting things to study and discuss.

There is still a lot to do. You also briefly mentioned 'the sewer of Twitter'. On social media, the tone of voice is sometimes quite discriminatory and racist. Don't you find that depressing?

Oh I actually like it. Do you know why? I like it when people show how they think about things. Sometimes that is shocking, but clear. I have recently written a column in the AD, entitled: 'It's time for a farmer at the helm; come forward female cops, black judges, times have changed'. When you read the comments to this… says Joyce Sylvester, laughing, I think: well, you can think of it that way too. I like to know who’s in front of me, I prefer people to be straightforward.

I may have thick skin. It is hurtful of course. I have had people say "to me you are a monkey". Then it is very clear to me. In my opinion I don't need to invest any more energy. I gave up on those people. Fortunately, the majority of people don't discriminate. I want to engage with people who are also looking for connection, who are curious and want to explore together. And do my bit.