Academic integrity of research at the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security
The so-called ‘WODC affair’ has been a symbol for the suspicion of improper influencing of independent academic research. Academic integrity has since received increased attention. But what has been done at the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security itself, in which the Research and Documentation Centre (Wetenschappelijk Onderzoeks- en Documentatiecentrum, WODC) is embedded? The legal foundation for the independence of the WODC has been clarified, it now has its own building, and the rules of conduct for the collaboration of researchers and policy officials have become stricter. On top of that: there have not been any incidents in the past two years.
“What you can arrange for on paper has been arranged quite well in the meantime,” says Paul ‘t Hart (Utrecht University). He was asked to act as a ‘transition advisor’ for the ministry and analysed the developments. “New generations of policy consultants will have to be trained in what it means to plan and supervise academic research. If not, long-term success is not guaranteed.”
Paul ‘t Hart was asked to act as an independent observer on the relations between the WODC, the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security, and politics. His last of four semi-annual reports was recently presented to the Dutch House of Parliament. ‘t Hart discovered that academic independence and integrity are not the only, maybe not even the most important challenge for the relationship between research and policy at the ministry.
Research following commitments in House of Parliament
“A much bigger problem is that a lot of research is produced that has very little impact on policy,” says Paul ‘t Hart. “Too much WODC research is being conducted following an ad hoc commitment by the minister to the House of Parliament, in a debate. Once the research results are there, fourteen, fifteen months later, it’s too late to be relevant for the political debate any longer. So, the actual question is: how can you set up a research agenda that is less driven by incidents? How do you ensure results of that research getting to the right people at the right time? And how do you make the WODC better at research in ‘the short term’? An example of the latter is to quickly put together what we already know about Subject X, from existing research. The House will be satisfied with that. In the meantime, you can save up capacity for much more extensive research which is of strategic importance to the governance challenges at the ministry.”
The WODC is by far not the only provider of research at the ministry
“But what I pulled out from under the carpet,” ‘t Hart continues, “was that the WODC is actually only one of the players in the total knowledge landscape of Justice and Security. At the same time, much larger funding is attributed to other units within the ministry that commission research, such as the prison system and the NCTV. They do business directly with all kinds of big stakeholders in knowledge such as Statistics Netherlands and the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, but without the tight securing of integrity and independence that the WODC has.”
The WODC affair
In March 2019, prior to the debate in the Dutch House of Parliament, the television programme NOS Nieuwsuur briefly summarised the WODC affair: ‘the WODC affair in perspective’ (in Dutch):
Legal foundation for independence
“As an observer, I’ve spent two years keeping track of the agenda for improvement of the relationship between knowledge and policy at the Ministry of Justice and Security, that focused on securing the independence of research at the WODC. I became more and more convinced that they've done all they could in terms of regulations and procedures to maximally reduce the chance of such an affair occuring again. In the two years that I reported on, there have been no incidents.
They also considered it to be of importance that the legal foundation of the WODC was clarified, documenting it’s independence. All parties involved are actually very satisfied about that. A foothold has been created.”
Again and again, new generations of policy consultants will have to be trained in what it means to set up and supervise academic research. And that can't be: ‘who makes the request for research, gets to guide it.'
“My main conclusion is therefore: they've worked on this properly and honestly. What you can arrange for on paper has been arranged for quite well, in the meantime. Sometimes the policy is a bit tight, but practices are being developed to deal with that with nuance. BUT: in the core, the interplay in policy-based research is of course a relational issue between users and producers of knowledge. This is made, or broken, with awareness, consistency and mutual respect. Rules and procedures can improve that, but the people involved need to know and follow them. Big policy machines such as those at the Ministry of Justice and Security will always have policy consultants who are under huge pressure over their portfolios and are told: ‘What is concluded here, is not very convenient for the Minister.’
They really have to keep at it with the relational work, or success won't be guaranteed in the long run,” ‘t Hart concludes. “Again and again, new generations of policy consultants will have to be trained in what it means to set up and supervise academic research. The leading principle can't be: ‘who makes the request for research, gets to guide it.’”
Would you like to know more? If so, please contact Professor Paul ‘t Hart: email@example.com.