Parliamentary Inquiry into Fraud Policy and Public Service will hopefully be apprehensive instead of 'settling the score'
“Parliamentary inquiries are often political 'settlements', in which members of parliament try to apportion blame. But the parliamentary inquiry into fraud policy and public service seems to want to approach it first and foremost as a learning process," says professor of public management Mirko Noordegraaf. "If you keep thinking in terms of parties that are to blame, you increase distrust in government. But if you want to learn from this kind of investigation, you actually increase the chances of improving politics, policy and execution. Moreover, the parliamentary committee will explicitly examine the role of the House of Parliament itself, as one of the parties responsible for the so-called ‘toeslagenaffaire’ (benefits affair). So, it promises to be a very different type of inquiry than you would normally expect.” Noordegraaf was consulted on the design of the parliamentary inquiry into combatting fraud and into enforcement. The inquiry will start this month. Public hearings will take place in the spring of 2023.
The ‘toeslagenaffaire’ has become a symbol for a failing government that does not serve its citizens well and has lost the human touch," says Mirko Noordegraaf. "People have become trapped in the system, with all the consequences that entails. The affair has also had a profound impact on professionals in the field, on board members, managers and civil servants. The Parliamentary Interrogation Committee on Child Allowance (POK) has really become a dividing line in that respect. ‘After POK’, there was a feeling among this group that things really had to change. This was reinforced by the hard-hitting report Ongekend Onrecht(Unprecedented Injustice). And the Temporary Committee for Execution Organisations had already written a report with the significant title Klem tussen balie en beleid (Stuck between reception and policy).
In short: there needs to be more of a human touch, better provision of information, more transparency (also concerning the official behaviour of civil servants), more contact with citizens and: we need to listen more to signals from society.
Affecting legal protection
The Secretaries-General of the ministries jointly wrote a letter to the formers of the Cabinet about what the civil service organisation had learned from the course of events. Administrative law judges and the Council of State have examined and evaluated their own role in the toeslagenaffaire. They too were shocked by the 'erosion of the legal protection' of citizens, to which they contributed," says Noordegraaf, "because not only were citizens trapped by (financial) consequences, they also could not rely on government protection. This has major consequences for the trust in the government, also in other situations.
Accountability experts say: beware of 'accountability by judgement', try to be more 'accountable by learning'
So, now we will have a parliamentary inquiry. Interesting, because at the same time there will also be parliamentary inquiries into the Covid-19 policy and the consequences of gas extraction in Groningen. What will be the effect of that? When it comes to public accountability, the parliamentary inquiry is one of the most extreme tools you have, partly because you hear witnesses under oath. Parliamentary inquiries are often political 'settlements', with members of parliament trying to apportion blame. Accountability experts therefore say: beware of 'accountability by judgement', try to be more 'accountable by learning'. If you continue to think in terms of ‘parties that are to blame', you increase distrust. But I have the impression that this committee wants to approach it first and foremost as a learning process, especially because it wants to look very explicitly at itself, at the role of the House of Parliament.
Temporary Committee on Fraud Policy and Public Service Provision
The Temporary Committee on Fraud Policy and Public Service Provision was commissioned by the House of Parliament to draw up a research proposal in preparation for a parliamentary inquiry into the combat against fraud and into enforcement, the exchange of information and the provision of services by execution organisations (in short: the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry into Fraud Policy and Public Service Provision).
The committee consisted of Members of Parliament Belhaj (D66, chair), Van Nispen (SP, vice-chair) and also Peters (CDA), Simons (BIJ1), Michon-Derkzen (VVD) and Maatoug (GroenLinks). The committee members held informative discussions with various experts (including Mirko Noordegraaf of Utrecht University) and organisations about fraud policy, professionalism and the functioning of the civil service, the relationship between government, politics and civil service, ICT and algorithms, discrimination, institutional racism and ethnic profiling, representation of victims, the citizen's perspective, fraud policy discourse and lessons for the future.
Tone and precision in the parliamentary inquiry
As experts, we were able to tell the committee members, for example, about the rise of a more business-like government (new public management) and its consequences for public services. That, in combination with how civil service organisations work, how civil servants behave, how top civil servants manage their organisations. During the Parliamentary Interrogation Committee on Child Allowance (POK), we saw top civil servants appearing and you could notice that MPs sometimes simply do not understand what a top civil servant does. We were able to provide them with information about that. It seems to me that the committee is really trying to get to grips with it, in terms of content but also in terms of tone of voice and precision. It was nice to be able to think along with them.
It's not always fraud policy; it can also be 'fraud practices'
It is important to be precise, starting with the main research question, the sub questions, and the terminology you use. For example: the committee emphasized 'fraud policy' but I said: there can be 'fraud practices' when you put people on blacklists, profile them ethnically and want to 'punish' them, as it were. But there is not always a policy to do so. The parliamentary inquiry proposal now contains definitions of what is meant by 'fraud' and 'policy'.
Relationship between the House of Parliament and civil servants
There is a lot of mutual misunderstanding between the House of Parliament and the civil service," says Noordegraaf. "Since the Kok 'ukase' (no direct interaction between civil servants and MPs - ed.) they have also become more formally separated. So, fear and reticence reign. We also saw this in our evaluation of the General Administrative Service (ABD): they are far away from each other. Nevertheless, it is certainly possible to organise more interaction between top civil servants and the Cabinet, and also with the Parliament. Fortunately, Parliamentary committees are increasingly informed by civil servants during so-called 'technical briefings'. In my opinion, the call for total transparency has gone too far. It is unworkable and takes the creativity out of civil service organisations. But the question of the exchange of information, of what information should be provided to Parliament, is perfectly legitimate. How this can be organised in a healthier way and in mutual interaction, is one of the sub questions of the parliamentary inquiry.
It's not that the government has failed, a lot of good things are happening there. But in this affair, unwise decisions were made, under political pressure - despite the official defence by public servants. This was then reinforced by the ‘fraud frame’, with the parliamentary desire to fight fraud. In the end, the civil service organisation (unfortunately) took up the challenge in a very loyal and supportive manner.
In short: responding, contradicting, picking up signals and exchanging information - all this has to be improved.
Do you want to know more? Please read the proposal to the House of Parliament for the parliamentary inquiry. Or contact Mirko Noordegraaf: email@example.com.