3 July 2018

Thomas Schillemans appointed Professor in Accountability, Behaviour and Governance

Thomas Schillemans

Thomas Schillemans has been appointed to the position of Professor in Accountability, Behaviour and Governance at the Utrecht University School of Governance (USG) of the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance. With the help of insights and experiments from behavioural science, Thomas Schillemans aims to understand and qualitatively improve the dynamics of accountability and supervision in the public sector. His chair, placed under USG partly at the behest of the Netherlands School of Public Administration, is affiliated with the interdisciplinary research theme Institutions for Open Societies at Utrecht University.

‘Apparently, I am doing something that appeals to people’, Thomas Schillemans says. ‘Of course, I am extremely proud of the title. However, now it is really important to give substance to the chair itself and not get sidetracked by the pleasant associations of the mere title, which simply fits the work that we are doing here. That aspect is what really matters here.’

Consolidating and innovating

‘I am going to consolidate and innovate’, the brand-new Professor announces. ‘Consolidation means to continue the research in public accountability, since we are one of the trendsetters worldwide. We are also going to innovate with the use of methods and insights from behavioural sciences, as well as doing experiments to improve our understanding of the dynamics involved in the system of accountability, among other things in my Vidi project. Other focal points of the innovation will be the collaboration with the Netherlands School of Public Administration (NSOB), the embedding in Institutions for Open Societies (IOS), and the collaboration with other fields of expertise such as psychologists, lawyers and others.’

‘In addition, we want to make an impact through the interaction with professional practice. I have recently become the Dean of the NSOB learning studio Control and Compliance and I am involved in a course for the supervision sector under the direction of Judith van Erp here in Utrecht. Together with colleagues at the School of Law (among whom Ivo Giesen), we will investigate the possibility of doing something similar with the courts; all of them large, complex organisations with many assessment risks.’

We hope to make a real contribution to the public sector and to the proper functioning of supervisors as well as organisations.

Psychology in the public sector

‘Supervisors such as auditors, assessors or other supervisory bodies often have to make an assessment about matters on which they only have a limited perspective. When something goes wrong in a given sector while control was actually in place, as was recently the case with the housing associations and in health care, the question arises sooner or later why the supervisor was not paying attention. How is it possible that something had been known for so long but still escaped attention? Part of the reason is public perception. However, research shows that sometimes as much as 80% of the supervisors in certain sectors are ‘reticent’ – in plain language, they are supervisors who hardly ever speak up.’

‘Our assumption is that the conditions under which you do your job influence the way that you execute your task and whether you expect to make an impact, for example. As a result, this so-called confirmation bias is a crucial issue for supervisors (in fact, for everyone who assesses others; it holds for lecturers as well!). When your view is biased, you will quickly find confirmation. However, we also know that slight changes to the procedure decrease the chance that confirmation bias occurs. Partly on the basis of experiments, we will be trying to understand the conditions under which people make fewer mistakes and will put in a serious effort to understand what is happening.’

‘It sounds as an exciting promise that knowledge of behaviour and psychology can affect the set-up of governance and policy. I and many others feel inspired by it’, Schillemans says. ‘However, we still need to provide proof that we can actually apply it in research, teaching and executive education. There is undoubtedly a lot of dead wood – helping to clear up is what I would like to do in the coming years. What are the real benefits, what insights can derive from it and what does not work? We hope to make a real contribution to an improved set-up of the public sector and to the proper functioning of supervisors as well as organisations.’

More information

If you would like to learn more about Thomas Schillemans, please visit his personal web page.