Niels Uenk on the commissioning of social care services and the must-read book for every scholar

What kind of mind-set is needed to carry out ground-breaking research as we do at UUCePP?

UUCePP researchers introduce themselves in brief interviews conducted by Elisabetta Manunza and Fredo Schotanus. Today: Niels Uenk, guest researcher at UUCePP since 2015.

Niels Uenk
Niels Uenk

Who are you, and what characterizes you?

My name is Niels Uenk, senior researcher and consultant at PPRC BV and guest researcher at Utrecht University Centre for Public Procurement. I have a masters degree in Industrial Engineering and Management from the University of Twente. Halfway through that masters program I came in touch with the field of public procurement and public procurement law. While the main focus in my program was on the economic side of public procurement, I soon realized that the economic and legal sides should go hand in hand. After finishing my master, I joined a private consultancy where my focus was on optimizing logistics for oil and gas companies worldwide. I switched jobs, starting at PPRC BV in 2013 – combining externally commissioned research with my PhD research. I am married and live with my wife and three young children in beautiful Lunteren.

If I have to characterize myself, I would say I am a stubborn go-getter. I fear the stubborn part is carved in my DNA. The ‘go-getter’ part definitely had to develop. A few years of competitive rowing at the start of my student-career have definitely shaped me. Once I set a goal, I work hard to achieve it – even if it hurts a little. Quitting is not an option. I still have this attitude when I do sports, but it has also become my working ethos. And if I am going to do something, I’d better do it right.

What are you working on, and why?

For my dissertation I have specialized on municipal commissioning of social care services for adults and youth. After working for five years in the oil and gas industry, I made a conscious decision to move into a position where I could contribute to more social and societal challenges. The organization and commissioning of social care services is a complex matter. Social care revolves around supporting vulnerable people to participate in society. In the Netherlands we have a state of the art health care system, but its costs are running out of hand. Maintaining a financially sustainable state of the art health care system including social care services in the future will require difficult choices concerning quality and availability of social care services. This relates to our perception of service quality in a society that becomes more and more individualistic. The Dutch institute ‘NJi’ that specializes on youth care acknowledges the (Dutch) society is increasingly reluctant to accept deviant behavior – which in turn contributes to higher demand on social care. To complicate matters further, in the Netherlands social care services are outsourced to a market of external care providers. There is a lot of money involved, and there are some perverse incentives – the more reliant vulnerable people are – or seem to be - on social care, the more money care providers can make. While this is only a simplistic overview of the issues, these factors come together in the organization and commissioning of social care services – which in the Netherlands is a municipal responsibility. 

In September 2019 I defended my dissertation titled ‘Commissioning of social care services’ at Utrecht University. I aimed to contribute to the understanding of commissioning of social care services – in the light of the societal challenges I mentioned. I researched how every Dutch municipality commissioned social care services related to the Dutch Social Support Act (‘Wet Maatschappelijke Ondersteuning 2015’) from the start of a decentralization reform in 2015, up until 2018. Dutch municipalities have a wide discretionary room for manoeuvre, and I define and compare various commissioning archetypes – and their consequences for the municipality, the users of social care, and the contracted care providers.

Café la nuit - Van Gogh
Niels Uenk: "I really love paintings of impressionists, like this Van Gogh. We have Café la nuit at home. Well, a print of it obviously… In the light of the current Corona times, the image of a café terrace stirs up new emotions."

What makes you get out of bed in the morning? And is this different because of the COVID-19 crisis? Is there nevertheless something you appreciate in these changing circumstances?

If I answer this from a practical point of view, I would say to get my kids out of bed, have breakfast with them and get them to school and day care, or if it is the weekend – to go on an adventure with them. And yes – Covid-19 has had a dramatic effect on our routines as many parents of young children will confirm. As many others, my wife and I too have homeschooled our children.

If I answer related to my motivation: I get out of bed to do the things that give me energy – and that have a contribution to the world. Sometimes in a big way, but also sometimes on a tiny scale. I have discussed my motivation for my research already – but of course, not every day I have these grand contributions. To me, it is also about the joy of working together with nice colleagues, having a laugh together, sharing coffee, working on challenging research projects and guiding others, and acquiring new projects for our research center. And of course besides work: spending time with the family, doing sports, contribute to our local church community, and having fun with friends and family. Here too, Covid has had a major impact.

What do you appreciate about the changing circumstances?

The Covid-19 situation causes major concerns, pain and unhappiness to many people. People have lost loved-ones, and there is a lot of loneliness – both among elderly people and youth. Having acknowledged this, I have appreciated homeschooling. I already saw my children a lot, for a full time working professional. I work from home a lot, and the office I work in is a five minute bike ride from home. But homeschooling them is something else, and I enjoyed this a lot.

On top of this: we have learned a lesson in priorities, and what is really important. And how we go about our work and daily activities, if we cannot do it the way we are used to. Many of us have been forced to be creative – we have demonstrated quite some resilience.

Should we go back to our old way of life after the crisis, or not?

In general I very much look forward to going back to our old lives, and I hope we remain conscious of how good that live is (speaking for myself). At the same time I hope this crisis is a wake-up call that we need to take much better care of our planet, and that this sense of urgency stays long after the crisis is gone. And that we act upon it. And I am definitely looking at myself – not pointing fingers to others.

I also hope we will benefit from ‘Europe’ – by getting out of this crisis together with all member states as a unity. The financial crisis resulting from the global lock down is still for a big part ahead of us. This may feed nationalism and populism, which I fear will harm unity and an inclusive society rather than make it stronger.

Which person inspires you?

Rather than one person, it is a personal trait I see in some great leaders that inspires me a lot. Leaders like Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela, but also some Dutch politicians, have this calm and confidence. They stick to their principles and will not get upset despite strong verbal attacks, up to the point of sheer abuse. I have a deep respect for people with this trait.

Who or what inspires you?

The book Factfullness by Hans Rosling has made a big impression on me. The book illustrates in a very convincing manner that our view on the world with respect to its general development is often completely wrong. The book starts with a few simple questions: what percentage of girls worldwide has access to education? What percentage of the world population has access to basic medical care (for example vaccines)? When asked these questions, it turns out the vast majority of all people – whether they are world leaders or plumber – get the answers completely wrong, being way too pessimistic! The book presents clear facts about the world, correcting our world view. But more importantly, the book addresses why our world view often is wrong. Rosling addresses the role of our instincts, fears, and the media that each have a share in this. In my opinion every scholar should read this book, making sure your world view is more correct and up to date!