Willem Janssen on Lego structures, societally responsible insourcing and outsourcing, and a call for accessible legal scholarship

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: Willem Janssen, researcher at UUCePP.

Willem Janssen
Willem Janssen

Who are you?

I am Willem Janssen. Born in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, raised in Vught, but I have resided in Utrecht for a while now. After a short stint at an Australian law firm, I returned to Utrecht University, my alma mater, in 2012. At the time, I started my PhD in EU public procurement law, but have been an assistant professor for about three years now. This means that I research the public procurement rules, that I lecture students and professionals, that I am UUCePP’s secretaris (secretary), but mostly that I have the freedom to engage in ‘academic entrepreneurship’. Working in academia means being free and independent to develop in-depth thoughts for societal challenges, but also to actively create initiatives to do something with them. This makes our work as academics so challenging, diverse and fun.

Those who have been present at one of my academic contributions or presentations will not be surprised by my love for Lego. Preferably, sustainable Lego made of sugar beet. I will leave to your imagination whether I actually still play with it. Lego represents endless opportunities for the design of new structures due to the great variety of different building blocks. This links up closely with how I perceive my role as an academic. The careful placement of an individual block has an effect on the next one, and eventually, the entire structure. The result must be functional, but – if it is up to me – it should also be aesthetically sound. I also enjoy imagining and building a better legal system in my day-to-day activities at work. Rules are blocks, which tend to not align or not be coherent as a whole. Rules can indeed also be ugly. When faced with such a lack of beauty, I relish in my attempt to understand complex legal constructs. What is the exact problem, is it a legal problem and how can we actively solve it? Context is essential for this endeavour. Rules can only come to life if one comprehends the objectives of the legislature, the intentions of policy-makers within their timeframe, the interests of the involved parties, such as governments, NGOs, citizens initiatives, and SMEs. It allows academics to build a better world.

Duurzame en plantaardige lego
The sustainable lego series, made of sugar beet.

Our academic role should not stop here, however. We should not only engage in fundamental research, but also be actively involved in societal discussions that follow the publication of our research. Academics should be at the forefront of explaining developments, and researching the consequences of various future pathways. This is important in times of fake news and public debate in which scientific research is framed as nothing more than an opinion. Active involvement in any shape or form that suits the individual researcher. Not only to understand and build, but to actively discuss, doubt, and provide solutions. For this reason, I engage in the societal debate at face-to-face meeting, online on Twitter and LinkedIn, do I enjoy writing columns and do I make episodes for my podcast ‘Bestek – the public procurement podcast’, which I started in January 2019. I hope to take research to the next level by openly discussing it with researchers and professionals in practice.

What are you working on, and why?

My research focusses on societally responsible insourcing and outsourcing. I question how we can craft public procurement rules that lead to the efficient and effective organization of public tasks in the Netherlands and the European Union. This focus involves research into anything from ICT services, the collection of household waste, to the maintenance of the Dutch diking system. How much space should public authorities accordingly have in the law to autonomously decide on the organization, performance and financing of those tasks?

Consequently, I am interested in related themes, such as the influence of EU public procurement law on the performance of public tasks by a public authority itself or in cooperation with other authorities, which was the topic of my PhD that I defended in 2018, and the stimulation of societal value through public procurement procedures, which includes issues related to social and green policy, social enterprises, right to challenge, and social entrepreneurship. 

Two research projects that I am particularly proud of are my dissertation and, more recently, my research into legal obligations - instead of possibilities - to procure sustainable and social outcomes. My dissertation proved that EU public procurement law does not only influence the outsourcing of public tasks via a public procurement procedure, but it also has a strong effect on the performance by a public authority itself or by cooperating authorities. How this influence exactly works was, however, unknown. Public authorities and market parties alike struggled with it in practice. It is often contrarily argued that there is either too much or too little discretionary power for public authorities within EU public procurement law to organise themselves and to deliver services for their own organization and citizens. In my dissertation I aimed to provide a greater understanding by offering the first comprehensive analysis of this issue, along with solution for current and future legal tensions. The most effective role of the law also returns in my research into legal obligations in public procurement law. At present, Dutch governments must ‘create as much societal value for their public means’ according to the Aanbestedingswet 2012 (Dutch Public Procurement Act 2012), but this turns out to be symbolic legislation. Public authorities can do more in practice to use public procurement as an instrument to achieve social and sustainable objectives. I research how obligations can be designed to ensure that this potential is used to fight against climate change and to create a just society. Shouldn’t all public procurement procedures result in sustainable outcomes?

What gets you out of bed every morning?

Currently, I get out of bed a bit earlier than normal due to the birth of our beautiful daughter in May. More than even I tend to start my day with a cup of coffee.

Is there something you appreciate in these changing circumstances?

I am impressed by the agility of many of my colleagues in this period, and appreciate their collaborative efforts more than ever. Online teaching asks a lot of us lecturers. Fortunately, our executive course Aanbestedingsrecht voor de Inkooppraktijk (Public procurement law for public procurement practice) has run partially online since 2017, meaning that we were able to use some the insights of this course for our student courses at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope this will eventually result in a better balance between online and offline education. An effective form of blended learning. More than once have I asked myself why a student had to travel two hours to come to a second thesis meeting, even though a video call would have suited just fine, or why I met twenty other academics abroad to discuss a research project when parts of it could have been done online. Online cooperation cannot replace offline meetings, but I can strengthen cooperation as a whole.

Which book would you recommend to everyone?

Academic work equals reading, re-reading, putting a piece of work down for a bit, and re-reading again. Each word counts. I remain picky, nonetheless. Unlimited access to literature demands choices. Outside my field of research, I have a particular liking for one specific type of literature; books in which academic knowledge is made accessible to a broader audience.

Unsurprisingly, I enjoy reading the works of journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell. He manages to connect research with current public debates and societal challenges without doing the fundamental research himself. A perfect example is his book ‘Outliers: the story of success’. Granted, his work is high-level and can be critiqued, but this is inherent to his writing style. He masters the art of narrative storytelling. This book makes you doubt how important talent is for success-stories. Turns out that talent alone is not everything; context is important. You will find out that your chance at playing in the Canadian professional ice-hockey league is also depicted by your date of birth. The recipe for all his books: crystal clear writing, imaginative thinking and thought-provoking.

Gladwell’s accessible and convincing writing style could teach us legal academics a thing or two as well. Inaccessible writing appears to have been ingrained in many of us legal scholars. However, if you truly understand a legal doctrine or the application of it, why not write about it in a clear and accessible manner? My shout-out to fellow lawyers and colleagues is to simply do just that. It leads to a clearer development of the law, and prevents unnecessary discussions about the law in practice.