Former privacy officer: there is a culture of detention in government

The meeting at the police headquarters has just ended when Ben van Hoek starts talking to a colleague. The man says he worked in the Ministry of Justice and Security. Van Hoek also presents himself: he coordinated the Wob requests with the police for years. “The Wob?” – laughs the official. Through this publicity law, journalists try to obtain all kinds of internal information, he says. But this official does not cooperate. “Sometimes you forget a document, not true.”

This is typical of how large sections of the government think about transparency, Van Hoek says of his anecdote. According to the Wob lawyer, there is a “large-scale obstruction” of the law that determines the nature of public information.

Since the Supplementary Case, where information that was harmful to the tax authorities was withheld, the demand for a more transparent government has grown. Last month, Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD) got into trouble because he deleted almost all of his text messages so they could no longer be retrieved. This is in line with the working methods of the ministers and the municipalities, says Van Hoek. “There is a culture of restraint.”

Ben van Hoek (65) was the data protection officer in the police leadership until the end of April. He monitored compliance with privacy rules. He retired last month after 44 years in the police force. He is participating in this interview because he wants the government to become more transparent.

Before Van Hoek became privacy manager, he worked on large-scale investigations. For the National Criminal Investigation Department, he coordinated an investigation into the IRT case, an infiltration process that went awry in the 1990s, with police themselves dealing in drugs. He was investigating building fraud and fraud in Rotterdam City Hall when former mayor Bram Peper was suspected of having paid private expenses of the municipality.

Resistance

In 2010, Van Hoek joined the police legal department. From that moment on, he coordinated compliance with the Wob – which has since been transferred to the Open Government Act (Woo). Citizens and journalists can, in principle, requisition all government documents by invoking this law, unless there are good reasons to keep it secret. Politically Sensitive Wob Requests Submitted to Police Passed Van Hoek.

Within police units, there was opposition to publishing documents, he says. “Sometimes it was because they did not want anything to come up, but in the vast majority of cases because they were afraid of the work of finding documents. They preferred to spend that time catching villains. ”

Van Hoek visited all units to explain to managers that they should not see Wob as extra work. “It is part of being accountable to the police. It’s part of our job. “The police will also benefit from it,” Van Hoek said. saving the police tens of thousands of euros. ”

If employees continued to refuse to provide Wob documents, Van Hoek switched to another method. He asked employees to sign a letter stating that the information requested was not in their possession. “Then those documents would be in my mailbox the same day.”

While the corps leadership supported him, Van Hoek experienced resistance outside the police organization. To his surprise, especially in ministries or municipalities, there was open discussion about the frustration of Wob requests and the ‘loss’ of sensitive documents.

He first experienced this during a consultation in the Ministry of Justice and Security. RTL News filed a Wob request in 2018 in connection with the shooting down of MH17. “It was documents that were present at various ministries and police – that’s why I went to that meeting. It was clear that many documents had not been delivered. A top official from the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management made it clear during the hearing that we should not look for more documents. “This is it,” he said. Everyone at the table knew: We are being cheated. ”

But no one intervened, says Van Hoek. Why did he not do something himself? “The police delivered everything. I had nothing to say about the ministries. ”

bonfire

Another example took place in The Hague. In 2019, there was a Wob request from RTL by the Hague police about the bonfires in Scheveningen that had gone out of control. The unit found a document that was burdensome for then-Mayor Pauline Krikke: She should have known the fire could run out of control.

Van Hoek, now national Wob coordinator, had to resolve the situation. He consulted with officials from The Hague municipality. “During that meeting, one of the officials suggested pretending that the play did not exist.” You do not have to say you have that document, do you? “He said. I made it so clear to him that this is not how we work. That a senior official suggests this says a lot about the culture there. ”

Van Hoek advised the police to publish the document in question. He was not involved in the further processing of the Wob request. It subsequently turned out that the device manager had deleted all his apps about the bonfires. Krikke resigned in the fall of 2019 due to his role at the bonfires.

Recently, Van Hoek heard from his last position as data protection officer about a municipality that withheld information. During the shutdown during the corona pandemic, camera cars drove around Rotterdam and filmed residents who did not comply with the corona rules, such as the one and a half meter rule. The Dutch Data Protection Authority (AP) launched an investigation and concluded that the filming municipal cars violated the law: the violation of privacy was too great.

The AP wanted to publish the results of the survey at the end of last year to warn other municipalities that were planning the same. After consultation with Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb (PvdA), police have not given permission for early publication. As a result, the supervision first had to start a longer process, where, among other things, the size of the fine must be determined. As a result, the report is still not public, but it has been viewed by NRC

“Aboutaleb was trying to delay the investigation,” Van Hoek said. “In a meeting with police, he said the publication of the report should be postponed beyond the election.”

Internal mail traffic confirms his story. “Mayor proposes to raise it about the election,” a report from the Triangle meeting on whether police should agree to the publication of the report.

This review was withheld by police in an earlier Wob request from NRC† An ‘incorrect assessment’ has been made in this connection, the Rotterdam police unit now informs. According to police, the content of her own report is incorrect. Not Aboutaleb, but the chief of police would have said during the consultation that the postponement means that the report can only be considered in the new city council – after the election. Aboutaleb himself does not want to answer questions.

According to Van Hoek, the event shows how municipal authorities handle transparency. “Preventing a publication because it is not convenient for the election is not a motive that fits into a well-functioning democracy.”

The government is not complying with its own rules on transparency, he says. This undermines the authority and reliability of public administration. “Why should citizens still obey the law if the government does not do it itself?”

Take Prime Minister Rutte’s recent comments about deleting his text messages, Van Hoek said. “Some of it may have been private, but there were guaranteed messages of political decision-making. Although such a text only shows that the Prime Minister was informed of an issue, that information must be kept by law. ” Route gives the wrong signal, he believes. If the Prime Minister throws too much away, officials will also destroy information faster in the event of a sensitive Wob request. ‘The amendment of the law is thus further normalized. It is disastrous for trust in the government. ”

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