Statement | Politics has been watered down and the presidency has lost its way

As a former member of the presidency, led by Wim Deetman (CDA), I followed the soap opera surrounding Khadija Arib (PvdA) with increasing astonishment. The fact that a dry-eyed president summons the national counsel if she does not know what to do, and then announces an investigation into the functioning of his predecessor, is a sign of the loss of understanding of the different roles: politicians and civil servants.

Let me be brief: I believe that Arib has stepped on many toes as chairman and has sometimes directly insulted officials. NRC have researched it thoroughly so it must be true. Moreover, all the politicians who were publicly seen as strong actors and instilled authority made a lot of mess internally. Imagine the party leaders Joop den Uyl (PvdA) or Frits Bolkestein (VVD) as chairman of the presidium, and you immediately see the waste behind the famous backs.

Many of them have worn out quite a few employees, and the stories of night shifts, erratic behavior, growling and snarling were not out of the question. Was it normal? Yes, often yes, but everyone knew that and you managed that, even the staff of the House of Representatives who came to cry with other MPs because you sometimes sat and drank coffee or went to Nieuwspoort to talk to journalists, which then nothing leaked, because sometimes there was news that was important.

Loyal

The deeper background to that culture was the belief that politicians have a different, often slightly explosive, role to play and that civil servants should contribute loyally, just like group employees. Even the leaders knew that and therefore there was always a vice-chairman you could turn to if the leader had gone off track with his snarls and growls at night and on the tide. Just think of Ed van Thijn (PvdA), also known as Joop den Uyl’s squire.

For example, there was a clear balance where contact with civil servants was reserved for the more sophisticated MPs and staff, who then translated the result to the leader at the right time and only if necessary. Because by definition he didn’t care much for official obstacles. Or as my former colleague Joop Wolff (CPN) put it: “In the heat of battle, sometimes a window breaks or a tree falls. That’s part of it!”

Politicians are by definition not suitable as leaders. And the other way around

The turnaround started in the 1990s, when suddenly – also within GroenLinks – the phenomenon of performance interviews was introduced to members of parliament. I did not understand it. You are not employed by the party chairman! A Member of Parliament is elected by his or her constituents, and you must answer to the constituents.

But the officialization, including the writing of official documents, was unstoppable and with it the dilution of what politics actually is and should be, such as connecting with the electorate, providing direction on major social issues, or standing up for interests against the government.

Also read: Under the recognized chamber president Khadija Arib, one official broke after another

The uproar around Arib shows how far politics has been watered down and how much the presidency itself and not just the chairman has gone astray. The role reversal is terrifying.

After all, officials who feel unsafe must be able to contact the registrar and his organization. It is their employer. Not the presidency. And if it fails – or the clerk quits – then there is the complaints procedure, the trade union movement, the work council or an independent committee.

Power

If none of this works – and according to the story in the NRC it does – then the clerk should not resign, but act and, if necessary, enforce a safe working environment with the Bureau. As an employer, the judge can initiate an investigation – if necessary by the State Attorney, although I do not understand why this is necessary. Under no circumstances is the chairman of the board who is not an employer. She is not in a position to commission any research into the working climate of civil servants, except into the functioning of the Bureau itself, and that does not seem to me to be a superfluous idea.

The only conclusion that should be drawn: Clarify political roles and don’t let politicians lead civil servants. That distinction is not new. In ministries, this is done by the secretary-general, the highest-ranking civil servant, who often clashes with the minister and defends his officials against politicians who do not always respect working hours or civility standards.

Is the clerk in the House of Representatives overburdened? Then an attorney, solely for personnel matters, is perhaps not an unnecessary luxury. And furthermore, it must again be absolutely clear what politics really is. Strengthening the political role, it has been noted before. And keeps politicians at a great distance from personnel policy. If they like it, they should not go into politics.

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