As part of the 20th anniversary of Public Matters, we have developed a book which includes interviews with various public affairs experts. In the interviews they provide their views on lobbying and public affairs trends. The book will soon be presented, but in the meantime we will share several interviews via this website.
In this interview we spoke with Maarten Verboom, director of Dedicon, a foundation that creates solutions for people with a reading disability.
“Visual handicap or reading restriction, also the texts and pictures in this interview should be able to be read and ‘viewed’ by everyone”, Maarten believes. A man with a mission, who fights to draw attention to the importance of accessible information and to see it as something normal.
Why is public affairs important for Dedicon?
Dedicon creates solutions for people with a reading disability. We make information accessible that is not already accessible at its source. We must be able to perform our social task well. That means getting the right amount of subsidy and the right tasks from the government.
And speaking more idealistically, ideally all information should already be accessible at the source. This is something that we try to influence much more fundamentally in talks with the government bodies that subsidise us, including the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW). But also with the market parties who should feel responsible for making the information accessible at source. This can be supported by politics and clear legislation.
We are not an interest group like the Eye Association Netherlands (Oogvereniging) and the Unlimited Reading Association (Vereniging Onbeperkt Lezen). We do keep in close contact with them to make sure we support each other. We therefore speak on behalf of people with a reading disability, but not on their behalf. As a foundation, we have knowledge in a certain field. We know what people with reading disabilities need when it comes to accessibility of information. We then have to make sure that in the eyes of the grantor, we are not seen as a party who is peddling for an order or extra subsidy. What matters to us is that people with reading disabilities have unimpeded access to information. That is our mission, that is what we stand for. Public Affairs is one of the tools to get closer to that.
How does the cooperation with other interest groups go?
We are getting better at finding each other. This is easier in some areas than in others. Some organisations have a much broader scope than just the accessibility of information. Sometimes we have to search for the best person to talk to in an organisation. But the Unlimited Reading Association is of course much closer to our mission. So we only need to pick up the phone and we immediately have someone on the line who knows what it is about. In recent years we have been more successful in finding those contacts and in finding the right cooperation. For example, we have already written a few joint letters in the direction of politics or the government. We didn’t do that a few years ago.
Do your actions manage to get the attention of politicians?
It is not always easy to get attention from politicians. Many parties call for attention. And frankly, the interest we stand for is essential for the group of people concerned, but it is a relatively small group. I try to build up and maintain the network within politics.
We see that political attention for issues like ours is relatively low. Because the political force field is becoming quite polarised, we also see that attention is being paid to very specific issues – and that is certainly not our theme. Fortunately, I do see a lot of attention for the issues that we raise in what we now call the middle parties. SP (Socialist Party) and GroenLinks (Green Party) on the one hand, ChristenUnie (Christian Party) on the other, and everything in between, like CDA (Christian Democrats), VVD (Liberal Conservatives) and D66 (Liberal Democrats). We do have to get to know them. But they do pay attention and are interested in this story. They also want to stand up for it and they are open to what we bring up. It’s just that those parties are very much under pressure. Especially with the fragmentation in the House of Representatives, it is of course difficult.
Very small parties pay less attention to it. While I could probably get a hearing at some of these small parties. At the same time it remains difficult, because these are often parties that focus on a few issues. They often say: sorry, we mainly focus on other issues.
Do you also see results of the lobbying?
What I notice is a more general movement, also in Europe, that there is more attention for people with disabilities. It has become more central and self-evident that one works inclusively. That the ultimate solution does not lie in a special facility for people with disabilities. But that people with disabilities can participate in ordinary daily life just like everyone else.
There are many contributors to this. We are also active internationally and in contact with colleagues in Europe and around the world. At the level of the UN and the EU, legislation has been passed which has been implemented in most countries, including the Netherlands. That is essential, that it is anchored in legislation. Sometimes we can find fault with the way in which it is embedded. That is, that it is perhaps not clearly or strongly enough worded or the way in which it is enforced. We can argue about that, of course. But on the other hand, the fact that there is legislation is already very important.
Interest groups are more likely to be involved in such developments than a foundation like Dedicon. While we have a lot of knowledge in that field and also know how to do certain things in the best way. We have work to do there ourselves. To put it in a nasty way, we have to peddle our knowledge and expertise to get it into the heads of politicians. Make use of the organisations that have built up expertise in certain areas with public funds. Fortunately, this is improving. We are now advising OCW on the implementation of the European Accessibility Act where accessible ebooks are concerned.
‘It is sometimes thought too easily that the market will solve the problem’
How does digitisation affect your work and Public Affairs?
Technology, if properly applied, can be used to make more information accessible to people with reading disabilities. There is also a downside to this. If you don’t apply technology and don’t use it properly, the result is that you actually exclude a lot of people. The interest groups and politicians must be alert to this. In the past year, we have had a number of online appointments instead of meeting people in person. Certainly for shorter contacts that works fine. But on the other hand, it is certainly worthwhile and has absolute added value when the contacts take place at a physical location. Especially when a member of parliament comes to Dedicon to see what we do and how we do it. You can tell something online, but when you actually see and experience what we do, what kind of products we make, when you see how our target group uses them, that story speaks for itself much more. Now that many contacts take place online, you increasingly have to make your story concise and catchy enough for your audience. If you have online contact with a member of parliament, you are lucky if you get ten minutes. Your story has to be very clear.
How do you rate the relationship with the civil service?
A foundation such as Dedicon depends for a large part on government subsidy. We receive subsidy from OCW and the Royal Library. Especially when it comes to Public Affairs, we have to operate cautiously. It is a balancing act. We think something of legislation or we want politicians to regulate something better. This means that we sometimes send a message to politicians that is not in line with what the Ministry wants. This is sometimes difficult. We first try to reach an agreement with the ministry officials. Sometimes we then swallow the message. Sometimes we take it up with politicians after all, but then it is important to be open and transparent with the Ministry. Sometimes you also have a common interest with the politicians. If, for example, certain legislation is not clear enough, even for a ministry, we can ask politicians to clarify it, so that everyone knows where they stand. That is certainly appreciated, especially if you are open about it.
What development do you expect for the future in your Public Affairs work?
I see that politicians are returning to market thinking. The idea that the market can and should solve it. The problem is that the market may be able to solve it in theory, but in practice it is more difficult to achieve. The will is there, but the possibilities must also be there. It is sometimes thought too easily that the market will solve it. Politicians are now coming back to this, certainly in the case of larger issues such as healthcare. I hope that this realisation will also be felt in our field. The market cannot always solve problems and is often not the most appropriate tool. As a government, you are responsible for ensuring that people with a reading disability have unimpeded access to information, just like everyone else.
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Public Matters is a leading public affairs & lobby consultancy in the Netherlands and Brussels – supporting organisations that seek to influence policy and engage in strategic communications.