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Integrity in public administration – steps forward and challenges ahead

05-06-2023

Last month, it became clear that Minister Bruins Slot of the Ministry of the Interior will not establish a lobbying register for government officials, despite the widely supported desire and multiple motions from the House of Representatives. This decision drew significant criticism during her debate with the House last month. Additionally, in recent years, the Netherlands has received various international reprimands regarding its integrity policies, such as from the European corruption watchdog, GRECO, which will conduct a new evaluation round this year.

The debate on lobbying regulation is part of a broader discussion: the integrity of public administration has increasingly gained prominence on the political agenda in recent years. In this blog, we will explore why this is the case, the developments so far, and what we can expect in the near future.

Integrity policy in the Netherlands falls short

Data from Statistics Netherlands (CBS) indicates that public trust in the House of Representatives, politicians, and civil servants has declined in recent years. Society and politics have expressed a need for better integrity policies in public administration as a means to increase trust.

In 2019, GRECO, the Council of Europe’s corruption watchdog, assessed the Dutch integrity system as significantly inadequate. Among the eight countries examined, no country received a failing grade on all seven points, except the Netherlands. The country scored worse than countries like Poland, Malta, and North Macedonia. Two years later, GRECO concluded that little progress had been made on this issue. As a result, the government introduced new integrity policies for former government officials at the end of 2021, including more extensive rules regarding lobbying, a “revolving door” prohibition, and a mandatory cooling-off period. Despite criticism from Members of Parliament and civil society organizations, including Transparency International, these proposals marked a turning point in the ongoing discussion.

Furthermore, in late 2022, Minister Bruins Slot published a new code of conduct for government officials, which includes rules regarding secondary activities, gifts, and future roles. She also introduced annual integrity training and discussions for cabinet members and established a confidential advisor for individual advice on integrity issues. By the end of 2022, the Minister of the Interior submitted a progress report on all the measures taken to GRECO in the context of the upcoming evaluation round scheduled for this year.

Behavior over rules?

However, due to legal grounds, a supervision and enforcement mechanism for the code of conduct has yet to be established, much to the dissatisfaction of the House of Representatives. According to the Minister, it is not solely about rules but rather about behavior. She emphasized this point in a note sent to the House of Representatives last month. The note emphasizes the importance of robust and clear integrity rules as an “indispensable foundation for public administration.” The Minister aims to provide clarification, refinement, and better alignment of the numerous rules, which are currently documented in manuals, codes of conduct, and statutory regulations.

The Minister also stated that a lobbying register would not be introduced since clear definition of a “lobbyist” would be very difficult to establish. Based on scientific advice received, the Minister argued that implementing a lobbying register similar to the Irish model would be undesirable due to the difficulties in defining a “lobbyist.” A too specific definition could create barriers for (organized) citizens to access the government, while a limited definition could encourage anticipatory behavior that keeps certain contacts outside of the books.

Emotional debate

On May 9, the House of Representatives debated the government’s vision and developments regarding integrity. Emotions ran high during the debate, with Members of Parliament being highly critical, especially of the decision not to introduce a lobbying register. The Minister had previously received a clear instruction from the House, supported by coalition parties D66, CDA, and ChristenUnie, through the widely supported motion Dassen: introduce a lobbying register, preferably based on the Irish model. Members of Parliament were not satisfied with the explanation that defining a “lobbyist” is challenging. MP Pieter Omtzigt expressed his frustration during the debate and even offered to translate a definition himself for the government.

During the debate, the Minister did emphasize her commitment to the ‘spirit of the motion’ by increasing transparency regarding the contacts and agendas of government officials. The Minister has promised to provide an update on the progress of these measures to the House in early 2024. However, this led to further misunderstanding among Members of Parliament. They argued that having a lobbying register does not exclude the existence of public agendas.

Furthermore, last week, the House of Representatives voted against a motion from Renske Leijten (SP) that advocated for introducing a cooling-off period not only for government officials but also for Members of Parliament themselves. This motion could have been an interesting addition to the current policies since the House has shown little willingness to regulate itself in this area. After all, shouldn’t the principle of “equal treatment” apply here as well?

Looking ahead

Despite the discussions in the House, the Netherlands has taken several steps in the past year regarding integrity policies. Based on the progress information, GRECO will prepare another compliance report expected to be released on June 10. Additionally, due to the intense debates in the recent committee meeting, the Minister has pledged to send an additional letter to the House before the summer, providing further clarification on three key issues: 1) the decision whether or not to introduce a supervision or enforcement mechanism, 2) the decision not to implement a lobbying register based on the Irish model, and 3) how the Minister intends to address the widely supported motion regarding the lobbying register.

Clear and enforceable integrity rules are essential to increase public trust in public administration. It is important that this discussion continues, and the government takes steps forward. However, the debate on this matter is far from settled: the House of Representatives, as well as civil society organizations and the general public, are not yet convinced. For Public Matters, this is an important discussion that we closely follow. As a preliminary conclusion, it is encouraging to see meaningful discussions on this topic, but there is room for improvement in all aspects.

"Society and politics have expressed a need for better integrity policies in public administration as a means to increase trust."

Paul Schrama

Account Executive

+31 (0)70 304 6499

Bart Hendriks

Senior Account Executive

+31 (0)70 304 6499

Public matters

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