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Guest lecture from Sander Dekker, Minister for Legal Protection, to CSM students

On Wednesday morning, 14 March, Sander Dekker, Minister for Legal Protection, gave a guest lecture to the students of the Master Crisis and Security Management as part of the course Crisis Management. Dr. Sanneke Kuipers presented propositions based on theory to Minister Dekker. After each proposition, students could ask questions which sometimes instigated a mini debate. “Crisis decisions are based on two considerations; Is it my responsibility? And, do people expect me to take responsibility?”

Proposition: “Acts of God no longer exist – a crisis always implies human culpability”  
“A crisis often raises questions on how the government responds instead of on the causes the crisis itself. It is the government responsibility to protect society from disasters. For instance in the Netherlands we know half of the country is below sea level, to prevent flooding, we build dikes. Governments seek to find a balance in their response when an incident happens. The balance in terms of compensating victims is based on both the level of expectation and the level of surprise. People can buy private insurance but, when they get hit by something they could not expect, the political pressure on government for some compensation is high.”

Proposition: Upcoming elections influence the accountability process after a crisis: the stakes are higher, resignations are more likely
“I’ll give you an example of a crisis that according to some people benefitted the VVD. Erdogan campaigned all over Europe about new legislation in Turkey. This resulted in a lot of political tension in The Hague and Rotterdam. The Minister of Family Affairs was coming to Rotterdam to personally campaign there, which could result in public order problems. The Mayor of Rotterdam decided to deny access to the Minister of Family Affairs and to escort her back to Germany. In spite of the risks, the situation was contained and did not escalate. The whole discussion of Erdogan fitted in a larger discussion on identity politics. If you manage a crisis really well and if it fits the larger debate, it can work positively.”

Student: What about bringing bad news in the face of elections?

“Bringing bad news is a matter of timing; personally, it would not influence my decision. That is a matter of integrity. When an election is coming up and you need to take a tough decision, the election would not have a substantial influence on my decision. In case of budget cuts and tax phrases, you may want to wait until after the election, but sometimes that is not possible. In politics, it is important to know if it an issue is a potential crisis. When there is a crisis, act immediately, if not ,postpone the decision with  one or several weeks.”

Proposition: Appearance, how to anticipate
“Appearance during a crisis response phase really matters. Sometimes, a terrible incident occurs and citizens just want to see leadership. I will give two examples, one in which appearance worked out positively and one where absence worked out negatively. During MH17, the Prime Minister was on vacation in Germany. After the plane was hit, the staff asked the Prime Minister to come back. He flew back immediately. His first statement was made within a couple of hours right. For many people it was important (beside his tone of voice) that he was in the country.

Another example is the demonstrations in the Schilderswijk; right wing versus Muslim fanatics. This was not a crisis a national level, but because it was Summer it became front-page news. Muslim fanatics were waving flags with IS-related and antisemitic phrases. Tensions in the neighborhood and the city increased. At that time, the Mayor was on holiday and he decided not to come back, because he said ‘everything is under control’. This turned out negative for the Mayor. Newspapers wrote about the demonstrations of the Schilderswijk, but the Mayor’s absence made the headlines. Whereas you could say he had a fair point, because everything was under control locally. However, appearances can make a difference. Decisions should be based on two levels; 1) is it my responsibility? 2) do people expect me to take responsibility?”

Proposition: Crisis can be an opportunity- never waste a good crisis
“Sometimes an incident can fit a political frame  and it can help to gain support for previously unpopular policy changes. You always try to look what fits and at the same time try not to overreact. Sometimes crises result in overreaction. A way to prevent that is by buying time. When something pop ups in the media, politicians try to buy time to investigate—dig up the facts, but also get the heat out of the discussion.”

Proposition: Political actors will only admit to a problem and take responsibility if problem denial and dodging responsibility no longer work
“I would be careful with that. In fact, many officials are not blamed for the fact that they did something wrong, but that they denied it for so long. Sometimes not the incident itself upsets citizens and parliament, but the response! It works better to admit what went wrong and then agree on a solution with each other. Public officials have a large political responsibility and in large organisations things can go wrong. It is particularly important to get the tone right. Maybe officials feel cornered and blamed, and therefore inclined to deny blame, while citizens and victims just want to see empathy. The discrepancy between the speed of public opinion and the pace of large organization is problematic. Public opinion goes fast. Sometimes the public gets angry about an incident, whereas the organization cannot identify that someone has been doing a bad job. Sometimes an incident was just exceptional bad luck. The pitfall of many politicians in crisis is that they cannot deal with the anger and quick judgment of the public.”

Proposition: Public inquiries after a crisis contribute to the diagnostic work of ‘truth telling’ rather than to the pressure on political sanctions and attributing culpability
“Depends on the case. For example during the Bijlmer disaster, a plane crashed in an apartment building, which resulted in many casualties. The plane had been an Israeli cargo flight; there were allegations to covering it up and so on. The inquiry mainly pertained to the response to the crisis, not to its technical causes. Plenty of reasons to issue a parliamentary inquiry. The inquiry did not have any consequences on a political or policy making level, but it did much good in closing the book for the public. The public inquiry was more about meaning making and debunking existing myths on what happened according to some”

Sander Dekker, Minister for Legal Protection

Crisis Management into practice

Student: how do you deal with working in an Ivory tower, a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world.
“You are absolutely right; this is a big risk for many politicians. My agenda is filled with meetings and discussions in parliament, so I need to carefully plan my visits ‘to the street’. I try to get on a field trip once a week, then I go to talk to street level bureaucrats, for instance guards in prisons (talk to people who open up the doors every day),  or to citizens who live near a recent crime scene to talk about their perception of safety.”

Student: what do you do with the information you get from the visits?
“I call this the fun part of my job; I confront my civil servants with the things I hear. Because the visits are not part of your formal schedule. If you make a formal visit, civil servants may like to hide the dodgy end of the city, or a messy part of the organization from you. They warn me: “Do not go there; people are angry with you”. However, I want to talk with the people who want to confront me, to know what upsets them and what we might need to change about certain situations.

Sanneke Kuipers: One concluding question, do we learn from crises and accountability? You said before that crises may result in overreaction, but does the Pendulum swing ever become smaller, so that it does not have to swing back?
“I am a bit skeptical about that, maybe the policy response to crises swings out even further. Media pressure and the political debate has changed over time. Nowadays the debate is more political and extreme, which could increase the risk of overreaction. Politicians get less time to react. This is not always good for the quality of decision making.”


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