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‘A politician doesn’t always have to hold the moral high ground’

Politicians, public servants and administrators are increasingly expected to be holier than the Pope. This is not necessarily a positive development, in the view of Leiden University lecturer Toon Kerkhoff, who has studied dozens of integrity issues.

‘It’s not possible to act with a little bit of integrity,’ is a well-known saying of Ien Dales, the former Dutch Labour Party minister. In other words: you’re either completely ethical or not at all. But lecturer Toon Kerkhoff has come to a different conclusion: there is indeed a grey area of integrity. In fact, many politicians, public servants and administrators will sooner or later encounter situations where it’s not at all easy to draw the dividing line between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Moreover, opinions about what constitutes integrity are constantly changing.

Private is becoming public

Kerkhoff has come to this conclusion after writing a book, together with his colleague Patrick Overeem (VU Amsterdam), about numerous integrity issues that have arisen in the Netherlands since 1945. In their report In opspraak: leren van integriteitskwesties (Discredited: Learning from integrity affairs) they combine not only recent cases, such as those of mayor Onno Hoes and former provincial executive member Ton Hooijmaijers (both of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy VVD), but also older issues, such as the notorious ‘pilots affair’ from 1966, in which 98 public servants were convicted of fraud at the same time: a national record that still stands today.

A particularly striking development, for example, is that private matters are now increasingly viewed as public issues. Public officials are no longer accountable just for what they do in their working time, but also for how they spend their evenings. The meaning of ‘the public interest’ has been stretched, as it were, to the point where almost all activities reflect on a politician’s reputation.

Toon Kerkhoff

Taking it too far

‘In 2004 there was a scandal about Rob Oudkerk (Labour Party), who was then an executive councillor in Amsterdam, because he allegedly took cocaine in his private time, among other things,’ says Kerkhoff. ‘Although it led to his resignation, many Dutch people at that time thought it was a personal issue. It seems that in the meantime our attitude has become much more hard-line. For instance, Onno Hoes’s extramarital affair was widely reported in the media, even though it was very clearly a personal matter.’

But surely the conduct of politicians, public servants and administrators must be beyond reproach? Kerkhoff: ‘Of course, but you can also take it too far. For example, the prime minister Mark Rutte (VVD) no longer claims for any expenses at all, to avoid any fuss about them. I don’t know whether that’s a positive development, because disclosure of expense claims makes it easier to check what the government is doing.’ Kerkhoff and Overeem believe that it’s more important for people to be aware of social developments, and to constantly adjust their actions to stay in line with them.

Off-putting
 

Another consequence is that newcomers to the public domain are put off by the growing focus on integrity, sometimes known as ‘integritism’. Kerkhoff regularly speaks with prospective councillors and executive councillors in local authorities who refuse a public position because they’re afraid they will end up facing integrity issues. Kerkhoff: ‘It’s now almost impossible not to be confronted with them, especially since the number of links between public and private is growing so fast. For instance, suppose a big company in your region invites you to a tennis tournament. It’s important for your network as an executive councillor. At the same time, it might look as if you’re being ‘wined and dined’ by that company. What do you do in a case like that? It’s often difficult to see what the right decision is.’

As a result, many people in public service will end up in the grey twilight zone of integrity. It’s simply not possible to always hold the ‘moral high ground’, in Kerkhoff’s opinion, because it would stop you from doing your job properly or because you can’t always escape from difficult ethical choices. Even though that’s increasingly what our society expects.

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