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Successful Debt Counselling Requires Cooperation

More and more Dutch citizens are having to cope with debts at one time or other during their lives. Which is why the issue of debt counselling was selected as the central theme for the Leiden Leadership Lunch on Friday 27 September 2019.

Daan Hoefsmit and Jelmer Schalk shared their insights on the issue. Daan Hoefsmit is the former chairman of the board at the government institute CAK and programme director debt problems and digital inclusion at the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. Jelmer Schalk is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Public Administration.

During his presentation, Hoefsmit highlighted several important developments in the way debts are perceived. Until recently, the government was of the opinion that people 'should be in charge of their own lives', but these days there has been a shift towards the perception that although people should be in charge, not everyone is capable of doing so. Which has great implications for the way in which debt counselling services are organised. It not only means that we have to look at the best way to get people out of debt but also look at at ways to prevent debts. This change in perception also means that we should not only look at the citizens as 'debtors' themselves when it comes to debts but also at the role the government is currently playing when it comes to debt counselling.

Complexity of debt counselling services

What makes debt counselling even more complicated is the fact that, for various reasons, it is inevitable for organisations to have to cooperate with each other. First of all because of the information about citizens who are faced with debts. Hoefsmit indicated that many citizens who are burdened with debts are not registered with the government. It is quite common for municipalities to keep tabs on certain citizens while, for instance, the CAK or the Sociale Verzekeringsbank, examples of large administrative organisations, are keeping tabs on others. The exchange of information between these types of organisations is bound by all sorts of legislation and regulations such as the GDPR, and as a result organisations need to cooperate closely to be able to share relevant information. The second reason is that debts are rarely the only problem, they go often hand in hand with health issues for instance. Which means that citizens faced with debts are having to deal with a multitude of organisations, and those organisations are often not aware that they are dealing with the same person. Thirdly, Hoefsmit argued, it is important to realise that approximately 60% of al debts are owed to the government and as a result governmental organisations have a dual role when it comes to debt. On the hand are they the cause of a lot of debts while on the other hand they are an important player in remedying and preventing citizens' debts.


Dr. Jelmer Schalk was able to point out which factors are likely to enable successful cooperation between organisations based on his research in the social domain. During his presentation Hoefsmit pointed out the government's double role when it came to debt counselling services. Schalk was able to provide additional insights and pointed out how important it is for organisations to think carefully on how to make sure they are not working on the same debt counselling cases when looking for ways to cooperate which each other. Or, how to best share information by using the proper channels while managing to avoid that the same tasks are being carried out at the same time by different organisations. Organisations need to be able to trust each other in order to cooperate successfully. This is were public leadership comes into play. Leadership plays an important role on different levels within the organisation. When cooperation is required, professionals need to know who to contact within other organisations. During these exchanges it is important that they do not loose sight of their own organisation but they are also increasingly being asked to think about, for instance, the best way to refer citizens to other organisations. Managers are also being asked to display leadership, for instance by looking beyond their own organisational boundaries and by actively looking for ways to cooperate with organisations within both the public and private domain. Which means that leadership should be about connecting organisations and looking for a common ground as basis for cooperation.


A good example of successful cooperation between a large number of different organisations in debt counselling can be found in at Schuldenlab070 in The Hague. Several projects working to both prevent and remedy debts have been brought together under one roof. Public organisations and corporate organisations, such as banks for instance, are working together as part of this programme. Although organisations may sometimes have different individual goals, they are trying to join forces in this collaboration to achieve a common goal: to make The Hague debt-free. Similar initiatives can increasingly be found throughout the Netherlands.

Debts cost society a lot of money and have a huge impact on the lives of citizens. Hoefsmit and Schalk demonstrated that in order to tackle this complex and invasive challenge cooperation and connecting leadership are essential.

Text: Eduard Schmidt

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