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Alumni still meeting, but then online

Masterclasses, network meetings and coaching cafés: the Alumni Office was offering a whole range of activities every month for the University’s alumni. Until coronavirus broke out, that is. The Leiden Alumni Webinars mean that alumni can still meet and share their knowledge with interesting speakers. On 11 June, Zeger van der Wal, Endowed Professor of Public Administration, gave an online lecture on the public servant in the 21st century.

It’s not that different from the Alumni Masterclasses that were held before the corona outbreak: one or two researchers from Leiden University give a lecture of around an hour about their discipline, sometimes together with alumni who work in that field. Afterwards the audience can ask any questions. The main difference is that the lecture is now online and you use the chat function to ask your questions. Hanneke Wiessing from the Alumni Office says, ‘When the corona crisis took hold, we were forced to cancel our masterclasses, which we usually offer three times a year. So we started looking for alternatives.’ They soon came up with the idea of the Leiden Alumni Webinars, she says: ‘The technology, in this case Kaltura, is now widely available and people are used to seeing professors give lectures in their own homes.’

The public servant in the 21st century

Wiessing is moderating the webinar on 11 June, where Endowed Professor of Public Administration Zeger van der Wal will speak about the public servant in the 21st century. Over 100 alumni have registered for the online lecture and they start to trickle into the Kaltura ‘Live Room’. Van der Wal begins his lecture by looking at the past. ‘If we want to talk about public servants in the 21st century, that would suggest that their approach should differ in some way from in the 20th century.’ That’s most certainly the case, particularly because the world in which public organisations find themselves has changed so dramatically. Van der Wal: ‘The world was much slower and the outside world much less informed than the organisations themselves.’ Van der Wal has a number of quotes from top civil servants in those days: ‘We could shape society from our offices. There was more deference and respect for government.’ 

Professor Zeger van der Wal ready to start his webinar for alumni.
Professor Zeger van der Wal ready to start his webinar for alumni.

Returning to the present day, Van der Wal can see a number of ‘megatrends’ in society that are having a huge effect on public organisations. The main ones, he says, are the networked society – how everything is interlinked – and what he calls ‘great expectations’. ‘A higher level of education and greater individualism means that people have increasingly high expectations of government. They expect it to innovate just as quickly as, say, Google or Apple.’

Reactions galore in the chat

The discussions in the chat window reveal that the participants are mainly alumni who themselves are public servants: they share work experiences that relate to Van der Wal’s talk and ask relevant questions. And where a murmur of agreement would normally sound from the room, this agreement is now visible in the chat. ‘That sounds so familiar!’ writes one of the participants as Van der Wal explains how, now we are retiring later, we have to work with colleagues from four different generations. That has its advantages, but can also be a bit of a challenge.

‘If you view the 20th-century public servant as version 1.0,’ says Van der Wal, ‘then we’ve now reached version 3.0 already.’ The development went from rule-focused, top-down approach; to result-focused, more commercial approach; to network-driven, connecting approach. Should the 20th-century approach be ditched? ‘Definitely not,’ says Van der Wal. ‘As a public servant, you really need to have mastered all three working styles, so that you can switch and choose the right approach for the situation. Take the corona crisis measures: a top-down approach from government is a much better fit.’

Jack of all trades

It would seem that a public servant has to be a jack of all trades – but then a master of all trades too. Van der Wal therefore suggests trying to ensure that the relevant skills are present in your team rather than in a single person. ‘That’s why diversity, in various respects, is so important in your team.’

At the end of the lecture Van der Wal takes the time to answer questions. Some have already been asked during the lecture and he returns to these now. But lots of new questions flood in, for instance why government IT projects are so often unsuccessful and whether today’s degree programmes teach public-administration students the skills they need to become future-proof public servant. Van der Wal could carry on talking for hours, he says to his digital audience, but unfortunately the time is up.

Positive reactions

‘I really enjoyed doing it,’ Van der Wal says afterwards. ‘And I was really surprised by how many participants there were! I’ve been giving daily webinars all around the world for months now and although it’s not “the real thing”, you can still create really great interactive sessions if you stick to the point and leave enough time for questions. And there were plenty of those today.’ 

Online webinars are easier for people too, says Wiessing. ‘All you have to do is sit down at your computer, which is nice for people who don’t live in Leiden or The Hague and for people who want to dip in and out during their working day. Quite a lot of people left the lecture saying “Thanks, but have to go to the next video call.”’

Wiessing thinks the Leiden Alumni Webinars have been a success so far – and from their reactions the alumni agree. ‘Obviously it’s different and you miss chatting to people beforehand or catching up with old classmates afterwards,’ Wiessing says. ‘But it’s nice to be able to bring our alumni in contact with the knowledge that we have at the University once again.’

The next Leiden Alumni Webinar is scheduled for 25 June: Workplace stress in a time of corona (in Dutch), by psychologist Margot van der Doef.

Text: Marieke Epping
Photos: Zeger van der Wal/Leiden University

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