Suddenly officials found that getting things done quickly was more possible than they had previously thought
Note to readers: because this sample size is smaller than that of other countries, we have removed it from overall comparisons in the main report, but still felt it useful to include and discuss the findings
A majority (72%) of Dutch respondents agreed that their organisation excels at learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen and end-user needs, but only half of the Dutch leaders agreed with this statement – a lower proportion than among leaders in any other country.
The Dutch generally believed that being able to adapt to change is part of their long-term strategy, with 83% of leaders and a similar proportion in the wider group strongly agreeing.
However, they were not confident that in the three years before the pandemic, they were able to speed up delivery of their activities – only 7% of the total group agreed with this, and one-third of leaders disagreed entirely. In fact, their aggregate weighted scores across all statements relating to their ability to move at pace were comparatively low – only the UK scored lower.
That said, Dutch leaders were generally satisfied with their organisation’s Covid response, with 83% strongly agreeing that adapting to change has helped to develop significant capabilities that were not present three years prior to the pandemic.
Statistics compiled by data-aggregating website Worldometer show that, while the Netherlands recorded the ninth highest number of coronavirus cases across Europe (1.8 million) by the end of July 2021, its deaths per million people was 33rd highest – the best outcome of all the larger European nations.
And, in a report in June 2021, the OECD wrote that the pandemic “has dealt a historic blow to the Netherlands’ economy, but a swift policy response, effective support to people and firms, and a workforce with comparatively strong digital skills have helped the country to weather the crisis relatively well”.
Ernst Brand, public sector expert at PA Consulting, contends that the Dutch civil service responded well to the pandemic in spite of numerous structural barriers, including a highly fragmented political landscape – 18 parties are currently represented in the Dutch parliament – and a very traditional mindset among many leaders on IT.
“Whereas ‘digital unless’ is the policy in Denmark, in the Netherlands the grand principle is ‘public service for everyone’,” Brand explains. “So everyone, even people who have no digital abilities, should be able to use government services in a way that is most suitable for them. Which is expensive – and difficult. Because it’s not only the technology that needs to be differentiated but also the way individual civil servants need to identify how to engage with individual citizens. And that complexity makes it more difficult to be responsive.”
In addition, many senior officials in the Netherlands tend to view IT as a cost item and adopt an approach of “repair when broken” rather than “invest before it breaks”, he says.
Brand’s comments were borne out in Dutch leaders’ responses to the statement that digital is embedded in the development of new policy and services – there was zero agreement with this from leaders, and only one-third agreed that the technology we require for effective collaboration and solution delivery is available or can be developed in time to support our requirements (see Figure 27).
However, with complexity comes opportunity, and Brand says that the urgency of the pandemic made it necessary to make choices about best solutions and, suddenly, officials found that getting things done quickly was more possible than they had previously thought.
“It wasn’t only activities that are directly related to Covid, such as vaccination programmes, but also many activities that were indirectly related, such as the economic stimulation or financial help for companies. These required gigantic organisation of super-urgent initiatives involving lots of organisations but they worked out – they were successful.”
However, Brand adds that a lot of correction work now needs to take place, because improvised solutions that were created at speed now need to be dismantled or integrated into existing systems.
On issues relating to leadership, staff empowerment and autonomy, and risk appetite, senior managers and non-managers were more positive than their leaders. This was particularly apparent on operational decisions made by unit heads/senior managers are always explained and understood by the teams affected by them; 33% of leaders agreed somewhat with this but agreement among the whole Dutch sample was 57%.
There was more confidence around using evidence and user feedback to solve problems – 57% of the wider group said their organisation’s activities are strongly driven by data and 64% agreed that their organisation uses citizen or end-user input to form policy and implementation solutions.
There is a healthy culture of risk-taking, with not a single respondent disagreeing that experimentation is made possible, and proactively encouraged or that staff are rewarded for pursuing opportunities for positive change, even if there is risk of failure. However, only one-third of the leaders agreed that people are given dedicated time to pursue new ideas and solutions, with half disagreeing.