Dutch National Ombudsman discusses EU complexity

… but does he really know how to address it?

portret_a._brenninkmeijer_4Alex Brenninkmeijer         ….has been the Dutch National Ombudsman from 2005 to 2013, when he became the Dutch member of the EU Court of Auditors in Luxemburg, where he oversees auditing expenditures on research and innovation. On 20 September 2015 he was interviewed by star presenter Paul Witteman in the political programme ‘Buitenhof’ (meaning ‘outer court’ in Dutch as opposed to the ‘inner court’ or ‘Binnenhof’, located in The Hague, which has been the seat of government since around 1200 AD). In this interview Brenninkmeijer candidly discusses fundamental issues in Dutch national and European administration. The question I want to raise in this blog post is whether there is any sign in this interview that he knows how complexity could be handled systemically to prevent some of the problems he mentions. You can see the interview here (forward to minute 40 or so).

‘Guardians’ of the EU finances     ….  is the slogan of the European Court of Auditors. I am convinced the EU could play a wonderful role in harmonizing European politics, promoting economic development in the EU and beyond, equitably and democratically, and building a safer, happier world generally, but Brenninkmeijer does little to support that belief. He finds that EU expenditures lack effectiveness, simply because funds are misdirected as a result of national egotism of the ‘I want my money back’ variety. Culprits include France, Poland and Spain. As a result the EU fails to address extremely urgent issues with regard to the environment (global warming), energy (oil dependency), and security (Syria, Lybia). It would appear that the EU Court of Auditors is a far cry from a guardian of the EU finances, except perhaps in the sense that it more or less knows what the money is misspent on. What is more, there is no sign that this is going to change any time soon. Perhaps the EU is too complex to handle complexity? So, is there anything Brenninkmeijer could do apart from resigning? (See below).


Maladministration      … is the subject matter of a National Ombudsman. If a democratically elected national government has the best interest of the people in mind, than how does maladministration come about? According to Brenninkmeijer the main problem is that the government is overly concerned with setting financial priorities and ignores the problems of implementation. For a person, who has read three books by C. West Churchman on the systems approach, this sounds both overly obvious and idiotic. Implementation is a key category in Churchman’s heuristic for systemic intervention design and inquiry. In ‘The systems approach and its enemies’ he writes that “Implementation means the transformation into action of an intellectually conceived but partially incorrect plan.” So, maladministration and intransparency are integral aspects of government, which it has to deal with squarely and fairly. There are at least two basic problems: 1. citizens become victims of maladministration; and 2. the plan may turn critical. The first is followed up by the Ombudsman, the second by parliament.

Parliament poses a threat       Opposition parties love it when government plans result in a crisis. So governments will do everything in their power to mitigate such a threat. This is totally opposite to what they should do, namely consider implementation problems as opportunities and connect with the citizens it must serve. Brenninkmeijer emphasizes that one way of democratic institutional innovations for national governments to connect with its citizens is by empowering local government. Here he starts sounding like a decentralization buff, which is in fact a rather funny position to be in for an EU ‘bureaucrat’. However, decentralization and local governance are one of the very few more or less clear ways for connecting with citizens. It is not surprising then that various forms of decentralization are being tried in almost every country in the world.

Where does complexity come in?    It all starts with the complexity of reality, at the national, local and individual level. Complexities differ between these levels, which in turn compounds complexity as a whole: the requirements at the local level are not the same as those at national level. I will not dwell any further on the nature of this complexity, as it is obvious to all and everybody who has read a decent newspaper. I also refer to earlier blog posts on so-called ‘wicked problems,’ which I insist are not the sole domain of government. Administration tries to get to grips with this complexity, but – wittingly or unwittingly – botches it, producing intransparency and arbitrariness. These two effects could be resolved locally, yet experience shows time and again that it doesn’t. In most – if not all – cases it pays (for governments) to maintain as much intransparency and arbitrariness as possible, in spite of efforts in the hierarchy to the contrary.

Could the systems approach help?     If Brenninkmeijer is a decentralization buff, then I am probably a systems approach buff. The systems approach can do two things: inquiry and design. For those of you who have no clear idea what the systems approach means, let it suffice to say that it is an approach of systems as a whole to address wicked problems. Since Descartes we are used to looking at parts of a problem rather than looking at problems as a whole, so most of us (i.e. the near totality of humanity, including legislators) don’t know how to apply a ‘systems approach’ systematically, even though we may have some degree of systemic sensibility. In my view the systems approach, systematically applied and involving key actors, can learn from and address the complexities governments are dealing with, especially when issues of innovation and sustainability are concerned, two key aspects of concern as Brenninkmeijer rightfully notices.

What can Brenninkmeijer do?      It would seem he was much better suited to his role as Ombudsman than to that of a national representative in the EU Court of Auditors. The problem he notes about the ineffectiveness of EU expenditures should become top priority of the Court. This involves setting adequate Measures of Success (also one of 12 key categories in the systems approach) for all EU plans it scrutinizes. The Court must make sure certain questions are asked both before and after implementation of the plans, e.g.: 1. Who benefits from and who are harmed by the plans? And, in the ‘ought’ mode, who ought to benefit? 2. How robust are EU arguments that the plans target the ‘right’ Beneficiaries (another key category)? 3. Do some of those in influential positions have other Purposes (again another key category) or ‘hidden agendas?’ By answering these and several dozen other systemically inter-related questions it may be possible to reduce misdirection of funds for national egotism and make sure the EU citizens are served well, especially those who want the EU to be a success in a broad rather than narrow sense. If this cannot be done Mr. Brenninkmeijer should resign from the EU Court of Auditors, especially considering his background as a National Ombudsman.

Collaboration with European Ombudsman?    Perhaps the EU Court of Auditors should work more closely with the European Ombudsman, O’Reilly. Unfortunately, the EU put her up in Strasbourg, more than 200 km away from Brenninkmeijer. On her site I read: “My ambition is to support the EU institutions in becoming more effective, transparent and accountable by strategically increasing the visibility and impact of the work of the European Ombudsman.” Now I must say that the last part of her slogan (by strategically increasing the visibility and impact of the work of the European Ombudsman) sounds a bit bland, considering my discussion above, but the first part is fine, although a trifle too tentative. Here is a stronger rewording for a future collaborative effort of the EU Court of Auditors and The European Ombudsman: “The EU Court of Auditors and the European Ombudsman combine forces to ensure that EU institutions are effective, transparent and accountable.” As a first step they should make clear to what extent EU institutions are effective, transparent and accountable (or not!). This step requires systemic inquiry. The second step is to make sure the planning system works in a more effective and transparent way. This step requires systemic design. If they cannot achieve that, they are but ornaments serving to disguise ineffectiveness and intransparency.

Backroom espionage or public inquiry?            One of the key problems of the EU is power play by major countries, especially France and Germany, who tend to ‘fix’ high-level problems by backroom wheeling and dealing among the two. Sometimes they play the media by announcing little two-person summits. The argument is that the European Union would be a lame duck otherwise, but as Brenninkmeijer clearly points out, the EU fails to address major issues in any practical, democratic and harmonious way. What´s more, the way the EU tackles the problem of systemic design (the second step proposed above) is unimpressive. A third step seems to be needed, which is disentanglement of decision-making by taking a close look at the decision-makers (the last category in Churchman’s heuristic for systemic intervention design and inquiry that I will mention here). The most pro-active and therefore best method is ‘backroom espionage’ to scrutinize the motivations of France (and its 19th century diplomacy and centralization reflex) and Germany. This should not involve any secret cameras and microphones, but rather diplomatic networking in the same way as lobbies work. The need for relocating to Brussels and developing antennae in Berlin and Paris is then obvious. The combination with transparency will simply be another ‘wicked problem.’

To enlighten yourself on wicked problems and the systems approach, you may want to read Wicked solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (a workbook). Link.

P.S. At some point Brenninkmeijer speaks enthusiastically about results-oriented budgeting as a way to avoid past errors. I looked this up and found this page, mostly inspired by the efforts of Mrs. Kristalina Georgieva. Where she writes that she wants to put together a “database of successful projects funded by the EU budget …. [as] a step towards improving citizens’ awareness of where their money goes” I become a little worried. What we need instead are facts, honestly interpreted to make sense of, not propaganda to hide the truth or simply dismiss somewhat critical perspectives. Facts, honestly interpreted to make sense of, are what systemic inquiry using the systems approach is very good at.

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