Science to help society to progress

Mark Bovens has served two statutory terms as a member of the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy and a further year as an advisory member. He also had the maximum appointment of three days a week. On 16 January, he said farewell to the WRR and its staff, to return to Utrecht University as Professor of Public Administration. He looks back fondly on his time as a WRR member.

Enlarge image WEBportrait Mark Bovens
Image: ©WRR / Photographer: Arenda Oomen

Great solidarity

“When I take my retirement next year, I’ll have worked for 45 years, eleven of them as a member of the WRR. That's almost a quarter of my professional career. In that professional career, I've done two major jobs: setting up the Utrecht University School of Governance (USBO) in 1999 and membership of the WRR since 2013. I look back proudly on both of these periods. When André Knottnerus (WRR Chair from 2010 to 2017) approached me to become a member, I deliberately opted for the maximum appointment of three days. I wanted the WRR to be my primary workplace, my homebase, partly in order to avoid getting in the way of my successors at the USBO. And if I'd known how much fun the WRR really is, I’d probably have become a member sooner. I hadn't realised beforehand how much say the Council actually has. I feel great solidarity with this organisation and I felt very much at home, both socially and intellectually. It’s a privilege to have worked for the WRR.”

Form a coalition to get your story out there

“To me, it feels as if the WRR has become much livelier in the last decade. The publications have become more readable and we’ve started bringing out more varied products, such as podcasts. I’ve often called for clear writing, with more illustrations and not too many messages at the same time. What makes working here so special is the sheer quality of the staff, both intellectually and in terms of politics and governance. I've learned a lot here. That includes the fact that while a good report may be necessary, it’s no guarantee of achieving an effect. You need to think very carefully about the message you want to convey. Although I knew this in theory, it literally was a case of ‘knowing what to do is not enough’. It was only when I started working at the WRR that I noticed that the theories I explained in my first-year lectures in Utrecht actually work in practice. If you want to change policy, you need other parties to help you tell your story. That takes a lot of investment. You have to seek these parties out and brainstorm with them about how your story can help them. That also means that you have to show some magnanimity and put your cards on the table at an early stage in the hope that they’ll run with them.”

Policy is language

“Another thing I've learned here is that policy is actually language. If your words fail to strike the right chord, you get nowhere. So you need to continually ask yourself whether your words evoke the right association. And long before a report is published you need to test which terms are effective and which aren't and what images are most appropriate to go with them. In last year's report entitled ‘Grip’, for example, we opted for nautical imagery to clarify our message. And during presentations about the report ‘Why knowing what to do is not enough’ from 2017, Anne-Greet Keizer and I noticed that people had the wrong impression of the term ’non-cognitive skills’. We then came up with the Dutch word ‘doenvermogen’ (‘capacity to act’) to capture the essence we wanted to convey. In the exploratory study ‘Migration and classification’ (2016) we propose bringing an end to the use of the two terms ‘autochtoon’ and ‘allochtoon’ (used to describe ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ Dutch people) because they no longer reflect current society. We deliberately produced a separate publication to convey that message as it might otherwise have gone unnoticed.”

Good timing is key

“Another lesson from recent years is about the importance of timing. It’s a difficult one: timing is not always something you control. Sometimes you might be lucky. Take the report ‘Why knowing what to do is not enough’. It was completed in the autumn of 2016 just when the Dutch government collapsed. We didn't want to publish the report during the election period, because the parties are then focusing on ‘transmit’ rather than ‘receive’. That's why we very deliberately presented the report several weeks after the elections of 2017. We then had the good fortune of a long period of coalition negotiations that gave us an opportunity to tell our story at all of the ministries. Not long after that, the child benefit scandal happened. Our report allowed us to offer a language to understand what was actually happening. But you can also be unlucky with your timing. For example, we published the report ‘Living together in Diversity’ at 14:00 on 14 December 2020. At noon, there was a press release announcing that the Prime Minister was to hold an important press conference at 17:00. He announced that the Netherlands was heading into full lockdown during the Christmas period, complete with a curfew. This then dominated all of the news.”

A small knowledge institution that helps large organisations

“At the WRR, I've worked on six reports and five major exploratory studies and have been involved in nine project groups, partly as second Council member. But I see the report ‘Why knowing what to do is not enough’ as my highlight. That report had a huge impact. Thanks to Will Tiemeijer, we had a very solid base in the behavioural sciences and thanks to Anne-Greet Keizer, we were able to offer policymakers a framework for action. We were also successful in writing an accessible report. We actually still give presentations about it, seven years on. It really resonated at lots of implementing organisations, at ministries and at municipalities. We also contributed ideas to its application. For example, we developed a ‘capacity to act’ test at the request of the Dutch Senate and worked with the Council of State on capacity to act in their legislation test and with the Ministry of Justice and Security on including it in the Policy Compass. Thanks to our report, staff at the Employee Insurance Agency began to realise that people often arrive there suffering from stress and that people with stress have reduced capacity to act. It's just fascinating to see where they've gone with that. This shows that, as a small knowledge institution, you can help large organisations to make the Netherlands better, using science to enable society to progress. That's extremely rewarding work!”

Doing research outside your specialist field

“It’s extraordinary to be a scientist at the WRR and have the space and freedom to spend a year or more delving deep into a theme with a team of great people, including themes that you have no understanding of yourself. ‘Why knowing what to do is not enough’ and ‘Grip’, for example, are reports in which the behavioural sciences feature prominently. That's not my background, but I just loved writing reports outside my specialist field, without having colleagues from the same field looking over my shoulder. And being able to use those reports to give a nudge to the debate and provide policy content and to have your work feature in the leading newspapers. What more could a scientist ask for?”

Above all amazing fun

“Above all, working at the WRR was just amazing fun. Both of my terms on the Council were characterised by an excellent collegiate atmosphere. The chairs André Knottnerus and Corien Prins deserve the credit for that. I’m leaving with great regret. But the time is right for new people, with new idiosyncrasies and new plans.”