Professionals on the front line of public sector service provision play an important role in helping the National Ombudsman understand what is happening within society. What sort of problems are they called on to deal with? How do they view the distance between the government and the citizen? What can they learn from each other and from the National Ombudsman? We invited three committed professionals to share their experiences.
The relationship between government and the citizen
Things can sometimes go dreadfully wrong between the government and the citizen. This is amply illustrated by the recent childcare benefits controversy, in which some 26,000 parents were wrongfully accused of making fraudulent claims. Ernst Radius is a social advisor with the national organisation Sociaal Werk Nederland. He believes that the only surprising aspect of this situation is its scale. “Social advisors regularly receive reports of conflicts with public sector organisations. The number of complaints has shown a significant increase since responsibilities in areas such as home care, youth welfare, employment and income were devolved to local authorities in 2015.”
Systems versus the individual approach
According to Radius, the main source of friction is the inflexibility of the ‘systems’. “Once a client’s case is in a system, an individual approach to find the most appropriate solution in the circumstances is virtually impossible. In terms of benefits and allowances, of course there must be fixed rules and systems. But it should also be possible to make exceptions. There should be a degree of flexibility and room for discretion. An individual, case-by-case approach can save a lot of anxiety.”
Michelle Wolthers is a counsellor with AKJ (Advies- en Klachtenbureau Jeugdzorg), an organisation which represents the interests of clients of youth welfare services. She stresses that social organisations such the AKJ have a very different approach from that of government agencies. “Our focus is very much on the individual client. What does he or she need in order to regain trust in the official bodies?”
Bo Aarsbergen, an advisor with the Reading and Writing Foundation, notes that government processes can be overly complicated. “The systems are constantly being upgraded and expanded without any concern for whether that is actually necessary, or who they are intended to help. People then lose their way, fail to take the right steps and fall through the net altogether. It is one thing to rewrite letters in more simple language, but if citizens still do not understand what is expected of them, things will inevitably go wrong. I do not believe that public sector staff are deliberately trying to make things difficult for people, but a little more empathy and understanding would go a very long way.”
The self-reliant citizen
Many problems arise because the government expects citizens to be ‘self-reliant’. Ernst Radius traces this development back to 2005 and the introduction of the Algemene wet inkomensafhankelijke regelingen (General Income-Dependent Regulations Act). “The government stipulated that citizens were responsible their own income and must make the necessary arrangements themselves. However, to assume that everyone is capable of doing so is wrong. You can expect people to know what they are supposed to do, that is not to say that they will do it, or that they are even able to do it.”
Bo Aarsbergen adds, “We must develop a culture in which it is normal to admit that you do not understand something or need help. There are still too many people who are afraid to come forward.”
“Our clients are often subject to measures which have a serious impact on their family life,” says Michelle Wolthers. “A government agency is involving itself in the upbringing of their children, which can sometimes incite a strong emotional reaction. Moreover, there is a degree of dependence on that agency, which detracts from the client’s own self-reliance. We support our clients by writing letters of complaint and preparing them for face-to-face meetings. We help them to express their true feelings and concerns.”
Cooperation between professionals
People often face problems in several areas of life and therefore have dealings with various support organisations. Bo Aarsbergen believes that cooperation between those organisations could be improved. “It would be very useful to have a better overview of the client’s contacts with these organisations. At present we know far too little about what action has already been taken by other agencies and what remains to be done.”
“In a way, we have the opposite problem,” states Michelle Wolthers. “The dossier ‘travels’ with the client from one organisation to the next. It might begin with the neighbourhood social work team and end in court. However, if the client disagrees with the contents of the dossier, a contentious picture of the situation is perpetuated throughout the process. There is no opportunity to set matters right. It will be very difficult to bring about change.”
“Cooperation is part of social advisors’ DNA,” suggests Ernst Radius, “but it is nevertheless difficult because you’re dealing with people who have to work within the constraints of their own organisation’s frameworks. This often limits the alternatives.”
Cooperation with the Ombudsman
How do the professionals regard cooperation with the National Ombudsman?
“The AKJ always refers clients who are dissatisfied with a government agency’s internal complaints procedure to the Ombudsman,” says Michelle Wolthers. “I think all government organisations should take heed of the National Ombudsman’s Vision on Professional Complaints Assessment. Every complaint is a learning opportunity, but it is clear that not everyone agrees.”
“The National Ombudsman’s reports are very valuable and we have made a direct contribution to several of the investigations carried out by the Ombudsman for Children. At the policy level, there is regular contact between the AKJ and the National Ombudsman organisation.”
Ernst Radius agrees. “Social advisors often refer clients to the National Ombudsman if that seems the only route to a solution. Moreover, a representative of the National Ombudsman sits on our national consultation platform. We regularly report matters of interest that we observe in our work, while the National Ombudsman actively enquires about themes and topics which might warrant further investigation.”
The Reading and Writing Foundation also considers the National Ombudsman’s reports and recommendations very important. “They put me in a much stronger position if I am asking a local authority to devote more attention to our target group,” says Bo Aarsbergen.