Implementers are fed up: politics must put an end to complex laws and rules. ‘First see what you can make simpler’

Who understands all the rules surrounding healthcare, work and income in the Netherlands? “Very few people,” thinks Nathalie van Berkel, board member of the UWV benefits agency. Yet it is mainly the most vulnerable Dutch people who have to deal with them on a daily basis. Especially those who face multiple challenging circumstances: unemployed and informal caregivers, ill and in debt. “They have to deal with so many regulations,” says Van Berkel, “all of which influence each other. It’s really very complicated.”

This must come to an end, according to the directors of implementing agencies. MPs and cabinets have been saying for years that they also want simpler rules. Yet they continue to introduce laws and regulations that increase complexity. Van Berkel: “After which implementers have to say relatively late: it is impracticable this way, or it will lead to accidents.”

That is why the directors of two implementation agencies are now saying it out loud: politicians must become more cautious in continually adding rules and exceptions. And give priority to simplifying the existing rules. Van Berkel: “Instead of adding something on top.”

Van Berkel recently wrote this on behalf of approximately eighty national government agencies in a letter to the formation table. As chairman of the Network of Public Service Providers, Van Berkel represents all kinds of implementers: from the Tax Authorities and Rijkswaterstaat to the Care Assessment Center (CIZ) and Staatsbosbeheer. Van Berkel, together with Alexander Pechtold, director of the Central Bureau of Driving Licenses (CBR), explains what implementing agencies expect from a new cabinet.

This excessive complexity affects almost all government agencies. “I can’t think of a place where it is nice and simple,” says Van Berkel. “But it is really bad for healthcare and income arrangements.”

How does this complexity cause problems for citizens?

Van Berkel: “For people who receive benefits, it is often too complicated to know what their income will be if they work more. We often hear from early disabled people with Wajong benefits: I want to work, but I don’t dare, because I’m so afraid of the settlement with my benefits. And when they ask us how much money they will have left, it is difficult for us to say. For example, we do not know what the effect is on their tax credits and allowances.”

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Pechtold: “An incredible number of wonderful things have been arranged in this country in recent decades. But it is always more: another scheme, another allowance, another supporting measure. And not cleaning up contradictions, or simplifying what is too complex. And then we set up libraries, support centers and counters to get through all those complicated things. Even with an academic background, when you look at government letters you can think: I don’t understand anything anymore.”

The latter seems easy to improve: send simpler letters.

Pechtold: “You can write at B1 language level [eenvoudig Nederlands dat de overgrote meerderheid van de bevolking begrijpt]That’s what my organization does, that’s what UWV does. But that is not everything.”

Van Berkel: “Sometimes laws are complicated in themselves. For example, people who apply for benefits from UWV or the municipality must indicate their ‘SV wage’, their social insurance wage. We try to explain what that is as simply as possible. But it remains difficult: it is in a different place on every pay slip, and sometimes it is not there at all. And if you provide the wrong amount, it can have major consequences. Then you may have to pay back. Before I came to work at UWV, I didn’t know what the SV wage was.”

What should the next government do?

Van Berkel: “Don’t add everything again. But first let’s see: what can we make simpler and more accessible?”

Pechtold: “And separate the what and the how questions. Politics may want to achieve certain goals. But how best to do this, we must be involved much earlier and better. In fact, if politics has come up with the ‘what’, let us make proposals about the ‘how’.”

The ‘how’ can also be politically sensitive. Shouldn’t elected politicians decide that?

Van Berkel: “Take a politically exciting subject: labor migration. Forming parties will want to make agreements about this and there is already a nice report on this from a state committee. When politicians then say: we want to manage the number of labor migrants more specifically. Then first ask the implementation how this could be done: let them create scenarios. And of course politicians then choose which scenario, or combination of scenarios, it will be. We have seen often enough: if politicians determine in advance exactly how things should be done, this can lead to accidents.”

Pechtold: “For example, the political plans that have been in place for some time to abolish VAT on fruit and vegetables. That’s about the ‘how’. The Tax Authorities call it impracticable, because they cannot determine where the limit lies for fruit and vegetables. And those who know about healthy food say: it won’t help. No dog will eat an apple because of it. And yet this idea continues to be mentioned.”

Van Berkel: “There are also good examples. Wouter Koolmees came during the corona crisis [D66-minister van Sociale Zaken in Rutte III] with a clear what question to UWV. He wanted to keep employment afloat and asked: how can we do that? We then set up the NOW scheme together in a very short time.”

The Court of Audit was even so positive about this NOW scheme that afterwards, very exceptionally, it asked Minister Koolmees and UWV to gave a compliment. The arrangement was simple and generic, which allowed UWV to pay out quickly. Van Berkel: “That would never have been possible if UWV had been told how to do it.”

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<strong>Fred Paling</strong>, chairman of the UWV benefits agency: “The question now is how big the blow will be to the labor market.”” class=”dmt-article-suggestion__image” src=”×96/smart/filters:no_upscale()/s3/”/></p><p>Van Berkel sees that the ministries have started to collaborate better with implementing agencies in recent years.  “There was a lot of distance.”  Pechtold: “Hierarchy.”  Van Berkel: “That is getting better step by step.”</p><p>The executors now also have influence on the formation discussions.  “Previously, the ministries themselves answered substantive questions from the informant,” says Van Berkel.  “Now they always involve us in that.”</p><p class=Have implementers also started to position themselves differently towards ministries?

Van Berkel: “Yes, we talk back more and say it more clearly if something is not possible. At my first board meeting at UWV, in 2019, we discussed an assignment that the ministry had thrown over our fence. Everyone at the table was fierce: this is not possible at all. Our organization then had to report in writing to the ministry about the feasibility, and what did that text contain? ‘It’s difficult, but it can be done.’ I said: huh? This couldn’t be possible, could it? Now we would just say that.”

Pechtold: “When I was new to the CBR, the House of Representatives had determined that we had to cancel a planned rate increase for the assessment of the fitness to drive of seniors. But that money has to come from somewhere. So I said to the people here: we are going to write neatly to the ministry: tell me what I should either not do or where I can compensate for it. People found that very exciting.”

Exciting? Isn’t that a very logical thing to ask the ministry?

Pechtold: “The natural attitude among implementing organizations was: if there is a political wish, then you pretend that it is possible. Even though you know you’ll be in shit in a few years. That surprised me too, coming from another world. And fortunately that has changed.”

As a D66 MP, have you ever acted differently than you now think is wise?

Pechtold: “I call myself ‘the convert’ on every stage.” With a penetrating look: “And they are the most fanatical.”

CBRAlexander Pechtold We would like to inform MPs through briefings, but they often do not feel the need for this

“I look at that with some self-criticism, yes. How well was I informed? My employees look with amazement at MPs who confuse the terms fit to drive and fit to drive in debates on road safety. Here that is elementary knowledge. We would like to inform MPs through technical briefings, but they often have no need for this. And the painful thing is: as a Member of Parliament I did not often go to such briefings.”

Can you also explain why simplifying the rules is given so little political priority?

Pechtold: “It is thought that the government can bring happiness with rules. The government itself thinks that too often.”

Van Berkel: “And there is too much belief that we can predict in advance exactly how new policy will work out in practice. My experience is: policy almost never works out exactly as you want. But then we are already busy with the next problem. In fact, every new law should be evaluated after one or two years. Are politicians happy with the effects? If not, you discuss with the implementation and departments how things can be done differently. If you make adjustments, you don’t have to keep making new rules.”

UWVNathalie van Berkel Policy rarely works out the way you want it to

Ministries that would like to simplify the rules also only do so to a limited extent. New policy takes so much time, says Van Berkel, that there is a lack of manpower to also improve the existing rules. “While many bottlenecks that citizens encounter every day are relatively easy to solve if you prioritize them. That is why it would help if politicians now say: we will give priority to repairs. And then we don’t mind if our new bill comes a year later.”

If politicians want to increase social security, they must take this message to heart, Pechtold and Van Berkel believe. Because the current tangle of rules, especially around work, income and care, “are intended to give people security,” says Van Berkel. “But they lead to uncertainty. We completely missed our target.”

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