Universiteit Leiden

nl en

‘Scandals mean society is actually doing well’

Whereas the Netherlands Court of Audit used to conduct an investigation once a year, the average civil service organisation now has a few per year to contend with. Is so much going wrong nowadays? Not at all, says Professor by Special Appointment Sjoerd Keulen. ‘It’s one of the methods that makes democracy more resilient.’

This Professor by Special Appointment of Public Audit, Policy Evaluation and Accountability is also positive about the scandals that sometimes erupt after parliamentary inquiries and Court of Audit investigations. ‘They put something on the agenda. It is a clear reprimand by society. You also see that in the often one-sided image that remains of a scandal, like of a CEO in his huge Maserati. People’s willingness to keep talking about it shows that a widely held societal norm has been violated and that that will not be tolerated.’ He even ventures to turn this on its head. ‘Scandals show that society is actually doing well.’

In his inaugural lecture ‘De kat, de kameleon en de zwaardvis die zich walrus voelde’ (The cat, the chameleon and the swordfish that felt it was a walrus) Keulen says the political and emotional sides of public auditing and accountability deserve attention and recognition. ‘It is not a value-free technical exercise. It is an exercise in storytelling, also for accountants. They build a story with numbers. And you can write up every story in different ways, obviously with facts as your building blocks, but there is room for discussion because do you take these facts and build a garage or a beautiful mansion? You remain dry in both cases.’ Weighing facts is important, he stresses, and this deserves more attention. ‘If you are clear about how you reached your conclusions, you will ensure people have confidence in your investigation.’

‘You often hear people say, “We knew it all along”. That is living proof that the conversation needs to be had and that people need to be listened to.’

Constructivist approach

This more constructivist approach also provides room for another often neglected phenomenon: emotion. For instance, the stifling effect on civil servants of the growing number of Court of Audit investigations and audits. ‘It’s only logical because your work is under a magnifying glass. It’s nothing strange to be nervous and start acting like a chameleon.’ Inventing a new control mechanism is not the answer, he says. It is better to consider that reflex. ‘That takes political courage. It’s a conversation that needs to be had.’

That will achieve a lot he says. ‘There is a lot of low-hanging fruit in organisations. After all, you are applying rules that people themselves have created. If these rules are too restrictive, and that is regularly the case if a Court of Audit investigation has been carried out, you have to change them.’ The reactions in the workplace to the results of such investigations often speak volumes. ‘You often hear people say, “We knew it all along”. That is living proof that the conversation needs to be had and that people need to be listened to.’

Research agenda

How to deal with Court of Audit reports, so how they are handled in parliamentary or municipal debates, is the subject of Keulen’s research. He also looks at how audit offices can make an impact with effectiveness and efficiency research. ‘So why municipalities take on the recommendations from one report but not another. In short, what are the predictors that something will be done with a report. And, the next step, what can be done to ensure that the recommendations are followed as much as possible.’

Another research line within Keulen’s chair is how MPs use investigations. ‘Why do they rarely consult investigations by the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy whereas they do draw on those by the Court of Audit? Is that related to the density of the reports or their tone? Do they rely on colleagues or what has appeared in the media? Little is known about this and that is what I want to find out.’

Learning from the past

Looking back is another theme he will explore in the chair. ‘Learning from the past is an unspoken promise in evaluations and audits. But we have to understand how we can learn from this past.’ Much is unconscious. Keulen wants to look at how we learn lessons from, for example, the child benefits scandal, and what methods are used here.

He also wants to look abroad. Because an international perspective of public audits is missing, he says. ‘When there are countries we really can learn from. In South America, for example, where corruption undermines trust in politicians, they involve citizens in fighting corruption by issuing challenges on accountability day. People are challenged to record the progress of projects and share the results. This kind of citizen engagement is fascinating. But the international exchange of knowledge in this field is limited. I hope to do something to change that in the next few years.’

Text: Marijn Kramp

This website uses cookies.