Mentality problem: our cover-up culture
A recent report on persistent problems at Dutch Railways is just the latest among a deluge of probes that purport to offer transparency but in fact thwart good governance and public accountability, Bas Heyne contends in his weekly NRC Handelsblad column.
Rail staff have fallen victim to a grievous “mentality problem”, often failing to announce delays for fear of angry passengers, an independent inquiry has found. An additional problem stems from the orders issued by rail management banning train conductors from using the word “delay”. What is needed is a “culture change”, the inquiry concludes, while warning that Dutch railways dread the notion of promotion based on performance.
The report will, as usual, prompt angry questions in parliament and the minister in question will, as usual, promise to mend his ways—and a few years hence the whole song and dance will be repeated all over again.
The report ritual forms part and parcel, Heyne argues, of a culture of constant cover-ups achieved through an excess of apparent transparency. The constant flood of probes, inquiries and reports that pinpoint abuses and scandals in fact mean no one is ever forced to take responsibility or face the consequences.
President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) welcomes Dutch Prime minister Mark Rutte at the Elysee Palace in Paris, prior to a meeting
Pick up any recent report and every time they reveal the same thing: a culture of mistrust and evasiveness, lack of responsibility, rules and targets imposed by management that only foster ducking behaviour among staff, lack of transparency, officials who place their own interest above that of the public. Similarly, the recipe that is to remedy all this is every time the same too: more transparency, a culture change, inspired leadership.
The recent scandal at a navy yard is typical of how such things are handled. The head of the yard fails to inform the defence ministry, the defence ministry fails to inform the defence minister and the defence minister fails to inform parliament. When the misconduct is exposed by the media, Defence Minister Hans Hillen, a Christian Democrat, hails it as a victory for democracy and its checks and balances. The shocking claim encapsulates our sick Dutch mentality: transparency only serves to cover up corruption.
The problem is that these are not isolated incidents, as the minister would like to have it, but part of a widespread culture—our culture. The railways, the navy, the defence ministry, the Christian Democrats—they all have the same culture. It is a culture of endless reports, of train conductors dodging their duty, of sailors stealing state property, of a defence minister ducking his responsibility.