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Can the Dutch parliament prevent problems with snow?
by Newropeans-Magazine
2010-01-07 07:49:51
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Last week, there was heavy snow in the Netherlands, the first time in several years. Travelling by public transport was never so difficult: the Dutch Railways (NS) advised travellers to stay home because NS could not guarantee that travellers would arrive at their final destination, or that they could travel back home. In large parts of the country, bus services were cancelled, even when it had already stopped snowing.

Several members of the Dutch parliament were angry. Political parties said that the Dutch Railways made a mess of the whole situation, and that the organisation for rail infrastructure maintenance (Prorail) did not work properly. These politicians said that it was ridiculous that a little bit of snow had caused so many problems. In Sweden, there are still train services in snowy weather, so why not in Holland? The minister of Transport asked the Dutch railways for an explanation. 

It is irritating indeed, these independent, autonomized, state-owned organisations. The Dutch railways and the organisation for rail infrastructure have their own policies, their own board and their employees are not public servants. But if something goes wrong, politicians ignore that these organisations are independent and that the minister does not have any power to influence them. The minister can kindly ask them what went wrong, but that is all he can do. However, politicians and citizens want him to take strong measures. 

This is a good example of misguided policy. These organisations had to be autonomized, the Dutch Railways had to be split into an organisation doing maintenance and one that offers train services, and bus lines have been privatised because of European policies. Privatized public transport seems to be positive: the services are cheaper, there is more ‘competition’ and staff members are more polite to customers. Public transport has become more attractive? Most important: the minister of Transport is not responsible anymore for late local trains.

But now it seems that this last point is a problem: politicians and citizens ask the minister to come up with strong measures when there are problems because of the snow. It turns out that the organisation for maintenance has its own policies for these circumstances and that these policies are largely different from what politicians want. What can we do? The answer is: nothing, except that we can undo the autonomization of these organizations. But there is no real political will to do this, which leads to the conclusion that the minister, politicians and citizens do not have a say in these issues. 

This week, I read the book of Evelien Tonkens, who writes about problems in the public sector and especially problems in the field of public health. Her book is full of policies that have unintended consequences. It reads like a plea for more in depth political debate about these kinds of policies. For example: there is not enough discussion about what the idea of public health as a market means in practice (which also applies to public transport). In several cases, it means that governments do not want to be responsible for all kinds of problems, and that this makes them unable to solve these problems at all. 

According to Tonkens, these mistakes are made more than once. Politicians talk about more efficiency in the public health sector, without thinking about how this can be achieved. Most of the time, Tonkens explains, this is impossible and leads to effects that are completely different than what was intended. This makes citizens complain about public services: they want their government to solve these problems, but governments gave away their own options to do so. 

Seen from this perspective, the only thing we can hope for is that there will not be more snow this winter. 


Chris Aalberts*
Amsterdam, Nederlands


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