The everlasting battle for transparency
Keep a close eye on ’em
Yantai. The name still leaves a bitter after-taste in the mouths of many UG employees. The decision-making process concerning the branch campus in China led to a strained relationship between the then board of directors and the university’s advisory bodies. The latter claimed there was a lack of information and openness.
When the university council, the foremost advisory body, definitively rejected the plans in January of 2018, many sighed in relief. But the story didn’t end there: council party DAG had questions about the financing of the plans’ preliminary study.
The board refused to hand over the documents required, leading to the student faction making use of the Government Information (Public Access) Act, which the UG, being a public institution, falls under. DAG’s vigour paid off: they discovered that the UG had used public funds for the study into Yantai, something with then education minister Jet Bussemaker had expressly forbidden.
The chosen representatives truly showed the power of countervailing forces in the Yantai case.
It seems as though the university board has become more open since then. They’ve created a public Google Drive containing the documents the council discusses and the council meetings can be watched live.
The new regime is trying to increase transparency
‘The new regime of De Vries, Wijmenga, and Biemans is genuinely trying to increase transparency’, says Antoon de Baets with the council’s Personnel faction.
Looking back on previous years, he says, ‘I remember tirades about confidential documents and endless agenda meetings’.
Things changed when DAG submitted a memo concerning increased transparency in the council. ‘I measured the board’s proposal against the Information Act’, says De Baets.
He also added a few amendments, making it clearer which documents are allowed to be confidential. The changes to the regulations were passed in February. ‘If the confidential part of a document is very small, or if it doesn’t directly relate to the topic, you can always black it out and make the document publicly available after all. And they will.’
No matter how transparent the university might try to be, there will always be tension between managerial brainstorming and the moment you actually have to present your plans, says Klaas van Veen, vice dean at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences (BSS). ‘You have to consider the pros and cons, every single time.’
He cites the Ruggesteun plan as an example. This plan is meant to create more educational support. ‘The board of directors and the faculty board are currently working on how to best implement this. Is this conversation confidential? No. Is it a good idea to share it with everyone? Also no. The plans are too undefined for that.’
The fact that the plans haven’t been sent to the faculty council right away doesn’t really have anything to do with confidentiality, Van Veen says. ‘It’s not that they’re not allowed to know. We’ll definitely be talking to the council about the plans. But it’s a matter of timing. When is the appropriate time to discuss the plans?’
You shouldn’t let it come down to the Information Act
Policy documents at BSS are almost never confidential, say Van Veen. Even the board meeting’s notes are publicly discussed during faculty council meetings.
Anyone who isn’t on the council who wants to attend a meeting gets access to all public documents beforehand. ‘When we do discuss something confidential it’s usually about a person. About their job, for example, or issues they’re having. Confidentiality is justified in those cases.’
The Information Act states that personal details, company-sensitive information, and personal opinions of policy don’t have to be made public. In some cases, it’s not allowed. ‘For some documents, whether or not to make them publicly available depends on the interest that would serve’, says Herman Bröring, professor of administrative law.
‘But you mainly have to decide how active you want to be in making documents publicly accessible’, he says. ‘You could practise very little openness yourself and just sit back and wait for journalists, students, staff, and outside people to come to you with questions. But if you want to be transparent, you shouldn’t really let it come down to the Information Act.’
A board should also be pro-actively transparent with their advisory bodies; it fosters a good relationship. The Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE) is doing fine in that regard, says Mariano Mendez, faculty council chair.
‘We have a say in what is confidential and what isn’t. We discuss it with the board and there usually aren’t many topics that are confidential. We then discuss some of these topics again, but in public.’
The council is able to openly criticise proceedings, he says. ‘And when we do, we’re allowed to talk about it. Our board also informs us of all the correct documents, including the decisions made during board meetings.’
But, he says, meetings between the various service and faculty councils have also revealed that not all councils at the university are being informed like this.
‘I think it’s a matter of building trust. In the end, we’re here to be independent of the board and look at plans and decisions and issue advice on them.’
Trust needs to be built. This can be done through open discussion and proper information, but also by being trustworthy. ‘When we discuss something in confidence, the board needs to know that it stays between us. That none of the eighteen people at the table will be spreading the information prematurely.’
Line of defence
A lack of trust can lead to situations like Yantai three years ago, where the advisory bodies had to turn to the Information Act in order to obtain information. The Information Act is used as a line of defence rather than a guideline to increase public access.
It’s about building trust
Professor Bröring is seeing this happen, too. ‘Some people take too much of a wait-and-see approach. They especially let really sensitive cases get down to the Information Act’, he says. ‘I don’t think that always makes a good impression. People know what’s sensitive and what isn’t, and they could be more decisive with these cases. That would also benefit their reputation.’
He thinks Dutch institutes should look to Scandinavian countries for pointers. ‘They’re way ahead of us when it comes to openness. Reports and documents are freely available online.’ That means Information Act procedures are practically a thing of the past.
‘Here, people complain that the procedure is being abused and that complying with a request takes a lot of work. Over there, it’s not an issue, because people can just look up the information themselves.
Role in society
Deciding whether or not to comply with a request is a judicial approach according to Bröring. ‘It’s fine if you’re talking about conflict for instance, but I don’t think openness should be a matter of legality. I think we should ask ourselves why we’re here on this earth? What’s our responsibility, our role in society? After that, it’s just a matter of good communication.’
That means making as many documents as possible as accessible as possible. The university council has had a small victory in that regard, but many faculties still have their work cut out for them.
Historian De Baets says this battle is part and parcel of management and oversight. ‘Controlling and supervisory powers will always be fighting for transparency. It never ends’, he says. ‘Even the most strait-laced of managers have the tendency to want to deal with things quickly without anyone looking over their shoulder. We should create procedures to stop this, but it’s nothing new.’