Dutch government communication professionals X-rayed:
Their role and attitude in public communication about
Dave Gelders, Guido Rijnja
The Leuven School for Mass Communication Research, Dutch Government
Information Service in The Hague
E-mail: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
This article analyzes the role and attitude of Dutch government
communication professionals regarding external public communication about
policy intentions, or "policy that has been considered or adopted by a
minister of a Government but that has not yet been adopted by a higher body
such as the Government or the Parliament". Our research is conducted in the
West European context with parliamentary governments in which the Executives
are composed of teams of Prime Ministers and ministers that emanate from
There are some relatively recent developments in citizenry with politics and
the media clearly indicating that a preliminary information provision is
highly relevant and a delicate issue that merits close consideration. Let us
note some of the most important and relevant developments.
First, political attitudes and affiliations previously thought to be strong
anchors are dissolving (Blumler and Gurevitch, 1995); the voting behaviour
of the citizenry is less predictable and the citizenry is more demanding.
Politicians and political parties are involved in permanent campaigning(Norris, 2000) during which the techniques of spin doctoring, opinion
polls, and professional media management are increasingly applied to routine
everyday politics It has become common practice to float trial balloons in
order to know the policy intentions that will be accepted and that will be
appreciated by the public. Arguing that the policymaking process should be
less secretive and more transparent to the public, politicians of today
often discuss their policy intentions freely before the camera.
Second, interpretive reporting is nearly as old as journalism itself but has
only recently become the dominant model of news coverage; reporters question
politicians' actions and commonly attribute strategic intentions to them
giving politicians less chance to speak for themselves (Patterson, 1996).
Being story driven, the media do not always give the complete picture or
exact status of policy issues (i.e. Is it about a policy intention or a
policy decision?). Consciously or not, the media supply biased information
to citizens whose reactions to policy decisions and policymakers are based
on what the media choose to communicate and the manner in which they
communicate it. This can influence the probability that the policy measure
will be adopted and implemented successfully (Cobb and Elder, 1981)
The developments mentioned above illustrate the importance as well as the
delicate characteristics of governmental communication regarding policy
intentions such as if the Government uses so-called paid publicity (such as
newspaper ads, governmental leaflets,...) to communicate about policy that
has not yet been adopted by the legislative assembly. Discussion then arises
about the thin line between a neutral public information provision and
political propaganda. The particular position of a minister may cast a
shadow over the exact aim of the message: is it propaganda (personal or
political) and therefore a misuse of public money or is it supplying
transparent information in a democratic state aimed at informing and
involving citizens and societal organizations regarding the formation of a
The campaign regarding reform of the Post Office raised similar questions in
the United States (Linsky, 1986). Leaflets on Operation Rescue and Paying for Local Government: the Need for Change did the same in the United Kingdom (Scammell, 1999). Other pre-eminent examples include the
dissemination of leaflets on the introduction of toll-roads by the Dutch
Government (Kranendonk, 2003), the dissemination of flyers on drug
policy (Gelders and Van Mierlo, 2004), and governmental newspaper ads on
'working longer' in Belgium (Gelders, 2005a).
There is limited research on the role and attitude of government
communication professionals with regard to policy intentions. Besides recent
Belgian data on this matter (see Gelders, De Cock, Roe and Neijens, 2006),
there are some data from the Netherlands. The Netherlands is known for its
long tradition of state committees on government communication (Katus and
We now map the relevant material about the role and attitude of Dutch
government communication professionals regarding communication about as of
yet unadopted policies.
This study is interesting given the relatively important role of civil
servants in Dutch policy-making processes (Brans, Facon and Hoet, 2003) and
given the increased importance of public communication about policy
intentions in general (see above).
The Dutch research considers public communication about policy intentions as
one theme within broader studies on the tension between government
communication and political party communication or as one of the functions
of policy communication. The methods and questions in these studies are
In spite of these restrictions (which can be argued as the studies are more
general), the research findings give insight into the role and attitude of
Dutch government communication professionals with regard to public
communication about policy intentions.
Until now, the relevant Dutch material has neither been mapped nor compared.
We aim to do that in this article. We do not discuss the Belgian data as the
most important similarities and differences are described in Gelders, De
Cock, Roe and Neijens (2006).
Given the relatively important role of Dutch civil servants during the
policy preparation stage, given the fact that public communication has
become increasingly important (Pandey and Garnett, 2006), and given the
increased importance of public communication about policy intentions (see
above), we expected that Dutch government communication professionals
(government information officers) played an important role in the stage of the
policy preparation. As far as we know, there is no specific, large-scale
study on the role government information officers play in public
communication about policy intentions and what role the so-called political
assistants (politically appointed ministerial assistants) play in this
matter. However, there are global studies on the role and position of
government information officers within the Dutch central government giving
insight into their role in the policy preparation stage.
A study has been conducted by Stappers and Nillesen (1985). They demonstrate
that the job of government information officers during the eighties focused
on the classic function of 'informing' citizens / subordinates within the
context of freedom of information acts as described in the report of the
then-called Committee Biesheuvel (1970). Later, public information
provisions were increasingly considered as policy instruments to help
realize policies and to promote accepted policies. The concept of
'communication' set in (Van Ruler, 1996).
According to Van de Poel and Van Woerkum (1996) communication professionals
think they can be valuable additions to an organization due to their
profession, function and position in the organization by doing such things
as increasing the communicative characteristics of policies and signaling
what lives among citizens. Supposedly, communication professionals take 'the
citizen' more into account. However, it is long before this task of
government communication professionals will be recognized (although there
are important internal differences between departments; Van de Poel and Van
Woerkum, 1996). Geul (2001) states that public communication has become
increasingly important but that this is not the case for the communication
professionals. Most government information officers focus on informing, or
one way communication. Van Ruler and De Lange (2002) concluded in their
research on the trends of professional communication that two out of three
government information officers fulfill an executive job. They communicate
already accepted policy to targeted groups and/or the general public. In
other countries it is also concluded that only the traditional field of
communication is growing significantly as was illustrated by the 2000-2001
study on behalf of the European Public Relations Education and Research
Association (cited by Van Ruler and De Lange 2002: 381-382). Another field
within communication management can be seen as `communication preceding
policy'. This would be the research on and reflection of the developments in
norms and values and the public issues and public opinions. There is a great
deal to do about this kind of communication management but in practice, this
is not a structural part of the profession (Van Ruler and De Lange, 2002).
According to Van Ruler (2005), this kind of communication is not expected
from communication professionals.
This is confirmed by a series of interviews conducted by Rijnja and De
Bruijne among 17 policy professionals and communication professionals
involved in nine policy cases within the Dutch central government (see
Meuleman and Rijnja, 2004). Conclusion: government information officers play
a unambiguous and uncontroversial role in the policy implementation stage of
policy-making but not in the policy preparation stage. When compared to
policy professionals, communication professionals are seldom seated at the
table in the beginning of policy-making process except when dealing with a
politically sensitive policy issue, policy priority or so-called interactive
project. Although government information officers do not usually play a
large role in policy preparation, they do have an interest in the entire
process as they often support the interaction with the stakeholders. Rijnja
and Meuleman point out that the concept of 'communication' is clearer during
the stage of policy implementation than in the policy preparation stage. In
the former, it mainly deals with helping to realize policy (communication as
a policy instrument) while in the latter, there is much discussion with
other governments, stakeholders,... Most of the time, these discussions are
conducted and supervised by policy professionals who feel responsible for
every aspect: a good policy-making process, good communication, good
financing, etc. The initiative of cooperation with communication
professionals seems to be the prerogative of the policy professionals.
Rijnja and Meuleman indicate an important element in the discussion: do we
increase the input of communication professionals in the initial stage of
policy-making or do we have to strengthen the communicative skills of policy
While government information officers traditionally try to communicate
policy in an understandable manner, it is necessary that policy makers first make understandable policies. The Dutch central
government aims to stimulate and operationalize this idea by organizing
trainings and publications on behalf of policy professionals.
According to Smits (2001a,b), government information officers have become
more well-known, visible civil servants. Smits interviewed the dircoms of
the 13 central government departments. These officers are in a difficult
position as Smits shows: on the one hand, they are expected to serve the
media and to give them reliable information but, on the other hand, they are
expected to protect their political superiors. The dircoms are usually
tasked as the 'political' spokesperson. They coach the Minister for
interviews and are present during parliamentary discussions (Vancoppenolle
and Brans, 2003).
All dircoms in Smits' study want to be informed as soon as possible about
policy developments. But they differ in opinion about their specific role in
policy development. Most of the dircoms in Smits' study can be described as
`advisors'. Several consider their task to give advice about publicity
matters (timing, framing, etc.) as well as the content of the policy arguing
that content is as important a factor as the manner in which the policy is
Smits (2001a, 115-116) does not expect that the trend of spin doctoring in
the Netherlands will be as intensive as in the US or the UK due to
differences within the parliamentary system. In a majority system, such as
the US and the UK, the governing party is able to take liberties to use
public information provisions in service of the policy goals and the
Government (Smits, 2001). In the Dutch politically broadly composed
governments (coalition governments), it would be hard to imagine that a
departmental dircom identifies with the political color and policy baselines
of one specific political party. In addition, Smits refers to the political
culture in the Netherlands as "one more of pacification than confrontation.
Communication professionals and ministers search for problems if they use
aggressive communication techniques". However, Smits expects more proactive
public communication about policy intentions. Smits predicts that the
Government will react more and more to an increasingly aggressive media
coverage style. He thinks that there will be more 'enterprising officers'
among the dircoms. They are information officers who strategically cope with
information on behalf of their Minister (Smits 2001b). The current and
future profile of the Dutch dircoms is subject to debate within the central
government. The question is to what extent the dircoms are allowed to be the
spokesperson of a Minister rather than a manager of the organization's
communication (Voorlichtingsraad, 2004). Top policy professionals and the
dircoms both plead for more focus on the managerial function. But whereas
the top policy makers argue that such a profile is not to reconcile with the
(primary) spokesperson task, the dircoms believe that both functions can be
handled by one person.
Regardless of the future direction of this discussion, one can conclude that
public communication about policy intentions shows the tension between the
current tasks of the dircoms making further reflection necessary.
We now focus on the attitude of Dutch government information officers
regarding public communication about policy intentions.
There are some studies on the attitude of government information officers
regarding public communication about policy intentions. These studies deal
with the profile and the role of government information officers and with
the tension between public communication and party political communication.
In this context, public communication about policy intentions is one of the
subsidiary issues rather than the key issue of the studies. Nevertheless, it
is interesting to describe and compare the most relevant aspects of these
studies: Stappers and Nillesen (1985), Neijens (2002), Van Vugt (2002), and
In 1984, Stappers and Nillesen conducted a pilot study using the
Delphi-method. They examined the way government information officers
(N=27), journalists (N=17) and advertisers (N=17) see their own professions
and those of each other. The government information officers were selected
from a member list of the Dutch government information association (VVA,
later VVO, now Logeion).
As did Stappers and Nillesen, we focus on the answers of this specific
profession. 90% of the government information officers agree with
influencing communication about accepted policies; 10% do not agree. The
reverse is true for influencing communication about as of yet unadopted
policies: 10% agree, 90% do not agree with such communication in the
preparation stage of the policy-making process.
Stappers and Nillesen conclude that their findings are "not more than
cautious indications of direction for further research: it deals with
opinions of those directly involved given their own job situation and it
deals with a small sample of those working mainly for local governments"
Fifteen years later, Neijens started from this research gap and conducted a
large-scale survey that we discuss now.
In 2000, Neijens asked 363 government information officers using a mail
survey. The members of the Dutch government information association (VVO)
were contacted. The response rate was 51%: 363 out of the 711 VVO members
participated. Referring to research of Van Ruler (1996), Neijens concluded
that the non response was not selective and, consequently, cannot lead to
biases. Most of those questioned worked for local governments while 6%
had a job in the central government and 6% in the provincial government.
The communication professionals were 41 years old on average and had 10
years experience in that kind of job.
The most relevant question from Neijens' research is to what extent
government information officers agree with one specific objective of public
communication: influencing not yet adopted policies.
The agreement was measured through the question to what extent the
respondents find 'increasing public support for the policy plans of the
government' important. Neijens speaks about agreement if his respondents
call this objective 'important' or 'very important' on a 5 point scale
starting from very unimportant to very important.
Four out of five government communication professionals (81%) consider
influencing not yet adopted policies as a (very) important objective of
public communication. Our secondary analysis of Neijens' dataset
demonstrates that government communication professionals from the three
government levels do not significantly differ in opinion regarding this
question (p=.05). But, the longer the respondent does his job, the less
important he considers this objective (r=-.169; p=.00).
In 2001, Van Vugt asked via a mail survey of 207 government information
officers of national departments, provinces and cities about their
deontological dilemmas about government communication and party political
communication. Public communication about policy intentions is considered to
be an issue that clearly symbolizes this tension.
Van Vugt selected the government information officers in two ways. On the
one hand he used the website of the VVO (see above) mentioning the member
list along with their employers. Van Vugt then sent the VVO members of the
national departments, provinces and cities a questionnaire to them
individually. He also sent questionnaires to 95 of the largest Dutch cities,
all the provinces, and the national departments asking them to distribute
these questionnaires at random to increase the random characteristic of the
study ('not on personal name'). The response rate was low at 30%: 207 out
of the 699 contacted persons participated. The government communication
professionals were 40 years old on average and had 9,5 years experience in
that kind of job.
Van Vugt found that, in general, government communication professionals are
not inclined to serve party political interests within government
communication practice. However, in two specific situations they are
'sensitive' (expressed in values from 1 to 5) to the political interests -
if it concerns the image of the Minister, Mayor,... (mean==3,47; SD=1,10) or
if it concerns public communication about policy intentions (mean=3,62;
SD=1,13). According to Van Vugt (2004), a possible explanation is that
respondents consider public communication about policy intentions more
important or necessary for good policy-making than they consider the
possible political characteristic (Van Vugt, 2004). This explanation is not
yet empirically tested.
Van Vugt presented three statements regarding public communication about
policy intentions (translated):
- "I do not feel comfortable with public communication about policy
- "I follow the guidelines regarding public communication about policy
intentions as stipulated by the Committee on the Future of Government
- "If I collaborate with public communication about policy intentions, this
will have positive consequences for my career in the public sector''.
The respondents were asked to indicate on a 5 point scale to what extent
they agreed with these statements, going from 'do not agree at all' to
(1) 61.2% of the respondents feel uncomfortable with public communication
about policy intentions; 20.6% are neutral and 18.1% feel
(definitively) comfortable with such communication. The more respondents are
confronted with political party communication, the more uncomfortable they
feel with public communication about policy intentions.
(2) 42.4% of the respondents state they follow the guidelines of the
Committee on the Future of Government Communication regarding public
communication about policy intentions. 43.9% are neutral and 13.6% say
they do not follow these guidelines (at all).
(3) 62.1% (totally) disagrees with the statement that collaborating in
communication about policy intentions has positive consequences for career
development in the public sector. 32,5% are neutral while 5,4% agree.
In 2000, Smits interviewed the 13 dircoms of the Dutch central government
regarding their conceptions and attitudes regarding their job (see above).
Only 2 out of the 13 dircoms (15%) are clearly positive towards public
communication about policy intentions. They argue that in the current
'aggressive media democracy' the Government has to be strong and should be
allowed to use 'tricks'. These dircoms argue that the Government may be
unsuccessful if they are not allowed to communicate about policy intentions
using paid publicity such as newspaper ads or leaflets in the preparation
stage of the policy-making process. A minority is clearly against public
communication about policy intentions. They state that such communication
should only be allowed if the Parliament has adopted the governmental
announced policies. Most of the dircoms are situated between these two
points of view or do not take a clear position in this discussion.
The Dutch studies described above used differing research methods and
measured different aspects of the attitude regarding public communication
about policy intentions. This is summarized in the following table:
|Stappers & Nillesen
||influencing as of yet unadopted policy through communication is allowed
||public communication about policy intentions (very) important as objective of government communication
||not uncomfortable with public communication about policy intentions
||clearly pro public communication about policy intentions
Table 1: Overview Dutch studies on the attitude of government information officers regarding public communication about policy intentions
In the study of Stappers and Nillesen (1985), a minority of government
information officers (10%) were positive towards influencing public
communication about policy intentions. This result is typical in the context
of the eighties in which many discussions dealt with the allowing
The other studies (Neijens, Van Vugt, and Smits) were conducted about 15
years later (2000-2001) during a period in which the Dutch Committee on the
Future of Government Communication is more open to influencing communication
in the preparation stage of the policy-making process. Neijens concludes
that his research shows support from the government communication
professionals for this new, more offensive point of view and that much has
changed when compared to the research Stappers and Nillesen conducted in the
eighties. However, these results do not show that the current government
communication professionals are (very) comfortable with influencing public
communication about policy intentions as is demonstrated below in the
comparison of Neijens' data on the one hand and that of Van Vugt and Smits
on the other.
(1) In Smits' qualitative research, few dircoms are clearly for or against
public communication about policy intentions. This opinion differs from the
results in the other studies and is most likely due to the (qualitative)
face to face interview technique of Smits' research. Interviews are useful
to register non-verbal behavior and spontaneous reactions. At the same time,
there is less impression of anonymity. Consequently, the respondent may feel
less free to openly answer on threatening questions. The answers may be
partly a function of the behavior of the interviewer (Billiet, 1996).
According to Smits (2001a), the chance of socially desirable answers was low
as he promised anonymity to his interviewees and that they did not feel the
need (according to Smits) to be reserved with the (unknown) interviewer.
(2) The studies of Neijens and Van Vugt were conducted among relatively
comparable groups. At first glance, the two studies seem to measure
'agreement' of the respondents regarding public communication about policy
intentions. It seems that there is a big difference between the results of
Neijens and Van Vugt (respectively: 81% and 18,1%). But they measure
two different aspects that can explain the differing percentages. Neijens
asks the extent to which the respondents consider 'increasing public support
for policy plans of the government' important while Van Vugt asks to what extent his
respondents feel comfortable with public communication about policy intentions. As Neijens
(2005) comments, one can consider a task as important (e.g. firing someone
who does not do his job well) but may feel uncomfortable about that. This
difference in questioning may partly explain the differing percentages. We
believe that the positive versus negative loading/framing of the question is
another possible explanation for the different results. Neijens' questioning
leads the respondent towards more positive answers and the questioning of
Van Vugt leads the respondent towards more negative answers ("I feel
uncomfortable...") and to answers that are socially desirable ("I follow the
guidelines..." and "If I collaborate...").
The following two final remarks must be made.
Firstly, it is a negative aspect of the (general) mail surveys (Neijens and
Van Vugt) that they could not ask more specifically why respondents had
difficulties with public communication about policy intentions or not. For
example, what is the usefulness of the question if the respondents follow
the guidelines of the State Committee if there is no test of the
respondent's knowledge of these guidelines.
Secondly, in spite of the possible disadvantages of in-depth interviews
(used by Smits), it seems to be advisable to choose this kind of research if
one would like to gain insight into the attitude about such a sensitive
issue as public communication about policy intentions. Van Vugt (2002, 54)
himself remarks that qualitative research methods are more advisable than
quantitative postal surveys. That is the reason why Gelders chose interviews
for a recent Belgian survey (Gelders 2005, 2006).
In this article we first presented studies about the role of communication
professionals of the Dutch (central) government during policy-making
processes. Although Dutch civil servants play an important role in the
policy preparation stage and public communication has become increasingly
important, government communication professionals play a smaller role than
expected in the policy preparation stage.
Then we presented some available studies in which the attitude of Dutch
government communication professionals on this topic has been studied. As
public communication about policy intentions is only one of the many
aspects, this issue is not broadly studied. Other aspects are examined and
differing methods and forms of question are used. Most of the current
government professionals consider influencing public communication about
policy intentions as an important task for government communication
(Neijens, 2002) while government information officers did not agree with
such communication twenty years ago (Stappers and Nillesen, 1985). However,
many government communication professionals feel still uncomfortable with
public communication about policy intentions (Smits 2001; Van Vugt 2002).
There is clearly a new professional field in which `communicative
jurisprudence' should be elaborated.
A critical success factor is the successful interaction between
communication professionals and policy professionals.
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- In public communication about policy intentions, several types of
actors such as Members of Parliament, pressure groups, and the media are
and/or can be involved. However, we focus on communication coming from a
Minister of the Government about non-adopted parliamentary policies. This
type of communication is the most controversial. The recent Dutch Advisory
Committee on the Future of Government Communication (the Wallage Committee)
(CTO, 2001) gives a strong interpretation of the guidelines regarding
informing the public about policy intentions. The Wallage Committee states
that the citizen has the right to know the government's intentions as well
as its motives. The citizen receives contradictory information via news and
paid information by critics of the government's policy. As a result, it is
absolutely reasonable that the government can also use similar information
channels in the formulation stage of policy making (CTO, 2001).
- Developed by Helmer, Dalkey, Gordon and Kaplan (Rand Corporation,
US), the Delphi method is used to make predictions (Stappers and Nilessen,
1985). Typical of this method is the use of several phases in which
questionnaires are distributed to a series of individual experts (respecting
the anonymity of the respondents/experts). After each phase, feedback is
given to the respondents. This process is continued until there is a
convergence of opinion or no significant changes of opinion occur. Normally,
this process ends after two to five phases and results in a consensus of the
experts including their comments on the questionnaires. In the study of
Stappers and Nillessen three phases were organized.