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'Civil servants seem to have relatively more power than the minister'

Marlinde Kapteijn studied Public Administration at Leiden University and decided to apply for an internship after her bachelor. While she enjoyed the internship and was able to learn a lot, she also had to get used to it: 'I had not expected the ministry to be so hierarchical.'

Where did you do your internship?

Marlinde: 'I did an internship at the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations and specifically at the Directorate-General for Governance, Spatial Planning. I was stationed at the Political Officers and Resilience Department which is part of the Democracy and Governance Directorate.'

Marlinde Kapteijn.

How incredibly specific

'Yes, the ministry as a whole is very hierarchical. In the beginning, I thought, 'I'll just be working in one department', but you have so many managers and you're such a small link in a bigger whole, it's simply impossible to do anything without consulting others. Everyone always has something to say about your work, because there are a lot of people above you.'

Is that something you was not aware of before you started the internship?

'I did know that the organisation consisted of different layers, but I didn't expect it to be so hierarchical. Basically, you have to consult with the director, the director-general or sometimes even the minister on all the things you come up with and want to implement. That's why everything takes so much time and that was a new experience for me.' 

Can you give some examples of the things you dealt with as an intern?

'I did an awful lot. For example, I prepared and attended meetings, took notes, engaged in maintaining existing partner relationships, and made new connections. I did that by managing people's agendas, for instance. I also attended consultations with the minister, went to lectures, and helped implement a law, that proved to be quite controversial.'

Which law was that?

'It is the Special Measures Metropolitan Issues Act. It means that municipalities can ask the minister permission to exclude or favour certain groups in the allocation of housing in certain problem neighbourhoods, which the municipality has already designated in advance. This could include people with criminal records or benefits, who would not be allowed to live in the designated neighbourhood, or care workers or teachers who would be given priority to live in the neighbourhood. The idea is that through selective housing allocation you take problem neighbourhoods out of the problem situation, but of course that’s quite controversial.' 

What was your role in all this?

'I was actually involved in advising the minister because she did not know all the details. That isn't that surprising, to be honest, as she has so many people working for her, thousands even. When the minister had a committee debate in the House and received questions about that law, my colleagues and I had to formulate the answers to those questions, and she would go and read them out. In this way, civil servants seem to have relatively more power than the minister. But then again, the minister is mainly there for political interests, while the civil servants are there to assist the minister with all the fine details. 

About that controversial law: how did you feel about it? And could you, as a trainee, properly participate in something you might not support?

'I found it difficult. I also talked about it with my internship supervisor. I indicated that it wasn't something I could fully support, but it's still your job. As a civil servant, you can't simply say that you don’t want to implement something because it might not suit your political opinion. You have quite a lot of room, as a civil servant, to put your own stamp on policies. It's not as if all policy is handed down from above.'

Did the internship also help you find out whether this job is for you?

'I really enjoyed the work, but as you can see, I found the bureaucratic aspect quite difficult at times. I often wanted to take decisions too quickly, but then it still had to be discussed within the ministry. I also noticed that I missed studying, so I started a new master's programme. But I won’t rule out working at the ministry again one day. It takes some getting used to when you do an internship, and I would advise students who want to do an internship to write down things you don't understand and just ask for help. Don't think you're stupid if you don't understand something or that it's weird to ask for something.'

Text: Abdelkarim Megaiz

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