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Lessons from a 'reorganisation' of the Netherlands's police force: a reality check on what it takes to deliver large-scale systemic change for improved public services.

A blog by Deirdre Casella and Patrick Moriarty

A bit of fascinating news from the Netherlands about ongoing large-scale efforts to transform the public sector offers (with only minor massaging) lessons about the inherent complexity of delivering large-scale systemic change for the WASH sector.

The Dutch Police Force: a simple reorganisation or large-scale sector change?

National news in The Netherlands in late-August 2015, was awash with headlines such as 'Reorganising national police force definitely twice as costly: 460 million euros' ( and 'Significantly more time and money for police force reorganisation' ( / ANP).

Originally slated for completion by 2015, the Netherlands Ministry of Safety and Justice at last confirmed rumours that this large-scale, systemic change process would now require three additional years, and twice-as-much money as envisaged.

The intended aim of the reorganisation was a modern, more agile police force delivering improved public safety services. In practice, the reorganisation meant that the existing decentralised organisational arrangements would change from 25 regionally-based police corps plus a national police services corps into a single, centralised, National Police Force consisting of 10 regional units, 43 districts and 168 so called 'basis teams'.

Looked at through a complexity lens, several aspects of this large-scale reform process offer lessons for the WASH services sector as we pursue the aim of sustainable services for all people by 2030.

To start with, there is the embrace of systems thinking and complexity sciences by politicians, policy makers and decision takers to justify the seemingly costly and time-intensive course correction. This course correction is an important public recognition of a classic oversell about the straightforwardness of the reorganisation deemed necessary to improve a particular type of public service: public safety. Yet public safety is a far-reaching public service and the 'reorganisation' in practice involved changes across multiple autonomous, yet inter-connected organisations operating across multiple institutional levels: the Ministry of Safety and Justice, regional police force units, provincial government, private sector contractors and local municipalities nationwide (to name a few).

Primary functions related to public safety, namely crime prevention and detection, remain the remit of the police force. Other public order and safety functions like traffic regulation, surveillance and enforcement of local public ordinances have been transferred to municipal-level authorities. These actors are inter-connected through laws, policies, contracts, norms, values and individual interests - as well as a vast support infrastructure for knowledge and information management, transportation, human resources management, learning and communication.

For an unashamed complexity nerd, this hugely ambitious process is a fantastic case study of an immensely well-funded change process with a very clear desired impact hitting the wall of a dynamic socio-technical system - what we complexity nerds call any system of interconnected networks of people and infrastructure that are governed by public policy in a multi-scale institutional context – e.g. public safety, education, health or indeed our own WASH (Dijkema et al, 2013; Ghorbani, 2013).

In a public address announcing the time and budget increases, Minister of Justice van der Steur said 'it became clear along the way that a reorganisation of this size and scope could not be planned in fine detail in advance' that not only were there 'too many things that need to happen all at once' but also that there was 'insufficient expertise within the police force to implement all the reorganisation elements successfully'. Surprisingly, the two leading political parties in the current coalition government of the Netherlands, the Labour party (PvdA) and the Liberal party (VVD), while of distinctly different political leanings are nevertheless in agreement about the wisdom of the extension of time and financial resources. The liberal party representative considers this ability to steer a necessary course correction based upon the prevailing circumstances to be a sign of 'rational realism'.

So far so #firstworldproblem! What does this have to say to our own world of WASH – where similarly bold aims (universal access by 2030!) are pushed with orders of magnitude lower budgets?

Lessons about large-scale systemic change processes

The first lesson is that large-scale systemic change processes are inherently complex. This is the inescapable reality borne of the sheer size, scope and number of 'moving parts' (actors, organisations, technical artefacts and institutions) that they contain.

The water sector is no exception. With multiple actors across multiple institutional levels, a complex, dynamic system of people and infrastructure are constantly interacting to deliver water services. Take the example of introducing new service delivery indicators into the national water monitoring systems. Modifying or updating water services indicators and the monitoring systems in which they feature is an inherently complex endeavor involving many 'moving parts'. It is not simply a case of updating a nation's policy to include new indicators. Nor is it merely a matter of adopting new monitoring approaches that may include new applications of ICT tools to capture new metrics in real time. It is both of these plus several other changes all happening simultaneously that need to be finely tuned to one another. Lastly, ensuring that robust and reliable information is obtained through the new metrics and methods is one challenge. Making sense of the information in relevant sector platforms is art form in its own right.

Dealing with change in these systems lies in being open about what is and isn't working – and unafraid about course correcting as you move along.

It is easy (and arguably the main job of all politicians!) to underestimate the complexity of such change processes while overselling the simplicity of achieving desired outcomes (this is not just a bit of facile point scoring against politicians – the biggest danger of understanding the challenge of driving change through complex systems is of freezing like a rabbit in the headlights while mouthing the mantra "it's all very complicated"!). So the Dutch police example is excellent in showing not just initial clarity of vision, but also that the way forward in dealing with change in these systems lies in being open about what is and isn't working – and unafraid about course correcting as you move along (even if that includes doubling budgets and timeframes!).

This case clearly illustrates several of the fundamental elements of such large-scale change processes: having a shared vision of the need and direction of desired change; a common understanding of the challenges that need to be addressed; strong political leadership; and, support for the involvement of multiple actors across multiple levels of institutions to identify and test solutions. All of this backed by a common means of monitoring and assessing signs of progress and change.

A second striking aspect about this very first world story is the magnitude – in time and money – of resources required to achieve the change.

The initial proposal to reorganise the police force was approved by Parliament in 2006. The law required to make the proposed public safety sector reform a reality was ratified in 2012. Operational implementation started in January 2013. To arrive at a shared, broadly-supported, legally-founded vision of a new organisational arrangement for the delivery of public safety services took six years. Following two and half years of implementation, in mid-August 2015, the year slated for completion of the reform process, government announced its intention to extend the implementation phase from three to six years – bringing the projected time for the entire transformation process to a total of 12 years (2006 – 2018).

To get a sense of the cost of delivering the desired change, the total change process budget, excluding recurring operating, has increased from € 230 million to € 460 million. So, on an annual basis, the budget for the change process is just shy of € 77 million.

The costs involved in the process of delivering the change often represents only a small percentage of the total spend on the system.

With a staff of 50,000 police and 15,000 support staff, the average annual operating costs (including human resources and materials) of the Dutch National Police Force is approximately 5.2 billion euros (Rijksoverheid, 2014). In other words, the annual cost of the transformation represents around 1.5% of the annual operating costs for the police force. 

So, large scale change processes require relatively large amounts of time and money – and more often than not, they require much more time and money than initially anticipated for the desired change to be successfully achieved. That said, the costs involved in the process of delivering the change often represents only a small percentage of the total spend on the system that is to be changed. IRC's own experiences with sector change in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda among others, provide concrete examples of how to work to deliver change in such a dynamic setting. We deliver systemic change on a budget of approximately €1 million per year. While some consider this 'expensive', when compared to annual operational costs of delivering water services, is a relatively modest amount to spend on ensuring that services will last.

The third lesson arises from Van der Steur's comment about the absence of the requisite expertise within the police force to oversee the change process. IRC and our partners work with the notion of the 'hub' organisation whose role is to support stakeholders within a given context to identify and scale solutions. FSG, another global organisation dedicated to delivering lasting large-scale social change refer in their Collective Impact work to a 'backbone' organisation. Hubs and backbone organisations are autonomous stakeholders with expert knowledge of the system undergoing change and demonstrated expertise in delivering systemic change. The lesson we take from Van der Steur's comment is the importance of obtaining expert change facilitation skills along with the the fact that external support may be required to provide this support in an objective and accountable manner. 


Through IRC's research on approaches for delivering change in complex adaptive systems, we look to other sectors facing similar challenges to learn from their experiences. As this case study confirms, such change is inherently complex. It takes time and money and requires specific skills sets to drive the change forward. We have seen that embracing a systems perspective in large-scale change processes opens the possibility to work in an structured, yet adaptive manner in which course correction is a sign of 'rational realism' rather than a sign of failure. So, we are not doomed to freeze with fear like the rabbit in the headlights, what a relief! Also, deeper analysis of the costs related to implementing the change process reveals that while at a glance these may appear high, when taken against operational costs the costs are fairly modest as indicated by the 1.3% figure (really quite a steal!). Finally, the example highlights the fact that it may be hard to deliver change when one if fully embedded within a system. Delivering large scale change requires specific skills and expert knowledge as well as objectivity about the system, the envisaged change and all the 'moving parts'. 

These lessons hold relevance for actors working towards universal water services for everyone, everywhere. On September 25th, the Global Goals for Sustainable Development were declared. Bilateral and multi-lateral donors and financiers are now queuing up to declare their support for achieving these Goals by 2030. Despite that being 15 years from now, the challenge is quite immediate with the need to bring water to 660 million and sanitation to 2.4 billion who don't have it now as well as cater for the 1.2 billion new people who'll be sharing the planet with us by 2030. Achieving this will require large-scale change in how the WASH sector finances and delivers water services. So, irrespective of the lens you look through, complexity or otherwise, we don't have a minute to spare!  

POSTSCRIPT: On October 1st 2015, Chief of Police Gerard Bouman of the Dutch National Police Force resigned. National headlines on that date? 'Chief of Police departs due to struggles with reorganisation'.

Perhaps the meta-lesson of this case study, reaching beyond the fact that delivering large-scale systemic change is complex in nature and requires time and money, is that leading such change is rarely a popular endeavor. Strong (governmental) leadership that acknowledges from the outset that the envisaged change is in fact a large-scale transformation and all of the complexity that this entails might initially scare people off. But, in the long run, such openness may avoid shocker headlines about the need for course corrections, increasing costs, time and the 'unanticipated' overall complexity of the effort. 


Dutch language news websites:

  1. Haenen, M. Reorganisatie politie definitief twee keer zo duur: 460 miljoen. online version, 31 August 2015.
  2. Haenen, M. Politiesbaas Bouman Weg om Worstelingen met reorganisatie. online version, 1 October 2015. .
  3. Volkskrant /ANP, 31 August 2015. Fors meer tijd en geld voor reorganisatie politie. .
  4., 31 August 2015. Nationale Politie Vertraagd en Twee Keer Zo Duur.

English language news website:

  1., 31 August 2015. Police force reorganisation to cost double the budget.



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