To make the right choice, you need independent data

/ Author: Masja de Ree
© Sjoerd van der Hucht
When he became Director of the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) in 2013, Prof. Kim Putters set himself the goal of making a real contribution to important social debates. He has surpassed himself. Putters stresses the importance of objective data collection.

Connection

Putters has seen an increase in SCP’s influence when it comes to social debates. ‘SCP has been around since 1973, when the Institute mainly focused its efforts on cultural issues. SCP grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s and began to seek out more connections with other social organisations and society at large. I’ve tried to continue that work. In recent years we have focused even harder on finding a connection between research, the public debate and policy decisions. You can see that effort, for example, in the role we played in last year’s process of forming the government, when we were repeatedly asked to share our insights about Dutch society with the negotiators for the Rutte III cabinet.’

Fulfilling agreements

Putters believes that one reason why SCP has been able to raise its profile is the way the organisation has developed, but that the current social context has also played a role. ‘Simply understanding the economy is no longer enough to gain insights into society. Social and cultural insights and information about citizens’ views are also really important. That is why our involvement in the formation of the government and the annual budget was crucial.’ The focus on well-being across society is also part of that effort. Putters is enthusiastic about the way Statistics Netherlands (CBS) has implemented its Monitor of Well-being. ‘We can make things even better by expanding cooperation and developing this further, and that’s what I intend to focus on. One essential point is what actually happens as a result of the survey and to our own research into well-being. Politicians may ask us for information, but do they actually translate the facts we share into concrete action? I see it as the responsibility of the makers to follow that up. We have to make sure the departments can produce good-quality policy. It’s also reasonable for us to expect them to fulfil their side of the agreements, or to let us know if they need more information.’

Change of course

SCP’s instructions for the next few years are: ‘do more with less’. ‘That means we have to make choices and focus extra attention on the presentation of our research,’ Putters explains. ‘We want to create more connections between issues such as working, learning and caring. That’s why we introduced three strategic lines last year that are in line with key social issues: quality of life, social inclusion and exclusion, and the changes to the welfare state. That’s what our research will focus on in the near future.’
The connection between the various social domains represents a change of course for SCP. ‘That’s part of the thinking about well-being, and it relates to the emphasis on the question of what effective policy looks like. For some time now, we have been looking into which policies – for example anti-poverty measures – really help individual citizens. That brings us closer to people’s day-to-day lives. We have always put the citizen first in our research, and we have to continue to do that today, because we are increasingly seeing that vulnerable people are falling through the cracks in the government’s systems and regulations. They can no longer see the wood for the trees.’

‘An organisation like CBS is a mark of civilisation for a country’

Reliable data

SCP uses a great deal of data from CBS. Putters is very happy with CBS’s data and the service CBS provides. ‘Reliable data are at the heart of our positive relationship. I feel it’s important to work together to ensure that these important, independent data collections continue to be made. Data on security and social issues are often under threat in times of budget cuts, because they are usually not compulsory within the European context. But such data are indispensable for our research and for our understanding of social and cultural relations in the Netherlands. This puts both SCP and the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency in a vulnerable position. Economic statistics on the other hand are usually compulsory.’

Achilles heel

Putters speaks positively about the collaboration with CBS. ‘Take our research into status holders, for example, or the Emancipation monitor that is coming out in December. We’ve each got our separate roles in those collaborative projects, but we can still support each other’s work, for example by organising joint seminars.’ The fact that the relationship with CBS is good does not mean that SCP faces no challenges in terms of data. ‘For example, our research into public health and health care is hampered by the fact that we have no information about the group of patients who need care but are not getting it. The research needed to obtain that information costs a lot of money. So far, the government hasn’t had spare funding to pay for that, even though it’s so important; this group of patients – the people who are missing – are the Achilles heel of care policy.’

A mark of civilisation

Putters finds that policy makers, politicians and the wider society sometimes fail to realise the importance of CBS as an independent data collector. ‘If you want to make the right choices, you need independent data. An organisation like CBS is a mark of civilisation for a country. If there’s no institution like CBS, that is a threat to a free society. You can see that all around the world. In this time of fake news and doubts about government policy, it’s important to recognise how essential CBS and planning agencies are to society. They produce objective facts about society from an impartial perspective.’

Stand up straight

The independence of research carried out by ministries and associated organisations has been a key issue recently. How does SCP safeguard its independence and objectivity? According to Putters, ‘We come under the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, and our independence is assured by the “Directions for the planning agencies”. Although the ministry provides our budget, SCP determines the actual content of the work we do. As the director, I’m responsible for safeguarding that independence.’ Twice a year, SCP visits the departments to find out what their important issues are. In combination with the situation in society and the professionals’ own insights, that determines the programme for SCP’s work. The method is scientific, with a strong emphasis on proper methodology and quality control, not least by reading committees whose members include external experts. However, Putters stresses that objectivity ultimately comes down to people. ‘Professionalism is very important to us, and I expect the same professionalism from the people who work at the ministries. They must not massage the data to protect the minister’s position. That is especially important. The government’s design of legislation and the agreements surrounding independent research are good, but the implementation of those agreements does not always go as intended. The agreements have to be implemented by people, and sometimes those people use a different interpretation of the rules. If there’s a concern that that is the case, as a researcher you have to stand up straight and draw attention to that. Our independence has to take priority. SCP employees know they can come to me if they feel they are being pressured in any way.’

‘Everyone wants to know the story behind the figures’
Kim Putters talks about his personal role as the Director of the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP): ‘I am enthusiastic about what we investigate, and I let that show. We investigate the issues citizens are dealing with. I’m flattered that people listen to me.’ It does have its downsides, he says with a smile. ‘The number of requests to give talks is going up. From small associations to large-scale organisations and the government, everyone wants to know the story behind the figures.’ When the new government was making its plans, Gert-Jan Segers from the ChristianUnion party talked about a ‘Kim Putters test’ for new policy, to make sure no one falls through the cracks. ‘That’s nice to hear, although of course I was presenting research that’s been done by SCP as a whole. But it’s like I said before: I want to know that the test will actually achieve something. We don’t do research for nothing. Unfortunately, that’s not always the way it works out.’