Six lessons in policymaking from Dutch politician Lilianne Ploumen

How to master the art of compromise?

When the Dutch Member of Parliament and former Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Lilianne Ploumen expressed her wish to speak with university students after a political engagement in her birth city of Maastricht on 30 January 2020, we cordially invited her to meet with students from our Master's in Public Policy and Human Development.

Ms. Ploumen was happily surprised to be greeted by her fellow Labour Party member and former Dutch Minister of Education Prof. Jo Ritzen: "Hello dear Jo, what are you doing here?" she exclaimed.

It was her first visit to our new building in the former industrial area of Maastricht, and she warmly praised its renovated and welcoming appearance: "When I was young, this part of town was neglected, and our moms and dads wouldn't want us to go to the bars here. It gives me great pleasure to see this part of the city becoming one with the city centre, because it has been quite isolated for a long time, and I do think that cities and people who live in cities benefit from an integrated town with a great level of services. So it's really good to see that you're now using this building to work and study in it."

In her words of welcome, programme director Dr. Julieta Marotta emphasised Ms. Ploumen's relentless energy for change: "There is a pattern in her work, a motivation for doing things that are societally relevant. Lilianne Ploumen has always been fighting for her ideas in different roles. She started as a marketing and research manager and worked as a consultant, as an activist, and now as a politician. She was able to express herself in these different roles, always pushing for what she believed was right."

Looking inspired, Ms. Ploumen put her written speech aside and announced: "Let me build upon this idea, on the different roles that one can take to achieve what we are striving for. Because I think that it's interesting for you to think about what is the best position or the best strategy to turn ideas into policy and then to turn policy into action."

Lilianne Ploumen went on to give six lessons in the art of policymaking, drawing on her extensive experience in public policy.

Lesson 1: It's a great job to be a member of parliament. It's a great feeling when you're in the bus on the way to parliament in the morning, and a woman approaches you and says: 'You know, I have this issue, and I don't feel that anyone in politics is paying attention to it, or is even understanding why it's so important to me. I feel as if I don't have a voice. But I just saw you now and I thought 'I'm going to tell her and ask her if she can look into the issue, and maybe be my voice.'

This happens to me every day and that's really, really wonderful. Of course, not every issue can be taken to parliament. Not every issue is an issue that I believe in myself. But it's great that people approach you and actually say such words to you, that they would like you to be their voice in parliament.

There are also downsides to being a member of parliament, but these are very few. In the Netherlands we have a very, let me say, sophisticated and respectful parliament, which makes it nice to have debates. The only downside I would see is that we also have a very developed industry of lobbyists and advocates for all kinds of causes, who approach you every day, which can be quite boring. I know that you take courses in, you know, agenda setting, about how to influence policies and politics. Am I right? Well, I would encourage you to try and see it as a fulfilment for yourself and your own ideas and not as a profession. Because as a politician, I'm much more inclined to listen to the woman in the bus than to a lobbyist who works for a firm that has been hired by one of the larger pharmaceutical companies for example.

Lesson 2: You will have much more influence if what you bring to the table is something that really moves you. In other words, if you are defending an issue that is very close to your heart, then you can be a very powerful advocate.

Lesson 3: Enjoy where you are and try to benefit as much as possible from the time that you are spending here at university. Of course, I'm pre-internet and I have this very attractive image in my mind of myself sitting at a desk like this and having to read a thousand pages for an exam. Do you still have that, a thousand pages to read? I knew back then that through my head, these pages would eventually make me much much richer and I can sometimes really, really dream of that time because I loved it so much, the time when I had to be very concentrated but very focused, very absorbing. And then of course pushing myself to think about what it all meant to me and to my ambitions.

Lesson 4: Don't waste your knowledge. Once you've studied all these pages, be very strategic about what you will do with your knowledge. As your director mentioned, I have quite a diverse CV, I have worked in the private sector, I have worked at NGOs, some more mainstream NGOs, some more radical NGOs. I was a member of the government and now I'm a member of parliament. I wouldn't suggest that there was a plan behind it. I mean, that would be not true. But it would not be true either if I told you that things just happened to me.

Smiling at Jo Ritzen sitting in the audience, Lilianne Ploumen said: "I actually need to say something to Jo about this. I worked at a large NGO and I was becoming more and more active in the Labour Party and I met Jo. He's a former Minister of Education and he probably doesn't remember this but at one point, he did two things for me. The first one is that he said to me - and this is maybe 20 years ago: 'You know, you would be a very good mayor of any city. Have you ever thought of becoming a mayor?' I had never, never thought about that. It never occurred to me. But because he said that, he kind of opened the totally new window of opportunity that challenged me to think about the question: 'Okay, so if I don't want to be a mayor, what else can I do with the talents that I have in a more public and political space?' The second thing Jo did for me was that when he he stepped down as a minister, he wrote a book about how to be a minister basically. And he gave me the book 15 years ago, long before I became a minister myself, and he wrote in the book, 'Just put this next to your bed because one day it will be very useful to you'. But some time later, I was asked to become a minister and there was your book, Jo, it was very useful! Did I ever tell you that?"

Lesson 5: Be open to people who look at you in a different way. And really be open to the perspectives that they offer you and be open to explore avenues that you never thought of yourself. So my call to you is: Don't waste your talents.

Lesson 6: Be strategic about the choices that you make. There's always a position, a role, or a voice that you have or that you can create that has more impact than any other at a given time. I used to work at a women's group called Mama Cash. We funded small women's groups all over the world, groups that worked outside of the mainstream and that also sometimes were marginalised. At that time, I thought that this was the best place for me to be and try and build a collective that could make a difference. And at one point, I thought, there's also an option to work inside the system and try to change it from within. Both ways are very valid, there is not one way that is better or worse or more effective.

But I do think that it is important to use your talents to the fullest. It really helps to think strategically about: 'What do I care about, on what issues do I want to make a difference? And where is the position that allows me to do that?'

For all the talk in your books about agenda setting and policy and politics, it really comes down to your own ability to bring the issues that you are proud and feel strong about to the table. I'm a very rational person, and I used to think that it really doesn't matter who brings something to the table because that perspective is valid in itself. But I have to admit that I have also learned that if you are able to build a coalition as a minister, with like-minded colleagues, people that you like, that you can relate to, it's a kind of collective that is much stronger than when it's only a very functional collective.

I have learned to kind of allow my personal preferences to play a role in the policies that I create and the politics that I do. In order to be effective in policymaking, you need to be able to really think what your key issue is, you need to think about who you need to be able to build a coalition with and also, on what issues you will be willing to make compromises. Because there's no such thing as policies or politics without compromises.

Now, we tend to think about compromises as a bad thing, because we say that compromises mean that have an opinion and that you water it down, because someone else thinks differently and you want to meet them in the middle. Please don't do that.

In the Netherlands we're a country of coalitions. We have only been able to build this country, the seventh economy of the world, by being willing to make compromises.

I don't know what they teach you about compromises, but really don't regard it as a second best option. The quality of being able to think about how to meet the needs of the other person or constituency is a very strong quality. And if there's anything that you can learn from this country, in case you are not from this country, I would say that it's the art of compromising. Without compromise most of the Netherlands would have been under sea-level and would have been drowned because farmers, hunters, city folk, everyone had to come together and think about how to make sure that we build dikes that protect all of us. And so it's really in our DNA to try and find common ground.

So these would be my last words to you as future policymakers: Try to see a compromise not as a watered down opinion, but as a very strong common ground.

Media credits: UNU / H.Pijpers; WTO / Studio Casagrande