New employees feeling left out

Utrecht School of Governance: ‘Informal’ atmosphere no longer works

USBO Bijlhouwerstraat foto DUB
Photo: DUB

That’s according to an exploratory report by formal general director Joop Kessels, released at the end of March and commissioned by the dean of the Faculty of Law, Economics & Governance. Last week, the report was distributed to employees and information meetings were held as well. Professor Kees van den Bos has been appointed to the role of "formateurto find a new head for the department.

A lot of things are going well at the (Dutch-taught) Management & Organisational Science programme, Kessels concludes in his report. The programme is well-positioned in the rankings, its research gets positive reviews and the consultancy work is growing. Nevertheless, dissatisfaction is lurking. The department was a forerunner for years, especially in the field of education, but some fear that they’re going to lose this position if nothing changes in the way the department is organised.

The need for change is partly to blame for the department’s considerable growth. At the end of 2022, there were 122 employees working there – a 43-percent growth over 2016. For this reason, the communication within the institute, which used to be seamless, is no longer as effective. Power is held by a small group, while another, ever-growing, group has no idea how decisions are made.  

The current culture at the Utrecht School of Governance is to write messages in an informal tone, when they should be adopting a more transparent, formal way of working. According to the scout, there should be room for a greater diversity of opinions, as well as cultural and academic backgrounds, in order to make everyone feel heard. It is clear that many new employees feel left out due to not having an overview of how the department works. They also have a strong feeling that their input is underappreciated.

Another point of criticism is the fact that the current administration is really conservative when it comes to entrepreneurship and innovation. For example, the brakes are quickly put on consultancy work if the investments are deemed too risky.

In addition, the Utrecht School of Governance should strive towards becoming a more diverse organisation. Both the student body and the staff are rather homogenous. Gender is the only aspect in which there is a bit more balance.

To maintain a vanguard position in the field of education, the school should have separate board members dedicated to the Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes. Currently, this is all done by the same person.

External visit
It is exceptional that the organisation has decided to hire a scout to bring these issues to light. Most employees’ reactions are positive. “It’s nice to have a conversation about questions like ‘Where do we stand?’ and ‘Where do we want to go?’. There are relevant outcomes on the table, based on meaningful and valuable observations that emerged through the conversations,” concludes Professor Mirko Noordergraaf. This type of meeting is becoming more and more common at external organisations, he finds. “The essence is that showing vulnerability is a sign of strength. The issues are not treated as ‘problems’, but rather as tension fields, such as how you can keep on working in an informal way in a growing organisation, while also formalizing things; how things can be organised in a fast or sluggish way, all the while working in a careful and transparent manner; and how we can be innovative while also being neat and professional.”

Professor Albert Meijer is the chair of the Public Governance & Management department. He acknowledges that the considerable growth rate is reason enough to evaluate if its current way of working is still suitable for the organisation’s size. “The report provides us with a useful reflection from an outsider and contains meaningful insights in terms of clarifying tasks and responsibilities, among others. As governance and organizational scientists, we frequently give others advice on these matters and we are well aware that an external view is extremely useful.”

Growing in leaps and bounds
Paul Boselie is the current head of the department. A few months ago, he announced his departure – not because he has or because of any kind of conflict but simply because his batteries are dead and he’s ready for a new challenge. He recognises many of the issues mentioned in the report. “We’ve grown in leaps in bounds, in many aspects. Not only in terms of administrative set-up but also in the building itself. We’ve been really successful with our research, education and consultancy work, but the question is how we can make this success last. That’s a relevant question. Since research director Judith van Erp and I have both announced our departures, this is a good moment to invite an external look into the organisation and see how things can be done differently. This report, therefore, provides a good set of starting points to make sure that the next administrators will be more transparent and provide better information.”

The fact that people ask “What is going on with you guys?” has not escaped Boselie’s attention. But he thinks it is a strength to invite someone else to evaluate your organisation. “Some people told me they found their conversation enjoyable and meaningful.”

A clash between culture and structure
Janneke Plantenga, dean of the Faculty of Law, was the one who commissioned the evaluation. “There was a window of opportunity. Two managers were leaving and it would be a shame if the knowledge they built would go away too. Besides, it was already clear that the department was going through some growing pains. That’s why I concluded that such a report would be a great opportunity to define a profile for the new department head, as well as to give the managers tools to change the structure. I noticed that there wasn't a balance between culture and structure. So, how can we work on this problem together?”

The report speaks of a “solidified” relationship between the Faculty Board and the department. Plantenga: “The department has its own culture and its own manners. We, the faculty board, have it as well. So, sometimes we had to search for how you’re supposed to deal with one another. The fact that they’re in different buildings doesn’t help, either. People don’t just stumble upon each other. This report indicates that communication to and fro doesn’t always run smoothly. The conclusion is that it is time for the new departmental and faculty boards to make new agreements.”

Clear message
In the past, the department heads in the Faculty of Law, Economics & Governance became vice-deans automatically, which means they were closely linked to the decision-making process, but that was abandoned a few years ago, which increased the distance between the faculty board and the department. “I was in favour of that too,” says Plantenga. “Otherwise, you get a form of conflict of interest, which we’d rather avoid.”

Plantenga is really satisfied with the external report. “That’s exactly what I had in mind. A lot of information has emerged in a short amount of time. The message is clear and it will help us find a new head for the department.”