Balanced distribution of seats an obstacle to water authorities’ decision-making

27 October 2017

According to researcher Koen van den Oever, there are various factors which hinder decision-making and innovation in Dutch water authorities. One of these is the distribution of seats within the authority: the more balanced the distribution, the more the decision-making is politically influenced. And that poses an obstacle. Van den Oever defended his PhD recently at Tilburg University, supported by NWO funding under the Research Talent programme.

Dutch polder landscape.Foto: Shutterstock

By analysing the minutes of all board meetings of Dutch water authorities from 2008 to 2014, Van den Oever charted the extent of political decision-making. He discovered that a board with a more balanced distribution of seats across the four categories of representatives – residents, farmers, nature managers and businesses – shows an increase in political activity at the expense of decision-making.

Van den Oever: ‘Where the distribution of seats is balanced, board members are more concerned with politics and self-interest than is good for the organisation. Especially where interests differ widely, there is a greater risk of withholding information, partisanship and arguing based on self-interest.’

Society emphasises efficiency and a lower tax burden, whereas the water authorities are being asked to come up with organisational changes and innovative solutions that can cope with climate change and extreme weather conditions. And political decision-making within the governing board of a water authority poses an obstacle to innovation. Van den Oever: ‘Take the construction of fish ladders, for example. Such an initiative may be important for the “Nature” sub-group, but is less likely to be approved by other groups such as “Residents”, which may cause a project to fail.’

Benefits

Conversely, Van den Oever discovered that short-term political decision-making benefits a water authority where it forms part of a consortium. In this case, the authority which operates more politically will derive more value from the consortium than members which are less politically adept. The downside is that, in the longer term, the other members of a consortium will penalise the first authority for taking this attitude.

Van den Oever advocates more rationality in the strategic decision-making of Dutch water authorities. ‘Be alert to the increase in political decision-making where the distribution of seats is balanced. Encourage clear, comprehensive analyses to support the decision-making process. Challenge other board members to substantiate their decisions, and contest claims that are politically motivated. Ask for clear explanations when a board member gives their opinion on a topic.’

The water authorities do a fantastic job for the Netherlands, says Van den Oever. ‘But it could be even better. I am convinced that my recommendations can contribute to this.’

Further information

Koen van den Oever (b. 1989) completed his thesis “Uncharted waters: A behavioral approach to when, why and which organizational changes are adopted” at Tilburg University, supported by funding under the NWO Research Talent programme. The supervisor and main applicant was Prof. X.Y.F. Martin and the associate supervisor was Dr N.Y. Ates.

 

Source: Tilburg University