Interview Marieken Westerink

Marieken Westerink is a strategic advisor to the police force management of the National Police, where she focuses on political-administrative issues and organizational developments. She focuses specifically on the themes of diversity, inclusion, social safety, including discrimination, racism, and transgressive behaviour. Flevum spoke with her about her task within the Netherlands Police, and how diversity & inclusion are an essential part of business operations.

A complex playing field with major issues
They are complicated themes with tough issues, Marieken says. In this complex playing field with many players, it is difficult, almost impossible, to keep everyone happy. There are no simple solutions. This is precisely the challenge for Marieken, who once started as a spokesperson for the Almere Police. After a few years she moved on to the national recruitment and selection center of the Police. ”The topics of a spokesperson often only have a duration of three days. I wanted to dig into bigger issues, which started with managing the recruitment campaigns for new agents. At the time, the Police was still part of the Ministry of the Interior, and the then Minister Guusje ter Horst had diversity high on the agenda. So at that time we could specifically recruit people with migrant backgrounds, women and gay men, groups that we desperately needed, were underrepresented within the Police and for which we had to do extra effort to recruit them.”

After the formation of the National Police in 2012-2013, she transferred to a function as quartermaster to eventually take up her current position. She soon found out that the Police has a rich history of diversity and inclusion initiatives, but that these often got stuck at project level. And as soon as the project ended, the focus subsided.

No weapons for the ‘girls’
”It’s good to look back, because sometimes you forget what has already been achieved within your organization. In the 1950s and 1960s, the National Police still had recruitment campaigns for ‘men of the deed’. It wasn’t until the late 1960s, early 1970s that the first female officers were given a service weapon to keep in their shoulder bag; it would be too dangerous for the ‘girls’. In that respect, we have come this far at the Police with 34% female executives and 49% women in the strategic top. But we have to. Our credo is: the Police for everyone. You cannot achieve this without diversity. Yet the Police also needed pressure from outside for extra attention and urgency around the subject. And more importantly, we have to move away from project-based work. Diversity & inclusion in the composition of your team and organization should be the most natural thing in the world.”

Although the vision is clear, it remains difficult to include all employees in this line. Not surprising, when you consider that the Police of the Netherlands, with almost 70,000 employees, is the largest employer in our country. There are also local cultural differences. “In rural areas, diversity has a different appearance than in the big cities; there, knowing what is going on in the agricultural sector, for example, is an advantage, while in Rotterdam and Amsterdam it must be well connected with groups with different cultural backgrounds. As a police we want to be recognizable and approachable for the entire society, because of our large size we are also a mini-society ourselves. What happens outside, also happens inside. Therein lies a responsibility: people can report discrimination to us, so we are also expected to set a good example. Not everyone is always sharp in the hectic day-to-day life and things go wrong, so we have to be alert to that.”

That alertness and awareness already starts with drafting the vacancy, and the question of who you need. How do you make sure you don’t choose a copy of yourself? Marieken: “It is very natural to choose who looks like you: in the end most people trust themselves, and it can be exciting to choose someone with whom you are very different. That awareness needs continuous maintenance.”

The two sides of the quota
When implementing diversity through a preferential policy, it is essential to stay sharp. The Police has had experience with quotas since the 1980s, with trial and error. “It comes very precisely with quotas, and it can have perverse effects. This quickly goes wrong with angry people who feel they don’t have an equal chance anymore.” The Netherlands Police currently has a target figure for the influx of new officers with a migration background. The word quota is often sensitive, and Marieken also emphasizes the delicate balance it contains.

”On the one hand, it is a good way to keep the focus of the vacancy holders, selection committee and HR support on the ambition to become more diverse. As a top, you send out a clear signal, and you can focus on it. At the same time, there is the risk that the measurable is elevated to the goal. It won’t help you to achieve a target figure if everyone then flows out again. In addition, there is a risk that the intention disappears from view and people can hardly resist the temptation to fiddle with numbers and definitions in order to achieve it. So you have to pay a lot of attention to it. If you can’t explain properly and clearly why you’re doing it, it’s better not to. The people you reject need to hear a good and true story, otherwise you will organize your own hassle.”

Business issue and noblesse oblige
For many companies, D&I is still a side effect, but at the Police of the Netherlands it goes further than that. “For us, it is first and foremost a business issue: if we are not connected to all groups in society and know what is going on, then we cannot do our job. So it really comes down to the quality of police work. If you have a homogeneously composed group of detectives, the chance of tunnel vision and misconceptions is much higher. In addition, we need it to actually recruit people. The pool of employees who naturally have an interest in the Police has become too small and the competition is fierce, so to fill vacancies we must focus on the influx of diversity. And in the end we also feel it as noblesse oblige: as part of the government and the largest employer, you have to set a good example.”

The implementation of the vision is a good issue for such a large organization, where major changes “cannot be called out during a meeting in the canteen”. Marieken emphasizes the importance of the executive leader and his intrinsic motivation. ”Otherwise you can do things in the margins, but the real movement will not come. Not so much as a steering mechanism, but mainly to support and give direction to all those people in the teams who feel the urgency and want to take a step forward – they are always there. Because without enthusiasm and desire in the workplace you will not get anything moving.” In addition, organizations must lay down a clear ambition within a clear framework, with room for speed and activities per team: the end point and the course are clear and each team determines for itself how she sails sharply on the wind. Local customization is needed to make a difference in all different regions and circumstances. Finally, project-based work is a pitfall for D&I, because after the project ends, it sinks again. “If you make it a project, it’s separate from everyone you need. Make D&I part of your regular processes as much as possible and as quickly as possible, otherwise the implementation will be difficult and it will be cut back in difficult years.”

Canaries in the Coal Mine
Diversity and inclusion is not a nice side effect, but a necessity, Marieken concludes. As part of the government, the Netherlands Police is under a magnifying glass and there are 17 million chiefs of police. “I think we are one of the few organizations that is so open about the challenges in D&I and little goes unnoticed. At the same time, that is part of our responsibility, and a good accelerator for actual change. At the same time, this is an issue that must be socially supported. With the increasing polarization in society and social dissatisfaction, it is essential to keep looking for connection, as a police but also as a society. In my opinion, you have to ensure that employees can speak up if they see things go wrong at work because of organizational choices or with the work atmosphere. When something goes wrong, it is often the minority groups that feel it first. They are, as it were, our canaries in the coal mine. Listening carefully to minority groups is therefore not a luxury matter, but is desperately needed to keep all employees in their strength and to keep both an organization and company running.”

On September 15, Marieken Westerink will provide a D&I session for the Board of Directors network. During this session she will elaborate on the implementation of the D&I policy within the Netherlands Police, and what lessons the business community can learn from this. You are cordially invited to this. You can register via this link.

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