The Secretary General is a powerful figure, but also increasingly controversial

The Secretary General is a powerful figure, but also increasingly controversial

Gert-Jan Buitendijk (1967) has a medium build, a broad smile and short, spiky hair. Since 2020, the former CDA councilor from Hoeksche Waard has been Secretary General (‘SG’) of the Ministry of General Affairs. Gert-Jan Buitendijk will welcome whoever becomes Prime Minister on the doorstep of the Torentje. Together they will cross the minefields of national government. If the adventure ends prematurely in tears, the Secretary General provides the tissues.

Buitendijk is the last in a row of twelve post-war highest civil servants in General Affairs who are portrayed by Roel Bekker (1947), one of the best-known experts in the field of the Civil Service. Bekker was not only a top official in numerous ministries for decades, including the highest official in the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. In 2012 he published the well-informed Marathon runners around the Binnenhofabout the work of more than forty top civil servants from The Hague.

Bekker’s latest book shows in accessible prose how inescapable the ‘SG-AZ’ became in the prime minister’s entourage as a close advisor, crisis manager, and primarily accountable for the ins and outs of the Civil Service. He also shows how the Hague mandarin became entangled in implementation and other vicissitudes over the last fifteen years. In doing so, Bekker exposes cracks within the official inner world.

The book also reflects the limitations of an author who has been in ‘the world’ for a long time. Bekker reproduces existing reputations of SGs – he previously called them ‘heroes’ – rather than providing them with new insights. He spoke ‘in detail’ to all seven living SGs and especially Prime Minister Rutte.

The Hague villa

After 1937, when a separate Ministry of General Affairs was created under Prime Minister Hendrik Colijn, the Secretary General was a completely marginal figure. He was hidden away in a villa in The Hague together with a dozen employees. The real work was done in other ministries. AZ did what was left, such as managing crises surrounding the Royal Family.

The decentralized model of departmental live and let live started to squeak and creak increasingly loudly in the 1970s. Wasn’t the same wheel invented in different places? When an economic crisis hit in the early 1980s, increasing efficiency became the code word. Ruud Lubbers (CDA) moved into the Torentje in 1982 and, together with his right-hand man and party colleague Rein Jan Hoekstra, expanded General Affairs into a new power center. Hoekstra became chairman of the committee that coordinated the work of the intelligence and security services.

Lubbers’ successors would complete AZ’s function as a ‘spider in the web’. During Kok’s premiership, Wim Kuijken became chairman of the deliberation of all SGs. This group put long-term issues on the agenda and examined the functioning of the Civil Service. The SG-AZ was also increasingly used for jobs elsewhere in The Hague, even after his departure. For example, one of the two current cabinet informants, Richard van Zwol, was previously the right-hand man of Balkenende and Rutte.

Undermining authority

In the new century, several developments occurred that undermined the strengthened position of the SG. The ministry’s first man faced competition from political assistants such as Jack de Vries. They started to increasingly claim the prime minister for themselves. The director of the Government Information Service replaced the SG-AZ as chairman of the Information Council, the increasingly influential council of all information directors. Bekker pays relatively little attention to the rise of this ‘image industry’ within General Affairs.

Even more problematic were developments outside the walls of AZ. Bekker states that Mark Rutte’s two first SGs (Van Zwol and Kajsa Ollongren) missed signals about implementation problems at the Tax Authorities from 2010 onwards. His third SG, Paul Huijts, wrote a warning letter in 2017 during the cabinet formation, but it was too general, writes Bekker, to be alarming. A little later the Benefits Scandal became a fact.

What also started to bother us were growing tensions between top officials and ministers. The latter were under pressure from a more impatient Chamber and media to deliver quickly. In 2022, SG Lidewijde Ongering closed the door behind him on Economic Affairs after major arguments with Minister Micky Adriaansens (VVD). ‘A rather striking, even disturbing event,’ writes Bekker. Fifty top officials thought so too, and wrote a concerned letter to Buitendijk as chairman of the SG council. The latter could do little, according to an interview with NRC.

Position elsewhere

Bekker is downright critical about the ‘function elsewhere’ incident in March 2021. According to the author, the SG-AZ made important mistakes there. As a scout in the cabinet formation, Kajsa Ollongren could ‘just walk out’ with sensitive documents under her arm with ‘position Omtzigt, position elsewhere’ visible on it. The result was a huge delay in the cabinet formation and a souring of relations between the coalition partners. The incident ‘could and should have been prevented’, Bekker writes.

Politicians such as Omtzigt and Geert Wilders are now sharpening their knives to cut back the prime minister’s power from parliament. There is a good chance that his right hand in the Tower will also suffer the consequences.