The ombudsman who moved into the neighborhood to solve people’s justice problems


In 2018, Arre Zuurmond, the ombudsman of Amsterdam, made international headlines when he moved to the city center, to experience first-hand what normal people living in the red-light district endure. For years the city’s residents had complained to the ombudsman about noise, crime, disturbances related to sex work and drugs, and the excesses of tourism. For years the municipality had done little to address these problems. By living in the district, Zuurmond could see problems up close, interact directly with the neighborhood’s residents and invite officials over to show them the complaints were justified. Zuurmond’s approach to solving people’s problems provides evidence on how people-centered justice can lead to structural improvements and better justice outcomes.

The Task Force on Justice’s, Maaike de Langen interviewed Arre Zuurmond about going the distance to help people solve their problems, create people-centered public services and build just societies.

Maaike: Can you give us a sense of the type of problems that people come to your office with?

Arre: Many people have problems claiming social benefits. Others have problems with housing, as there is a serious shortage of affordable housing in Amsterdam. We also receive a lot of complaints related to what we call public nuisance problems — noise, drunken behavior of tourists, air pollution, litter, and bars and clubs closing much later than they should. People come to us when their problems haven’t been properly addressed by the city or the police.

Maaike: How can people make a complaint?

Arre: Accessibility is one of our main objectives. We want to be accessible for as many people as possible. All you have to do is call or email. If they want to speak in person, they don’t need to come to the ombudsman’s office, we go to certain neighborhoods so people can come see us there. We also use social media, and not just to ‘send’ information, but also to ‘listen’. When I see on Twitter, for example, that someone is complaining about something in Amsterdam, I send them a message and ask them to be in touch. Our children’s ombudsman uses Whatsapp a lot, because young people prefer this over contacting us via a phone call. It’s partly because they don’t have the money to make calls, but also because Whatsapp is more anonymous and they feel they have more privacy.

Maaike: What actions do you take to help people solve their problems?

Arre: First of all, we make a distinction between incidents and problems. An incident is something that has gone wrong only once. Accidents happen. People make mistakes. Organizations certainly make mistakes. In these cases, our approach is to try to find a solution with the individual professional in the organization. We work under the radar, so we don’t go to management, but focus on the individual civil servant. The solution might be as simple as an apology — we bring the two sides together and let them talk to each other.

In incidents where there are problems over social benefits, we mediate so that the citizen can find somebody to help them. We discovered that a lot of problems are caused because government is unable to differentiate in its solutions. We worked with the city to create a customization team of about eight people. They are authorized to find tailor-made solutions, and this allows them to solve a lot of problems that people face.

Maaike: Can you give an example of this customization?

Arre: Certain complaints are caused by complexity. For example, an individual is confronted with three or four different sets of rules that apply to them. There may be something wrong with the delivery of social benefits, because of not having a registered address. Someone may be sleeping in their car and not have an address. And because they don’t have an address, they can’t get a social benefit. There may three or more different bureaucracies involved in this. Impossible for normal people to wade through. The customization team takes on such a case and makes the different organizations work together to find a solution for the individual’s problem.

Maaike: So those are incidents. You also said you deal with problems. What do you mean by this?

Arre: If the same incident happens more than once involving the same organization it’s not an incident, it’s a problem. Problems occur at different levels. Some have to do with red tape, others with an organization’s structure, and others with its culture. In our analysis of a recurring problem, we identify the level at which the problem is occurring and then decide what sort of intervention is needed to make an improvement.

We also ask ourselves, ‘What is the capability of the organization at this moment to come up with solutions?’ If there is a culture problem within the organization, but they also have a lot of red tape, we start by tackling those problems. Red tape is the first level that we can help the organization address. This also builds trust, which is important.

If the problem persists, we say, ‘You’ve been improving this and this, and you’ve been cleaning up small disorders, but it still doesn’t function. Can we discuss why?’ And then it’s mostly to do with structure. Then we discuss what they can do to improve their structure: procedures, the way tasks are divided between different departments, etc.

Maaike: It sounds like peeling the different layers of an onion.

Arre: Yes, it does, and it takes time. After they have made the structural improvements, and problems still persist, we go to culture, which is the most difficult layer. Improving the structure can be done in 6 to 12 months, but to change the culture of an organization takes 3 to 5 years. And it’s a process, because you have to discover what the problem is, together with the agency or organization involved.

Maaike: Can you give an example of a culture that needed to be changed?

Arre: Last week I had a very tough meeting with a municipality. We’ve been discussing problems for about two and a half years. After making structural changes and finding that the problems still persist, they’ve finally accepted that they have a cultural problem.

Maaike: What’s wrong with the culture?

Arre: It’s very formalistic, very rule based, and very divided — every part of the organization has its own little island. Also, the work environment is insecure, so the attitude of the civil servants is very defensive. When something goes wrong, their first reaction is to frame it in such a way that it’s not their fault. And because of this they don’t feel responsible for their mistakes. They will say, ‘I followed all the steps in the procedure. I’ve done everything I need to be doing.’ So, they are input-oriented rather than outcome-oriented.

The first time I said this, two years ago, they were angry and didn’t want to accept this. But now they agree that their culture is fundamentally wrong and they are starting a program to address this.

Maaike: What kind of knowledge and evidence do you use to conduct your work?

Arre: For the structural issues we take on, it’s a combination of public administration theory, understanding how street level bureaucracy operates for example, and insights about bureaucracy from Max Weber onwards. But also, organization studies and information technology. These three together help us analyze why a problem exists, its causes and potential solutions. To understand the societal questions, we use insights from sociology and anthropology.

Maaike: And for individual case handling?

Arre: We have diversified the skills of our staff to be able to respond to specific problems. When I started, we only had lawyers, but now we have a psychologist, an anthropologist, a sociologist, somebody who studied public administration, even a physiotherapist, who has a completely different way of listening to people.

Maaike: Last year you criticized how the authorities treated people living in the center of Amsterdam. Can you describe what you did?

Arre: Complaints from residents have been coming in for years and my predecessors had written reports, but nothing had really changed. We tried to persuade the local government that they have a problem with public nuisance and disorder as well. When this was unsuccessful, I wrote a formal report and made a vlog about what I called the urban jungle. The sound in the vlog was very important — you can’t describe noise in text. Making a video and putting it online helped to show that something was wrong.

Since they still didn’t really understand or acknowledge the problem, I rented a small house in the red-light district. I contacted a lot of citizens, who helped me to show what was going wrong in the neighborhood. I created a diary on Twitter. Every day, I would write three or four Twitter messages, just describing what I encountered. And I would set the alarm clock and get up at three o’clock at night and walk out. You see a completely different city at that time of night. I would post that on Twitter, with pictures and videos.

I regularly invited a professional or politician to come and have a cup of coffee at my house and discuss. We would then have a two-hour tour around that part of the city. I invited people from the city, a director or one of the city’s political leaders, people from the national police and people from the national government.

I also organized seven dinners around seven different subjects that had been the source of a large number of complaints. These included the excesses of tourism, drugs, prostitution, criminality, and homelessness. I invited citizens who had complained, as well as municipality staff and managers, and businesspeople for intense discussion on these subjects.

Finally, I made a documentary, which I discussed with the mayor in a public debate. This was attended by about 250 citizens, professionals, managers, whom I’d met during the research.

So, there were all sorts of interventions, actions and publications. And I had my fifteen minutes of fame because I was in the New York Times, the Guardian, El País, even in Pravda.

Maaike: And has it made a difference?

Arre: Yes, there is much more enforcement of existing rules as well as adoption of new rules. There are now very explicit rules with regard to the use of alcohol, taxis are prohibited from driving in certain areas, tourist boats are no longer allowed to carry more than twelve passengers, where it was often 30 or 40 before. All sorts of measures have been taken.

Overall the process has forced the city government to acknowledge the problem, start taking the residents seriously and start working on finding more fundamental solutions.

Photos courtesy of the Office of the Ombudsman, Amsterdam.

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