Beyond the Dutch Polder Model: A new model for collaboration
10 January 2022
On October 28th, the current Dutch cabinet – operating in a caretaker capacity – has broken its own record of the longest formation period to date. In 2017 the record was set at 225 days and at the time of writing – 2o December 2021 – the framework of the coalition has been shared yet no government is in place yet. The lengthy processes of the most recent formations beg the question: Is the Dutch Polder Model still fit for purpose? In this article Somaye Dehban, RSM PhD candidate and nexus strategist, sheds her light on the Polder Model, revisiting its history and discussing why and how it can be replaced. As an answer, Dehban presents a new alternative model for collaboration. This model, which she dubbed ‘Verbinding’ is based on synergy rather than compromise and offers a promising way forward; not only for future cabinets, but also for other organisations that seek to work together in an efficient, durable way.
The Polder Model
The formation of the Dutch government has reached a new record since 28th October, when they passed the previously held record of 225 days. The caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced on 27th November during the annual meeting of his party – VVD – that there will not be a coalition by 5th December, the previously set deadline. But why is the formation of the Dutch government such a time-consuming process? The answer is “Polderen”, or the Polder Model. The Polder Model is a process of decision making based on consensus, of solving problems via dialogue with every party having an equal say.
The model is exemplified by the 1982 Wassenaar Agreement, which established a grand bargain between trade unions, employer associations and the Dutch government around a new policy for economic renewal. The policy, which put a limit on wage growth in return for the adoption of policies to combat unemployment and inflation, demanded concessions by all parties and mutual trust that each would honour the accord. This polder model did not emerge on the political scene out of nowhere but rather, as historian Stijn Kuipers argues, dates back to 1920 with the Dutch High Council of Labour. History Professors Maarten Prak and Jan Luiten van Zanden even suggest that this model is the outcome of “a distinctive Dutch political economic tradition that stretches […] over a millennium”.
The most recent ‘great manifestation’ of the Polder Model is said to have emerged under the leadership of the late Prime Minister Wim Kok from the Labour Party (PvdA), who managed to bring together his own ‘red’ PvdA with the ‘blue’ and rival party VVD (The People Party for Freedom and Democracy). Thus forming the first Purple Cabinet, Wim Kok realised a collaboration through consensus and compromise previously held impossible.
Criticisms on the Polder Model
The Polder Model has been described as a pragmatic recognition of the pluriformity of Dutch society. However, by some politicians and commentators the Polder Model has been perceived as a slow-decision-making-process. Pim Fortuyn – founder of the so-called “right-wing” populist party LPF who was assassinated in May 2002 by a left-wing environmentalist and animal rights activists – heavily criticized the Polder Model in his book “De puinhopen van acht jaar Paars” (The wreckage of eight years Purple). According to Fortuyn, the Polder Model is a system in which “one speaks with one another until one has reached some form of agreement and all responsibilities have evaporated. Thereafter we have ‘done it together’ and no one can be held accountable for the outcomes, not even if these outcomes are failing policies.”
Given the growing criticism on the Polder Model, considering the increasing length of formation processes, and also taking into account the widening divide in Dutch society – as well as in global society more generally – we might need to reconsider our way of forming coalitions and building partnerships. If compromise – the essence of Polder Model – is no longer the best option in this greatly divided world, how can we realise a level of cooperation and trust where everyone has the ability to thrive?
The Next Level: Synergy
Stephen R. Covey in his well-known book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says: “Synergy catalyses, unifies, and unleashes the greatest powers within people… Synergy means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The essence of synergy is to value differences, to build on strengths, to compensate for weaknesses…And the key to valuing those differences is to realize that all people see the world, not as it, but as they are.”
We – the Dutch – have been the world champion of the Polder Model for decades. We were focused on the compromise approach when others were focused on the defensive approach of win-lose. And now, given the new challenges and the further diversification of our society, an opportunity arises for us to take the lead again and move towards a Synergistic Model for building partnerships and forming coalitions.
Verbinding: Valuing and Building on Differences
The Polder Model of compromise respects the differences within a consensus; yet, respecting differences is not equal to valuing and building on them. The Dutch are known for our tolerance but this tolerance does not imply that we value the phenomena that we are tolerating. To move beyond respect and toleration, we need to shift gear towards value and synthesis. This is a deconstructing process (Derrida, 1967); a process from an idealist thinking style to a synthesist thinking style. As Prof. Dr. Rob van Tulder elaborates in his majestic book, Skill Sheets, this means moving from a dilemma (a choice between solutions – either/or) to a trade-off (striking a balance between two options – and/or); to a puzzle (in search for an optimum – and/and) and a paradox (search for a new combination both/and), and not necessarily in that order.
Inspired by the ideas of van Tulder, and based on my 20 years of work experience in civil society and academia, my PhD research and my work with political institutions, I have created a synergistic model that seeks to provide a real alternative to the Polder Model and builds on and values, rather than respects or tolerates, differences. Having been born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and being raised during the Iran-Iraq war, in addition to rebuilding my life in exile and developing a thriving community, I have gained valuable insights that allowed me to design and develop this nexus-based three-phase synergistic model which I have dubbed Verbinding. ‘Verbinding’ is the Dutch term for interconnectedness. Yet, similar to the Dutch term ‘Gezellig’ – a term that can best be described as a state of cosiness and togetherness – there is no accurate translation for it in English. Verbinding has a much deeper meaning than interconnectedness; it also refers to our interrelatedness and interdependencies as an entire system.
The three-phases of the Verbinding Model are Understanding, Implementing and Scaling.
In the first phase of Understanding, we gain an in-depth perspective of the context in which we operate (Systemic Review), we bring seemingly unlikely allies together (Guiding Coalition) and translate our collective vision into a step-by-step plan towards measurable impact (IdeAction). Before we can move forward, we need to know where we are standing, and to know where we are standing, we need to look back and see where we are coming from.
In the second phase of Implementing, we leverage synergies based on identified strengths (Stakeholder Engagement), ensure communication and a joint effort towards the vision (Forces Aligned), and take the time to celebrate success (Deserved Recognition). Guided by a collective ‘why’ and a coalition that stays accountable, we create an environment in which people can thrive and stay excited about the next win.
In the third phase of Scaling, we see our organisation shifting to a higher level through integrating the agility of our gained insights into our day-t0-day operation (Agile Integration). We master our processes and procedures and continuously cultivate the results of our positive impact in the world (Merging Powers). At this stage, valuing our differences has anchored in our culture and we celebrate the harmony ingrained in our communities and society (Culturally Anchored).
It is by joining forces across sectors and valuing differences and by creating integrated solutions focused on synergies rather than on individual components, that we will be able to drive more positive change in our environments. The 2019 Nairobi Statement at ICPD25 (International Conference on Population and Development) titled Accelerating the Promise concludes that “…the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, requires new, innovative and strategic partnerships, including with and between youth, civil society organizations, local communities, the private sector, and through south-south and triangular cooperation among countries.” (ICPD25, 2019: 4). These new, innovative and strategic partnerships – these ecosystems – can develop and thrive if and only if their differences are acknowledged, accepted and valued.
It is unlikely that this, or the next cabinet for that matter, will be using a model anything like the Verbinding Model – the politicians of today are still longing for the magic of the Polder Model. However, as historian Rosa Kösters and sociologist and political scientist Merijn Oudekampsen argue, the era of the Polder Model is gone and the question is whether it ever really worked as well as we believe it did. It is time for a new partnership model. And if it is not our politicians, then perhaps Dutch investors and entrepreneurs can take the lead.