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Politicians and civil servants


Admission requirements

This course is open to all students enrolled in the Master Public Administration.


A good relationship between politics and the administration is essential for successful government. In practice the success of politicians is very much dependent on the quality of their staff. The relationship between a minister and his civil servants can make or break a minister’s future and is a key factor in success or failure of Government. There are many potential tensions between the two. The civil service is supposed to give frank and fearless advice, which can sometimes be perceived as not convenient. Civil servants have to provide state of the art information and maintain strict neutrality in preparing and executing policy. Politicians on their part want to achieve political and electoral successes, and are therefore very much focused on the media and their image. The horizon of politicians differs from the horizon of civil servants. Also their basic values are different. Politicians sometimes express as their feeling that civil servants have too much power, and are not willing to respond quickly to their wishes or to the demands of society. In the eyes of politicians civil servants lack, it is said, enough sensitivity for the daily political challenges and for the need to respond as fast as possible. Politicians also feel uncomfortable about the monopoly of civil servants as far as information or relevant networks in society and among stakeholders are concerned. Civil servants are sceptical about the short term and image oriented focus and of politicians and their eagerness for prompt and immediate but in many cases not deliberate action. There is a growing gap between the two systems.
The course explores this dynamic but also delicate relationship. The emphasis is very much on the working of government in practice, illustrated by cases from the Netherlands and other countries. Failures and blunders of Government are a central theme in the course. Special attention is given to the big governmental systems that seem to be overstretched and losing connection with the problems and the citizens. Comparison between various countries about the way politicians and civil servants co-operate is part of the course. There will be opportunities to meet several key players, e.g. politicians, civil servants, journalists and lobbyists. A visit to a Government building or a stroll through the Government area and a visit to the Nieuwspoort Press Centre to discuss with journalists and/or politicians are part of the course.

Course objectives

At the end of the course students should have attained:

  • a global awareness of the relationship between politicians and civil servants, including the everyday tensions, the conflicts and the instruments to solve these conflicts

  • analytical skills for analysing the way government works

  • an introduction in the art of being a good civil servant, including skills to write convincingly and make adequate presentations

  • the ability to strategically advice politicians and civil servants on solutions for problems and policy challenges

  • a practical understanding of the personalities involved: their behaviour, their critical success factors, their professionalism, their tricks

  • a thorough understanding of the differences between political and civil service systems in a number of relevant countries


On the right side of the programme front page of the Prospectus you will find links to the website and timetables, uSis and Brightspace.

Mode of instruction

The basis of the course is a number of presentations about different topical issues related to the relationship between politicians and civil servants. In several lectures, experienced people from the practice of government participate. Actual case-studies about people, conflicts, failures, blunders and also developments are part of the course. One or more visits to relevant places and discussions with relevant political-administrative stakeholders are included. Students are required to participate energetically in the discussions and also to prepare presentations.

Assessment method

The final grade is the weighted average of:

  • individual paper: 70%

  • written assignment 1: 10%

  • written assignment 2: 20%

  • presentations and participation: pass/fail

From 2020-2021 onwards, partial grades will not remain valid after the exam and the resit of the course.

You can find more information about assessments and the timetable exams on the website. Details for submitting papers (deadlines) are posted on Brightspace. On the Public Administration front page of the Prospectus you will find links to the website, uSis and Brightspace.

More information about participation in exams can be found in the Rules & Regulations.

Reading list

  • Roel Bekker, Liaisons dangereuses, Inaugural Lecture University of Leiden, 2009 (English version)

  • Roel Bekker, Dat had niet zo gemoeten, Den Haag 2020 (for Dutch speaking students)

  • Paul ‘t Hart, Anchrit Wille, Ministers and top officials in the Dutch core executive: living together, growing apart?, Public Administration Vol. 84, no. 1, 2006 (121-146)

  • Anthony King, Ivor Crewe, The Blunders of our Governments, London 2013

  • Peter H. Schuck, Why Government Fails So Often, Princeton 2014

  • Mark Bovens, Paul ’t Hart, Understanding policy fiascoes, New Brunswick 1996

  • Paul C. Light, A Government Ill Executed, Harvard University Press 2008

  • Donald J. Savoie, What Is Government Good At? A Canadian Answer. McGill University Press 2015

  • Other literature: to be announced during the course.


Registration in uSis is possible from four weeks before the start of the course. Due to the closure of the university on the 4th of October registration for the MPA electives of block 2 will open on the 5th of October on 13 hours.

From the academic year 2020-2021 Leiden University uses Brightspace as its online learning management system. After enrolment for the course in uSis you will be automatically enrolled in the Brightspace environment of this course.


Professor R. Bekker