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Politicians and civil servants: a complicated partnership


Admission requirements

Only students of the MSc Public Administration can join this class.


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. 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. 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, when it comes to structural changes but also in operational cases. 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 focus on the very short term and the willingness of politicians to make short term deals.
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. Comparison between various countries about the way politicians and civil servants co-operate is part of the course. There will be ample opportunity to discuss with several key players, e.g. politicians, civil servants, journalists and lobbyists. A visit to Parliament , a ministry and the Nieuwspoort Press Centre is part of the course.

Course objectives

At the end of the course students should have attained:

  • a global understanding of the way government works in practice

  • a global awareness of the relationship between politicians and civil servants, including the tensions, the conflicts and the way to tackle these

  • some ideas about the personalities involved: their behaviour, their critical success factors, their professionalism, their tricks

  • some understanding of the differences between different systems in a few relevant countries


The (provisional) timetable is on the first page of the e-Prospectus.

Mode of instruction

The basis of the course is a number of presentations about different subjects. In several presentations also outside people from the practice of government are playing a role. Some case-studies about people, conflicts and developments are part of the course. One or more visits to relevant places and discussions with relevant players are included. Students are required to participate energetically in the discussions and also to prepare presentations. Students have to prepare a final paper and to present this paper in front of a panel.

Assessment method

  • Final paper and presentation: 60 %

  • Presentation during the course (oral of written): 20 %

  • Participation: 20%


Only to be used if a volunteer-student is available as assistant.


  • Donald J. Savoie, Breaking the Bargain, University of Toronto Press, 2003

  • Stephen Goldsmith and William D. Eggers, Governing by Network, The New Shape of the Public Sector, Brookings Institution Press, 2004

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

  • 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)

  • Patrick Weller, Australia’s Mandarins, Allen & Unwin 2001

  • Other recommended literature: to be announced during the course.



Contact information

Professor Roel Bekker