Policy advisor: If you know how the political system works, you can make a difference.

An interview with Marlies Westerhof, Policy Officer Nature and Landscape at a municipality in the Netherlands.

NSC: Marlies, you studied ecology at the University of Groningen and today you are a ‘Policy Officer…’ it sounds very political. Are you a politician?

MW: I am not a politician, but I do advise politicians. I am not attached to any political party, but the outcomes and content of my work are greatly dependent on the current political climate in the EU, the Netherlands and in the municipality. Hence, the election results decide whom I am advising, which political party this person represents, and what the current rules and policies this person needs to bear in mind.

NSC: What kind of policy advice do you give?

MW: I am advising our local councilwomen and councilmen (these people have been running for office and have won the elections) on agriculture, ecology, natural and landscape topics. This board of decision makers is coming with an assignment or a mission and I advise them on the implementations of it. Moreover, in the Netherlands citizens have ‘a voice.’ That means that every citizen has the right to propose and to object to plans. I consider all these assignments, proposals and objections and firstly advice on ‘if’ we should do something with it and if the board decides ‘we should do something with it’ then I advise them on ‘how’ to do it. For example, what to take into consideration, opinions of different people and organisations, and what science says about the topic at hand.

NSC: Can you give us a concrete example?

MW:A citizen group proposed to build a mountain bike track in an ecological park. I learned the ins and outs of the park. Then I advised the responsible councilman and local parliament to bear in mind that the realisation of this track would go against the ecological aims and policy that was agreed on for that area earlier on. Nevertheless, the local parliament decided to proceed with the plan. They argued that leisure time is important too, and the park was not ‘that nice’ and its ecological benefits limited; in my opinion, all valid arguments.  Sometimes you cannot decide based on facts, science and logical arguments alone, which I need to present as a policy maker. A political choice needs to be made. What is more important, habitat protection or the wellbeing and health of our citizens? Hence, the decision was made, and the mountain bike track was built. My next step was to look deeper into the park and initiate an investigation by an independent ecological consultancy on how to limit the adverse side effects of the track on the existing ecology, which is obliged by Dutch law. The consultancy wrote an action plan. They mapped things such as the trees that must be avoided as they host bats, greenery that should stay as it is part of the flying route of birds, and during what time of the year building activities should be paused (like the breeding season). This action plan will go to the councilmen; then they can start making a detailed construction plan and start building.

NSC: How broad is your work?

MW:Very broad! I can plan the future of a little bit of greenery next to a local museum, but I also work on large climate change projects.

NSC: Climate change projects? What is your role?

MW:The assignment can be to build a solar- or wind- park in a specific area. I advise on the landscape and biodiversity. It often starts with ‘how do we want our landscape to look like, what should we do for our future energy sources and what impact will the intervention have on our biodiversity.’ Then it goes into the direction of ‘for landscape and biodiversity it is not a great idea to build this solar park, but if we do it, we should do it on this spot and not there. Also, we should do XYZ, so the protected species have an alternative breeding area.’

NSC: You are outsourcing the research to an ecological consultancy. Does that mean that you do not do the research yourself?

MW:Right. Besides having a quick look at the area, I am not going into the field myself to conduct research. However, being a biologist by training I can tell if the research conducted by the consultancy is of good quality.

To give you another example, I am currently writing a proposal for a biodiversity and landscape project with dairy farmers. I set the aims for the project. In this case, the aims are to find and implement ideas, which improve our landscape and biodiversity while, at the same time, safeguard earning a good living for the farmers. I write the proposal, but, if approved, I will hire self-employed biologists and ecologists to carry out the project.     

NSC: What do you like most about your job?

MW:I make a difference! Plus, I can see the impact of my work.

NSC: What does a typical day look like?

MW:All days of the week look slightly different. As I am still on parental leave, I am working 32 hours, so I am home on Fridays. Most mornings I am in meetings. On Monday morning I plan internal meetings, where we make plans and brainstorm about what we want to do. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I plan the external meetings with The Province or an organization like Staatsbosbeheer* (the national forestry agency).  During these meetings, we discuss progress on existing projects. In the afternoons, I am attending to my emails and write policy advice reports for the councilwomen and councilmen. Wednesday is my ‘writing day’ and I am working home-based. **

NSC: Was it an active decision to work for the government?

MW:Not really. Like anyone else really, I just sort of landed in there. I finished my Masters at the start of the economic crisis and the whole job market was a mess. A friend told me about an open position for ecologists at the government. It was an absolute misfit as it involved a lot of fieldwork, I just had surgery on my feet, and could not walk much. Nonetheless… I applied. During the interview, I told them that this job was not a good fit for me and I would have to say no to the position. They liked me and offered me a desk-based job instead, covering someone on pregnancy leave. I took it, and that was the start of my governmental career.

NSC: That was the start, what happened after that very first position?

MW:I have been hopping from one temporary, governmental position to the next. In 2011, I got selected for a two-year-long traineeship at a Province. I saw many different departments and it was a steep and useful learning curve. That is where I learned much of the important stuff I am using today; ‘Who is making it all up?’ ‘Who can make decisions?’ ‘Where are decision being made?’ In other words, how does politics work? If you do not know how the system works, you cannot make a difference. Now I can.

After the traineeship, I was hoping for a permanent contract, but it seemed ‘mission impossible,’ so I stayed for another couple of years working in the province as a policy advisor. I liked my job very much but also wanted to have a family and looked for job security. When the municipality I am currently working for offered me a permanent position as a policy advisor, I took it.

NSC: How would you describe your colleagues?

MW:I am working with a group of policy advisors and we all advise on different issues. Hence, the background of my colleagues is very varied ranging from lawyers to scientists.

NSC: Is your job family friendly?

MW:Yes! I am still on parental leave with my two-year-old daughter and currently work 32 hours. A full-time job is 36 hours here. I can work 4x 9 hours, keeping my Fridays free. I can work from home, and everyone understands if not everything goes smoothly with a small child in the family. This is not the job you do for the paycheck, but the secondary benefits are fantastic! 

NSC: What advice would you give other scientists who would like to work as a policy advisor?

MW: Sign up for a course on political science and administration in the country you would like to work in. Learn about decision-making processes and key players in the government. How does the European Union work? When can you influence decisions and when is it too late and you simply have to get the best out of the decisions that are set in stone already.

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Marlies Westerhof studied biology at the University of Groningen. She started her career in the private sector. Since 2009 she holds different positions in governmental institutions. Currently, she is working for the Municipality Westerkwartier in the North-East of the Netherlands.

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*Staatsbosbeheer is a leading national public body and manages 265,000 hectares of land and nature reserves. It is commissioned by the Dutch government to strengthen the position of nature in the Netherlands.

**The Netherlands it the only country where employees have the right to work from home. Of course, people must ask their boss if they want to do a part of their job from home. And of course, an employer can still refuse. However, the burden of proof lies with the employer. Employers have to justify a ‘no’ and have to prove that the organization would significantly struggle with ‘homeworkers.’ Lab work and tasks with serious safety risks cannot be conducted from home.

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