Pieter Wiekeraad’s civil management career has been shaped by the urban planning and economic development projects he has worked on in places as varied as Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and Asia.
“I’ve seen governments that were strict in how they dealt with their citizens, but I also saw governments that were very laid back and didn’t provide the kind of maintenance citizens needed,” he says.
These different approaches offer varied outcomes, explains Pieter, as he reflects on what worked and what didn’t from his time abroad. He points to one country where the government didn’t replace manhole covers after the original steel covers were stolen, leaving large holes people could fall into. It illustrates how governments can fail their duty of care, he says.
With Pieter originally completing a Masters in Law and PhD in Policy Science from the University of Utrecht, insights such as these have informed his approach to his own management and urban planning practices over a career spanning 30 years. His main takeaway: a considered, professional and evidence-based urban planning approach hits a sweet spot between government action and duty of care to citizens.
“Through my work experience in the Netherlands, as well as in travels and projects abroad, I realised that as an individual my added value could be as someone who could increase professionalism in government and improve the lives of the people in the street,” he says. “This has been a direct line not only in my own career, but in my staff and all the people in my department.”
Pieter leads the Department of Environment and Sustainability for Groningen – one of the Netherlands’ 12 provinces. He’s held this position for more than seven years after working in a range of senior management positions spanning urban planning, economic development and strategic planning. He’s been a trainer and lecturer on various management topics and actively involved in many member organisations. This includes the International Federation of Municipal Engineering (IFME), for which he has been a long-standing member and is the organisation’s standing treasurer.
Pieter chose a different career from most his family, who are mostly teachers and theologians (his father is a pastor). But he says his path has been just as rewarding because it’s given him the chance to change people’s lives and improve their wellbeing.
When pressed on how organisations should develop the professionalism he champions, Pieter says governments must employ the right people.
“There could be up to 500 different services a government needs to deliver – from driving licence permits to street cleaning or maintenance – at any given time,” he says. “Your employees should be well-educated and have the right theoretical backgrounds to implement those services.”
This is also a vital first step towards dealing with what he sees as one of the biggest challenges in Groningen – and in many provincial and local governments globally – an increasing number of citizens with more expertise on subjects than council employees.
“My staff have 9-5 jobs and can’t, for example, stake out local bat colonies in the middle of the night with bat detectors, as some citizens have done to gather data about those colonies,” he says. “My staff can’t be experts on every subject. But we’re seeing an increasing number of our constituents with a high level of expertise in all kinds of subjects.”
Pieter’s advice for department heads who encounter this issue? “Think about how you can incorporate all the varied expertise into your municipal and regional thinking so you can give the right facts and figures to the council or politicians – whoever makes that final decision.”
A career devoted to adding value
Good departmental communication is also extremely important, insists Pieter. Thinking outside the box will help you find solutions to problems that might not otherwise be solved by one department.
“It’s always been my professional responsibility to give the ones making the decisions the right facts and figures, and also a number of possible scenarios to make the best choice, not just the one that suits me,” he says.
When the right balance is struck, Pieter says change is real and noticeable. “I love adding value to the citizens in my province and increasing their wellbeing,” he notes. It’s in that light that he sees his job as a whole. “I’m a civil servant – it’s not just about earning money for me.”
Pieter is a big advocate of asset management, but says managers need to be prepared properly. “Before you can start in asset management you need all your bases in order and to have a detailed inventory of all your assets,” he advises.
He also champions professional memberships. Pieter takes time off each year to work on himself – to develop soft skills and do courses. He says memberships of organisations such as IPWEA or Stadswerk in the Netherlands are invaluable for connecting people so they can share ideas and experiences.
He adds: “One thing I’ve noticed through my correspondence is that the challenges we all face across the world are all the same, and that by sharing experiences we get new perspectives on them.”