Arre Zuurmond stepped down as ombudsman. He still speaks as an advocate for Amsterdammers who often faced the municipality. “Citizens get caught up in the system and the logic escapes them.”
Halfway through the interview at Waterlooplein, Arre Zuurmond (62) is interrupted. The ombudsman of Amsterdam who has just left is talking about a woman of sixty who is taking care of her sick, spas grandson. Every day she lifts the 14-year-old boy from three floors up the stairs and up. “She thought that was normal.”
Then Zuurmond looks up at a middle-aged woman who has come to stand at the table. “I’m bothered, but I have to do it anyway,” she says. “I want to say goodbye personally. You probably don’t know who I am.”
Zuurmond, smiling kindly: “Yes, I know who you are.” Madam: “Oh.” Even standing still. “How nice that you are still in town. Still a little hooked.” Zuurmond: “Yes, absolutely. And still just above the metro tube.”
The woman turns out to be one of the residents who is the last to suffer from the vibrations in her home in the Nieuwmarktbuurt and Waterlooplein due to the Oostlijn of the metro. The municipality of Amsterdam said the time that it was not the case, Zuurmond’s help was called. The more than 600 residents have now been vindicated. She: “It was picked up when you took care of it.” Zuurmond adds: “Together with one of the 25 small ombudsmen.”
It has been signed for the ombudsman of Amsterdam and the municipalities. Since 2013, he has had more than 20,000 complaints. He got to know many victims personally and visited them regularly. After his appointment, he exchanged the luxurious office on the Singel for a simple office on the Czaar Peterstraat. Less dignified, easily accessible for people in a wheelchair. In addition, it saved 30,000 euros annually in rent.
His term was extended by six years in 2020, but at the beginning of this year he concluded it was time for renewal. It had to be someone younger and more diverse than him. Not a white older man. And preferably someone with a different scientific background – not a public administration expert.
Because that’s Zuurmond. All his life, the son of a Protestant pastor has been involved in public administration. He obtained his doctorate cum laude in 1994, then worked as a highly specialized ICT and in 2004 he founded the Kafka Brigade, a research organization with a network of volunteers who assist citizens who are trapped in bureaucracy.
Before the interview, you said goodbye to the Amsterdam mayor and aldermen. What did you say to the college?
“That something has not worked for me: one counter function for people who are chronically ill. Consider, for example, people with MS. They become more dependent, but also more entangled in the rules. Then one institution takes too long to complete an application and another organization needs that data again. Then this person is again blamed for not having the financial planning to order. It’s piling up.”
“You have incidents and problems. People make mistakes. You solve them by solving them. But this is a structural problem. As an ombudsman you have to ensure that this is solved structurally.”
In 1995 you wrote in an opinion piece for NRC Handelsblad: ‘Civil servants do not provide services.’
“Did I write that? What I probably count on saying: don’t have to do a lot of services to citizens themselves. Registering with civil affairs, for example. If I can get a house from a corporation, they can also arrange the registration. Citizens get entangled in the system and the logic escapes them.”
Like with the allowance affair?
“Yes. The allowance affair has cut very hard. On a heel level, the government has misbehaved. That’s terrible, but then she was able to persist in the misbehavior for ten years. filed she was covered by the judiciary. It didn’t change the national ombudsman to get changed. The Council of State also approved it. Journalism is not giving up. That’s horrific. From 2006 to 2017.”
Zuurmond is always critical of the board. He analyzes and looks for the bigger story. “Of course the government is doing things wrong and in the allowance affair in the most underlying way. But soon we will throw the kind out with the bathwater. application you know it, we are sliding into a society where the government is no longer strong enough, not everyone can develop themselves. Look at the polarization in the US that is increasing day by day. From Afghanistan. We have a good time here. Despite all the shortcomings, this is partly due to the functioning of the impartial government, which is objective. Without respect of persons.”
Zuurmond is a war of papers. He wrote fewer reports than his curator; two a year. “Bureaucratic judo”, he invariably says about it. He’d rather go by. He did that the day before he took office. As a homeless person, he asked for a bed at the shelter. That was possible, but he had to wait eight months. Bureaucracy that got the most vulnerable Amsterdammers even deeper into trouble.
In the years that followed, Zuurmond did more fieldwork. He focused on Leidseplein and the Red Light District – which in a report was dubbed a ‘lawless urban jungle’. The later mayor Eerbied van der Laanber later became furious at Zuurmond’s next. The relationship with mayor Femke Halsema was better – she was curious about his experiences. “Politics needs a kind of court jester,” says Zuurmond.
People from South know where to find the ombudsman better than people from Southeast and New West. You wanted to live in Zuidoost for eight months last year.
“I asked for one of the worst neighborhoods and then one of the worst flats. I had already arranged a pop-up office here to receive people. But then came corona. I’ve only lived here for a month and a half.”
The conversation – after a short interlude by the shortest woman at the table, Zuurmond’s thoughts return to his neighbors in Zuidoost. The 60-year-old grandmother who carried the disabled boy down three flights of stairs every day. To the wheelchair that was chained to the flat downstairs. A family that probably wants ‘nothing to do with the government’, says Zuurmond. He wonders aloud if they know how to apply for a personal budget.
Southeast has never published a report. He never formally interviewed the neighbors.
How do you leave Amsterdam behind?
“With peace of mind, although I am concerned about the polarization. That goes much broader than my work as an ombudsman. The antivaxers are violent and do not care about scientific progress.”
You received a letter from an Amsterdammer who thanked you for the help of the past eight years. She wrote: ‘I wish you a nice retirement time with your family and friends.’
“Well… I’m 62. I’m still chairman of the parental panel of the benefits affair. I hope that I can give some lectures to a new generation of young professionals to look at the board in a different way. To eventually become an old schoolmaster.”
The woman who interrupted the conversation earlier and had already said goodbye gratefully, is then back at the table. “Best of luck to you. And again, thank you very, very much.”
The ombudsman is independent, has an annual budget of 2 euros and a staff of about 25 employees. Munish Ramlal (38) is the successor of Zuurmond. Ramlal studied law and obtained his doctorate in sociology of law from the Erasmus School of Law. Until recently, he worked as head of system supervision at the Dutch Data Protection Authority.