Professor Katrien Termeer believes in incremental change: ‘There are no simple solutions’

She has never studied public administration and has spent a large part of her career outside the academic world. Nonetheless, Katrien Termeer has managed to build from scratch a highly successful Public Administration and Policy chair group. Her crown jewel is her theory of small wins, about effecting change in small, meaningful steps.
Tessa Louwerens

text and photos Tessa Louwerens

‘Under the current tenure track system I would never have been taken on as a professor,’ Katrien Termeer points out dryly. ‘I do have a doctorate but for the rest I had hardly any publications to my name and I’d never heard of an h-index.’ On the other hand, she had many years of experience in the field, including as a civil servant at the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries (LNV), as it then was. ‘That’s a huge help, because I know how the two worlds should connect.’

At the end of 2005 Termeer became chair of the brand-new Public Administration and Policy Group. She was given a small office in the Leeuwenborch building, equipped with only a desk and a telephone. ‘I literally had to build the group from the ground up. I was allowed to hire one trainee research assistant (AIO) and one assistant professor. After that it was mainly a question of acquiring teaching and research work. Fortunately I already had a large network, so I reached for the telephone and got started.’

Highest scores

Thirteen years later Termeer has more than 200 publications to her name, and it didn’t take her long to ratchet up that h-index from 1 to 30. She now sits in a large office in the Leeuwenborch building and during the last quality review her chair group achieved the highest possible score for all elements. A major achievement, especially when you consider that Termeer has never studied public administration.

‘As a girl I wanted to design gardens,’ says this daughter of a Brabant tanner. She decided to study landscape architecture in Wageningen, but soon came unstuck. ‘I found it very interesting on a small scale, but found it difficult to design entire landscapes and to translate my ideas into a design.’ She switched to soil and water engineering and after graduating in 1987 went to work for Rijkswaterstaat, where she calculated the impact of groundwater plans. ‘That was very technical work and I didn’t like it at all.’

Termeer shared her office with a colleague who was working on public administration and became interested in the field. When a vacancy arose for a doctoral position in public administration at Erasmus University Rotterdam, she summoned all her courage. ‘During the interview they asked which theories of public administration I wanted to apply. I answered honestly: No idea, I don’t know any.’ It proved not to be a problem; Termeer was given the doctoral position and her research on the Dutch manure policy won a prize for the best public administration thesis.

Wicked problems

After gaining her doctorate, Termeer swapped academia for the Ministry of LNV and later for Sioo (see CV). But in 2005 she made another about-turn and chose the professorship in Wageningen. Together with her colleagues she works on ‘wicked problems’ such as climate change, sustainable agriculture, food security and the circular economy. These share the inherent difficulty of involving many parties with differing interests, says Termeer. ‘Often they can’t even reach agreement about what exactly the problem is.’

‘Wicked problems are not something you can solve in one fell swoop and you’ll almost certainly never get to the bottom of them,’ Termeer continues. ‘Sometimes today’s solution leads to tomorrow’s problem. Just consider, for example, the decision to switch from battery chickens to free range, for animal welfare reasons. That led to the problem of particulate matter. Air washers were introduced in response, but they posed a fire safety hazard in hen houses. It is impossible to anticipate all this.’

You’ll almost certainly never get to the bottom of wicked problems


According to Termeer, people often deal with wicked problems in one of two ways. The first is to simplify the matter. ‘Then you get, say, politicians who promise their voters the world and can’t deliver.’ The second is cynicism: nothing helps, so I can’t do anything to change things. ‘To which my reply is: the world just is complex. Deal with it! If we really want to make things more sustainable, more radical changes are needed. More of the same doesn’t work.’

How people change is what really fascinates Termeer. She uses theories to research this and aims to translate them into ‘perspectives for action’ in the day-to-day work of public administration. ‘There are no simple solutions, and every step towards sustainability requires cooperation between diverse parties. You can’t simply put everyone in a room together, close the door and say: good luck!’

As a civil servant she has personally experienced this during public discussions about nature development on farmland. ‘That ended in chaos and a politician being escorted off the scene by police. Maps had been leaked and farmers had seen that their land was involved.’ For Termeer it was an eye-opener. ‘You should always think carefully how you are going to set up something like this, because often significant interests are at stake, as was the case here with family-owned farms passed down through the generations.’

Small wins

One of Termeer’s greatest successes is her theory of small wins. The idea is that small, meaningful steps are ultimately the key to change. Everyone – citizens, civil servants, politicians, companies – can take these steps. By way of illustration, Termeer cites the example of a farmer in Brabant who is keeping his pigs in pasture day and night. ‘This is a small, local change, but it has knock-on effects. Because it contravenes the rules; pigs aren’t allowed to just wander outdoors, due to the risk of disease.’ To overcome this legal barrier, the farmer has concluded a Green Deal with the government. And the province is providing grant money for research into whether this form of pig farming has a future.

Sometimes today’s solution leads to tomorrow’s problem

The small wins theory sometimes draws a sceptical response, says Termeer. ‘You aren’t going to save the world with something small like this, they say. To which I reply: ultimately we are. Provided the steps are meaningful. After all, these steps aren’t easy, they require another way of thinking and often clash with existing rules and business models.’

For the rest, it is important that more than one step is taken, that a change takes hold and spreads, says Termeer. A nice example of this is provided, she believes, by Wasted, a citizens’ initiative in Amsterdam. Participants collect plastic in their neighbourhood and for every bag they receive a digital coin they can spend at shops involved in the scheme. This encourages recycling in neighbourhoods where it is neglected. Gradually a project like this spreads to several neighbourhoods and in its wake new projects emerge, Termeer explains. The founders of Wasted have since been invited to the World Economic Forum.

Such dissemination and elaboration is vital, Termeer believes. ‘The idea of small steps can often be misused as an excuse for picking low-hanging fruit. But there’s no point in opting for simplistic short-term gain.’

Changing the world

Termeer also does a lot of research beyond Europe’s borders, for example in the field of sustainable, integrated food policy, taking into account health, food security, poverty, biodiversity, climate and animal welfare. ‘For this kind of integrated policy people from health ministries need to cooperate with people from agricultural ministries and environmental ministries. This requires change not only in the structure, but also in the culture.’ Termeer researches how that comes about and what is needed to make it possible. ‘So we are looking at how this is being done in South Africa and Uganda, whether something is genuinely happening and not just on paper, what the influencing factors are and which conditions ensure that it works.’

This system approach is what drew Termeer to Wageningen. ‘Whether it’s about food, climate or agriculture, these are all complex societal issues for which WUR is trying to find solutions. And to arrive at these solutions, you always need knowledge of public administration.’ This is why it is important, to her mind, to involve public administrators in the research at an early stage. ‘If we wait until a technical solution has been developed and only then start thinking about the governance side, it is often too late. Then it turns out, for example, that the solution conflicts with long-standing policy.’

She aims to convey this to her students. ‘The lecture theatres are full of students who want to change the world for the better. That’s really good, but make sure you go about it in a smart way. If you understand how the power relations work, you can play the game and have a lot more impact.’

Seeking consensus

This is a lesson Termeer herself also applies. She spends roughly one day a week fulfilling ancillary positions. For example, she is a supervisory board member of development organization Solidaridad and a member of the Council for Public Administration (ROB), which advises on the structure and functioning of the government. This past September she was also appointed to the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands (SER) as one of the 22 Crown-appointed members, a position formerly held by Louise Fresco, among others.

The SER is a consultative body comprising employers, employees and independent Crown-appointed members that advises the government and parliament on social and economic policy. Termeer will focus mainly on international corporate responsibility, for example in the gold and textile industries. ‘For me, SER represents the polder model, not in terms of maintaining the status quo in the face of urgent need for radical change, but in terms of making progress by means of small steps and consultation with all the parties involved.’

This is particularly relevant right now, believes Termeer, because we live in an era of polarization and fragmentation. ‘The complex issues that SER addresses require cooperation between government agencies, industry, employers and NGOs. As a Crown-appointed member, I share my expertise and I mediate between the various parties. At present I am still reading up, so as yet I have no definite vision, but I hope that through my advice I can contribute to meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.’


In her daily life too, Termeer does her bit towards creating a more sustainable world. She travels from Utrecht to Wageningen every day by public transport and bike, she eats almost no meat, travels by plane as little as possible and has covered the roof of her home with solar panels. ‘I don’t think any of that is particularly unusual and I’m certainly not a sustainability nut. Perhaps it’s because I studied in Wageningen at a time when everyone here was a vegetarian. And I think my research on the circular economy has raised my awareness.’

Every year at Christmas the whole chair group is invited to dinner at the professor’s home on the Oudegracht in Utrecht. ‘It is a very multicultural group and everyone cooks something,’ tells Termeer. Because it is customary in many cultures to show hospitality by making too much food, there are lots of leftovers. ‘So everyone goes home at the end of the evening with a Tupperware box.’ She points to a clean container on her desk. ‘Over the course of the year they trickle back to my office.’

Tai chi

Termeer believes that dining together like this at Christmas is important for creating a good working atmosphere. ‘The work pressure is high and it is important that we relax now and again and simply have a good time together.’ Personally she finds relaxation in martial arts. ‘I used to do karate and these days I do tai chi. The nice thing about martial arts, I find, is that they demand complete focus. If your thoughts stray for just a second, you’ll get hit. I find this has a very meditative effect, because I really have to clear my mind entirely.’

Katrien Termeer1987Master’s in Soil and Water Engineering in Wageningen
1993 – 1996Doctorate at Erasmus University Rotterdam and assistant professor of policy at TU Delft
1996 – 2000Policy advisor at the Ministry of LNV
2000 – 2005Adviser at Sioo (centre for innovation and change management)
2005 – presentProfessor o Public Administration and Policy at WUR

This September Katrien Termeer was appointed to the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands (SER) as a Crown-appointed member. She is also a member of the Council for Public Administration and a supervisory board member of development organization Solidaridad. Termeer is married and has two sons.

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