Solving Dutch policy Issues: the National Think Tank

By Julie Albers

The National Think Tank (De Nationale DenkTank) is a platform for young Dutch academics to let their voices be heard in business, science and the government. For last year’s edition no less than six UCU alumni were selected. What is the secret behind their success? “Working fulltime is an understatement.”


Twenty-five young people, still in university or recently graduated, from a variety of backgrounds. A big, societal problem that is a tough nut to crack. Four months, trainings from consultants, knowledge from experts. These are the ingredients of the annual Think Tank.

“I had a wonderful time participating in The Think Tank; I kept asking myself why it was already nearing its end,” Spencer Heijnen (25, class of 2011) says. The former chair of ASIC gained experience in several fields of society, including a Masters in Oxford, but couldn’t wait to apply to The Think Tank.

“Honestly, I can’t think of anything more fun to do in your free time.”

Since its foundation in 2006, the concept has remained the same, but the topic changes each year. The Think Tank’s theme in 2013 was ‘Care for Health’ (‘Zorg voor Gezondheid’). The costs in the Dutch health care system are soaring through the roof and simultaneously, the pressure of understaffing collides with the aging society. So how can the system be improved in a sustainable way while patients stay independent for as long as possible?

Shortly before starting his PhD in Decision Neuroscience in Nijmegen, Jeroen van Baar (23, class of 2011) thought that it would be a good idea to “add a little socialism to the business-like Think Tank”. He soon found out that instead of fighting the system, “it was more of an interesting mix of perspectives”.

By combining the three pillars of government, science and business, the Think Tank tries to offer concrete solutions that can be implemented quite easily. It generates attention and stimulates public debate in all sectors.

The Think Tank also welcomes people without any previous affinity with the topic, as Ties van Dam’s participation (20, class of 2012) illustrates. Before the Think Tank he was mainly focusing on China and studied at University College London.

While researching four health sectors, the participants focused on the biggest issues with most room for improvement. After redefining health – “not as the absence of disease but as resilience, the ability to adapt and self-manage” – they continued with the analytical phase, during which they interviewed 300 people. “Our ideas range from very small, practical solutions to changes in the health care system that could affect millions,” Jeroen explains.

In the meantime, they had the chance to cooperate with health care hotshots from all over the country. TNO (the Netherlands’ biggest research institute), the Royal Dutch Society of Science, universities, health insurances companies… You name it, and this all with constant guidance from two consultants from McKinsey. “At time I found it hard to consciously enjoy the amazing setting you’re in,” Jeroen says.

Out of over 150 innovative solutions, ten final ones were presented in a report in December. A simple but potentially powerful fix is the Partial Deductible (Dutch: Gedeeltelijk Eigen Risico). When using health care, Dutch citizens pay the first €360 of the annual amount used, with the insurer covering the rest. Turning this into a 36% fee on the first €1000 spent – ensuring citizens will never pay more than €360 a year – stretches out the inhibiting effect that deductibles have on health care, namely that citizens spend all €360 regardless if they really need it. Another idea is Phased Retirement, which according to Jeroen “should counter retirement shock”.

Half of the solutions are usually implemented. Although it is a fairly new concept, the continuously growing Think Tank-network is what might eventually make the biggest impact.

As well as its obvious usefulness for society, the Think Tank also offers its participants benefits in that it is a unique opportunity to develop themselves both professionally and mentally. Jeroen realized that the main goal was perhaps “to unite a bunch of motivated students around a societal issue, hoping that fun initiatives would emerge.”

Why would policy makers and health care professionals listen to such a relatively inexperienced group? “Many people appreciate the input from someone with fresh energy. In return, they often forgive us our youthful redundancy of ambition and enthusiasm,” Ties smiles. Spencer agrees: “In the end you realize that not your knowledge, but your selfless position constitutes the added value.”

Still, this does not explain the overrepresentation of UCU alumni in the Think Tank. According to Ties, however, this could be explained by the fact that the Think Tank environment is ideal for UCU’ers: the combination of striving for excellence, thinking outside the box, and working incredibly hard. “The Think Tank proves that there are more opportunities for driven and like-minded people beyond UCU.”

According to Spencer, the Think Tank and UCU have three overlapping core elements: “An interdisciplinary group, ambition and a positive contribution to society.” In fairness, Jeroen adds a rather politically incorrect element to this eagerness: “UCU people like doing things that look good on their CV.”

The interdisciplinary experience is something they all stress. “During the first weeks I reluctantly admitted to myself that a humanities point of view can also be extremely valuable in analysing societal problems,” Jeroen says.

Despite the enormous effort the participants have to put in, the prevailing enthusiasm is what strikes me throughout all the interviews. “Actually, UCU should offer a Think Tank-like course,” Spencer ponders. “Honestly, I can’t think of anything more fun to do in your free time.”


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