Belgium Uncomplicated: ‘Teleworking goes hand-in-hand with wellbeing’

Belgium Uncomplicated: ‘Teleworking goes hand-in-hand with wellbeing’
Petra De Sutter Credit: EP

Belgian politics is at first glance an indecipherable labyrinth of different levels of governments and laws. But it does not have to be this way! Check back in regularly with The Brussels Times as we try to shine some light on matters.

In an attempt to help the uninitiated navigate such a complex system, we will be speaking regularly with politicians from the regional, national and European level. They will give us a taste of what they do and how their small piece fits into the bigger jigsaw puzzle that is Belgium. If there is a particular topic you would like us to put to those in power, get in touch!

Belgian federal government minister Petra De Sutter explains what being a deputy prime minister means, how Belgian politics is not all that different from European politics and what big changes we can expect from the post office.

What are your main duties as Deputy Prime Minister? Is this just a role that comes into play if the Prime Minister is out of action for some reason? 

A deputy prime minister can indeed substitute the PM for some reasons, but the Deputy Prime Minister also has another role in Belgium. There are seven parties in the federal coalition, so we have seven DPMs, one for each party. It’s the power of the coalition model of Belgium, in a sense. We very often have meetings between the seven of us, which we call the “Kern”, where we prepare the most important decisions to take at the Council of Ministers meeting that takes place on Friday, where all the ministers are present. That’s why DPMs often express themselves on a wide variety of topics in the media, not only those within their own portfolio. 

You made the step from the European Parliament in 2020, was it much of a change to go from EU-level politics back to federal politics?  

Of course, it’s a big change. But at the same time, there are a lot of similarities and bridges between both levels, between the European and the Federal level. For instance, as a Minister of Telecommunications, I take part in the Telecoms Council of EU Ministers, where we negotiate together with the European Parliament on EU laws. And as a minister, I have to apply European directives. I was also a federal senator for some time, before becoming minister. So in fact, the biggest change was probably that I went from the legislative arena to the executive one. Now, I execute the decisions, and it’s a big duty. 

Did you learn much during your time as an MEP and have you been able to apply that experience to your new role? 

What I learned during my time in the European Parliament and the Council of Europe is how to negotiate and work with Members of Parliament stemming from a range of countries. Everyone has a different background, other media, a different culture, also a different way of doing politics. At the same time we create within our institution a common culture, we unite in common political groups and we create common legislative texts and resolutions that apply to all of our people. We learn on how to compromise for the greater good of all, and to unite on what binds us rather than on what divides us. 

Over the years, you have been a champion for a more equal society, better rights for asylum seekers and refugees, and strengthened LGBTQI+ rights. How have you brought that fight into your work as a government minister? 

I continue to work on women's rights, minority rights and LGBTQI+ rights. If we drop those battles, we risk sliding into a society in which I wouldn't want to live. But we don’t. And we book success: last Summer at the initiative of Belgium, 17 EU foreign ministers adopted a declaration condemning discriminatory Hungarian legislation and encouraging the European Commission to take action. One month later, the Commission started infringement proceedings against Hungary. I also have regular meetings with my green colleague Sarah Schlitz, Secretary of State for Gender equality, Equal opportunity and Diversity. She works hard on those issues. And in my competence, I pay particular attention to inclusion and diversity, in the public administration for instance. 

You are also responsible for public administration and enterprises. What are your main duties in these sectors? 

All Belgian citizens and companies are entitled to effective and efficient public services. I’m also responsible for 65,000 federal civil servants, and I consider it my task to make sure they possess all the needed tools and circumstances so that they can fully focus on their mission: to serve our citizens. Furthermore, we will also start the transition to a more sustainable federal administration. Our public enterprises also have an exemplary role, both in terms of corporate governance and social dialogue, as well as in terms of social dialogue and managing the transformation towards more sustainability.

My goal is also to build an administration in which public servants are proud to work and which is trusted by citizens and businesses. In 2021 and beyond, we want to work towards digitalisation that keeps our country in the lead, without forgetting those with fewer digital skills. Again, it’s a matter of inclusion. For instance, we started a plan “Women In Digital”, for a better representation of Women in ICT.

What particular challenges has the pandemic presented in this area? Has remote working become a new norm, for example, in the day-to-day workings of public administration? 

Absolutely! But the federal administration has a solid and proven framework for telework in place, which has more than proven itself during the health crisis. At the same time, we cannot ignore the importance of workplace presence to promote social cohesion. Organisations are encouraged to implement this hybrid and flexible way of working, aiming at a balance between telework and office presence. We aim to reach an average of two teleworking days per civil servant per week. However, teleworking goes hand-in-hand with attention to well-being. That’s why we have anchored the right to disconnect in the legislation: now, state employees may be contacted outside of normal working hours only for exceptional and unforeseen reasons. Our intention is also to launch a tool to help agents ensure the ergonomics of their home workplaces.

Part of your job is also forwarding the green agenda in government policies. What results have you achieved in this area already and what can we expect in 2022? 

Indeed. Let me give you the example of company cars. In Belgium, quite some employees are - through their employment contract - entitled to a car, together with their salary. As a federal government we have decided that as of 2026 only electrical company cars will get a favourable fiscal treatment. Also for the public administration, we are taking actions to make our rolling stock more sustainable and to have more electric charging stations in our parking lots. And as regards our public buildings, we took engagements for renovations. Also, in the recent budget negotiations, we decided on lots of sustainable measures such as additional investments in hydrogen technology and our railways. My green colleague Tinne Van der Straeten [Belgium’s energy minister] has also invested in building tons of extra wind turbines in our country, for instance in the North Sea.

The other part of your portfolio is telecommunications and the post service. How important is it to update these services and make them fit for our digital/sustainability goals? The post service, in particular, will this be a greener service soon? 

That’s an excellent question. On 21 July, the federal government approved the 7th bpost management contract with ambitious ecological and social terms. Public companies have the power and the duty to set an example, especially in terms of sustainability, diversity, but also accessibility. No one should be left aside, be it in terms of the digital divide, for example, or accessibility for people with disabilities. In Belgium, 40% of the population is in a vulnerable position when faced with the increasing digitalisation of our society. Given this situation, it is essential that bpost remains one of the human and physical points of contact for procedures that require digital skills. Therefore, 10% of post offices are going to be transformed into "digihubs" for a trial period of two and a half years.

Those post offices will offer digital support, for example, to contest a fine online, to apply for a public transport pass, or to process other procedures requiring online authentication. We also signed a corporate social responsibility charter with bpost. The objective is to reduce the CO2 rate by more than 50% by 2030 compared to the current rate. Bpost is also developing “ecozones”, urban zones within which deliveries are made in a carbon neutral way. And the company's fleet will be converted to electric technology by 2030. As Minister of Public Enterprises, I am very pleased that bpost is showing ambition and setting an example. 

As we move further into 2022, do you have any New Year resolutions that you would mind sharing with us? 

I hope our society won’t suffer as much from COVID-19 as it still did in 2021. I think especially of our schools, for whom it is very difficult to adequately teach at the moment. But also the cultural sector has suffered hard times, and many employees - including my own – are so looking forward to returning to the office on a regular basis. I wish for all of this to be possible in 2022.

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