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Reframing leads to new solutions?

When you have been dealing with tough issues for a long time, it is sometimes difficult to find a breakthrough. It can seem like a problem just can’t be solved. These types of “wicked problems” are complex and constantly evolving. There are all sorts of parties involved that often have competing interests.

In government, we have enough of this kind of tough problems. In my research into how we can make government services that are good for people, I come across them regularly. I am currently researching how the government designs services for people in debt.

In my research, I look particularly at government organisations themselves. How do they learn and develop their own skills to better serve citizens? If you want to follow this research, subscribe to my monthly newsletter.

Kees Dorst, a professor in Sydney, wrote the first design book I read 8 years ago as a junior designer in government: Frame Innovation. He describes a number of steps you can take to see new solution directions for tough issues. You do this by thinking differently: by reframing the problem.

In this blog, you will read about how I am using this method with team members I am working with this year. The topic: how does the government seizure someone’s wages when they fail to pay a debt? This month we organized a collaboration day attended by about 40 people. We are still in the middle of the project, so this blog is a reflection on the approach in between. What do I learn about applying this design method in the government context?

The wicked problem

Many people who owe a debt to a government organization fail to pay it. A person can have all kinds of reasons for that. In the process of repayment, or the collection process as it is called on the government side, there are all kinds of steps. One of those steps is for the government to eventually seize your income. That is a major intervention.

To protect citizens, the rule is that such a seizure must never cause you to fall below the subsistence level. Yet it happens. Indeed, the government is legion; different government organizations do not know from each other if and who has already seized. So it may happen that you do get pushed below the subsistence level because the government is competing with itself to collect a debt.

On large boards, all participants wrote or drew the insights from their organization(s).

Solving this problem is proving to be very tough. There are all kinds of different parties involved that have different structures and interests. That’s partly how it was once set up and partly how it grew. Then there are all sorts of other rules that make it difficult to solve this problem, for example the rules about sharing citizens’ data between organizations. And the problem is also constantly changing. In recent years, we as a society have begun to think differently about debt. From “people don’t want to pay” to “people can’t always pay.

How do you look differently?

To understand and address such problems, Kees Dorst devised a series of steps he calls the reframing method.

Steps to arrive at new solution directions for tough problems.

As a team, in the weeks leading up to the collaboration day, we put together as much as we could of what has been done so far to address this issue. To fully understand the problem, we tried to adress everything that makes it so difficult. Often then all sorts of paradoxes come along. Things that at first glance are a contradiction that makes something fail, but don’t have to contradict at all. We also studied the parties involved. What makes them so different, and where is overlap?

On the collaboration day, we set to work naming key themes and seeing if we could come up with some new frames. How might we look at the issue differently?

During the collaboration day, we used this outline of the steps. This stage is the most abstract moment in the process.

Coming up with a new frame like this is always quite a challenge. Once you get it, you think “yeah, makes sense. But just try to think of it. To do this, you must first understand the problem well and examine it from different angles. A good frame helps you to then be able to formulate a good design question. In turn, you can think of solution directions that you can work out.

An example. A paradox in solving this issue is that the people affected are not involved. We assume that they have so little doing power, after all, they can’t pay off their debts either, that they can’t participate in the solution either. Thus we exclude them of the process unfairly. A new insight is that for a good solution, we desperately need the lived experiences of this group. We need to understand much better how things that are conceived work out in practice.

A good frame then is: the experience expertise of people with debt is the key to understanding the issue. A design question that fits with this then is: how can we position these people so that they can contribute their expertise?

Structure of the day

The collaboration day began with a rolling start. Throughout the room we had placed large signs on which the first steps of the method were visualized. Participants could add to them their own expertise. That content was the material we worked on for the rest of the day.

In the morning, each group engaged in a partial perspective. Are you looking through the perspective of the user, society, organization or technology? If you only look through that lens, what do you see? What makes it difficult and what opportunities do you see?

In the afternoon, we continued with those possibilities and came up with ideas to go with them. Again, we worked out those ideas in groups using a work canvas. This is what we will continue to do as a team in the coming weeks.

What can I learn from this for my research?

One of the participants came up with a wonderful quote. “We look through a straw, but with the citizen everything comes together.” Because government organizations are divided into all sorts of separate functions and teams, there are partitions between everything. There are few people who really have an overview of how things work and what the consequences are in practice. That is also what makes such an issue so complex. Where do you put the cut? Do you need to make the issue bigger? So big that it can’t be handled? But then again, many more people need to be involved, because each sub-issue has its own policy staff and product owners. At the same time, we have the luxury of cutting it up; someone in debt does not.

This paradox is not new to me. In previous studies, even before my doctoral research, I also encountered this often. I previously wrote an essay about it“Is there anyone with oversight?

With the group, we discussed all the insights from multiple perspectives.

On top of that, the pressure not to make mistakes is great in government. Failure is not an option because the consequences are dire. For individual citizens, and a social, political reckoning also follows. Yet we regularly fail precisely because we don’t get a shot at this kind of tough problems. This paradox leads to risk avoidance. Experimentation sometimes seems like a dirty word.

In government, you have to think big, but act small. This is a different approach than how government usually operates. The reframing method, and really any design method embraces precisely making, trying out and testing to practice with real people, and doing so as early and as often as possible.

How can you shape this in government? That is what we are going to work on in a small way, in this topic, in the coming time. And on a larger scale, what does this mean for applying design methods in government? Fortunately, I have a few more years to figure that out.

Want to read more?

  • Dorst, K. (2015). Frame innovation: Create new thinking by design. MIT press.
  • Schaminée, A. (2018). Designing with-in public organizations: Building bridges between public sector innovators and designers. Bis Publishers.
  • I summarized the first results from my own research on design in government in this blog: Trusting the process is not enough.
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Full circle research

Yesterday, more than 100 researchers working in the Dutch government met in Utrecht. The government-wide research community held its first real-life event, and the organization had to ask participants to attend with just 5 persons per government organization. If you had told me this 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you. So many researchers already work in government. Super.

In this blog, I share my presentation: about the context in which we work and why researchers are necessary for good service delivery. We look back at how far we’ve come, and also ahead: what will it take to let the lifeworld of citizens guide the delivery of government services? I call that doing full circle research.

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The circle of democracy and service delivery

In my research, I use a division between the system world and the living world, with both a collective and an individual side. This creates 4 quadrants. On the collective side, Cabinet, together with representatives of the people, shape their vision of society. This vision is then translated into laws, policies and services for individuals. Only after interaction between citizens and government does this become a reality in the context of the people themselves, or in the living world. And also in the living world, individuals group together and try to implement their ideas about society, thus coming full circle.

Drawing the circle of democracy and service delivery
Drawing the circle of democracy and service.

Of this circle, people experience mostly the individual side. “People don’t experience policies, they experience services,” says researcher Sabine Junginger (2016). That means the job of public service providers is to translate collective value into individual experiences that are also valuable.

Want to know more about this collective and individual side? Then read the blog Executive and service provider.

That’s not easy. The practice of the system world now is often a big waterfall. It goes clockwise in a circle, from policy to service and pours out over citizens and society. If you disagree, you can show it in your voting record.

It may be different if we collect citizens’ experiences and introduce them, counterclockwise, into the system world. Those experiences can shape how we offer services and how we design services at all. For the policies enacted for it, and yes, perhaps also for the legislation and associated ideas about interventions in society and the effect it will have.

We have to turn it completely around. And we can, because that’s exactly our job as government researchers.

We extract experiences from the lifeworld. We have several methods and techniques to do this properly. Moreover, we are able to share these stories within our organizations in a way that motivates colleagues to take action.

We have shown that over the past 10 years.

How it began

In most organizations, it started with usability testing of websites and other screens. At least for me, too. I started working at the Executive Agency of Education in 2013. One of the first things I learned was how to set up and run a usability test. I visited schools with my laptop under my arm. In the office, I showed videos to colleagues and talked about how students or school employees experienced our digital services.

Look, so cute: my first steps in the research world.

In 2017, I started my blog. I shared what I was learning and what we were trying out. You also started sending me your experiences.

I saw that we were growing as researchers. We went from testing screens to exploring how to improve all interaction moments with government. We learned new research methods and devised more creative ways to share the insights within our organizations. We took a more holistic approach and also tried to get to know the person behind the user.

We worked smarter. In order to scale up, we started to bundle and archive our insights. We started to get better organized and research positions for that logistics side came up.

And then some of us started getting occasional phone calls from stray policy officials who needed to take make sure people could ‘do’ their policies. “I got your name through, maybe you can help me?” We certainly can.

And so with the insights from the living world, we went deeper and deeper into the system world.

So let’s dream on. Where do we go from here? What do I wish for our field?

More quality

To better understand the whole living world, both the individual as well as the collective side, we need to improve our work. For this, we need more diversity in research roles. The field is so large that no one is good at all the research methods we need. Neither is necessary. In the past, we had research teams consisting of one person doing everything, but that is no longer possible. A good research team includes usability researchers, strategic researchers, customer journey experts, behavioral scientists and more. We must embrace the full range of research methods.

Scholars from Sneek think with DUO

Diversity also says something about who we are ourselves. I still too often see a very homogeneous group when I look around. Especially we, who want to test the bias of the government, must also know our own bias. We have far too few people of color on our teams. One in 5 people has a visible or invisible disability, but looking around now, it seems that everyone has an invisible disability. Our teams are not diverse and that is a problem. As a result, we have too many blind spots that affect how we do our work.

Talking to people

I need to get something off my chest. It really should no longer be a problem to speak to respondents. Really. Come on. This is still far too often a problem in organizations. “Then what are you promising them?” “No, the GDPR.” “It has to be efficient.” Human contact, by definition, is not efficient; indeed, it gets better the less efficient it is. We can only do our job if we are allowed to have real contact with citizens. We shouldn’t put up with this stuff anymore.

Scaling up

If we really want to improve services to citizens, we need to expand our activities. It’s great that more and more development teams want to do usability testing in a sprint, but now imagine if all the teams in your organization wanted to do usability testing in every sprint? How are you going to manage that?

So we need to invest more in the organizational side. Contact with people does not have to be efficient, but we can organize our research work efficiently. This requires a different approach for most of us. The creative and human side is strong among most of us, but now it is time to embrace the blue side we know so well in civic service again as well.

Making policies and services together

I see more and more collaboration between policy and implementation, and research is the basis for that. I hope this becomes standard operating procedure in government. So that policies are based on insights from users and along with the developed services are always tested with citizens.

For this we need to stop that waterfall. I know I am raising a familiar point with this, and that we often complain about it. But we are not helpless on the sidelines. We can help stop the waterfall.

Sharing insights = working in the open

As far as I’m concerned, the best way to stop the waterfall is to share your work. Share citizens’ stories. Share how you do your work and what it brings. Also share the moments when things are not going well. In particular, stories about research insights getting stuck in a cumbersome process or on a system that is already finished help us understand how to work differently.

It often falls short of making a good shareable story as well. We are already so busy. To illustrate, I have spent about 1 day a week for years on this blog and giving and sharing presentations. And even now, on Friday afternoon, I am typing out my presentation from yesterday. I do this because I know it helps our profession move forward. Join me and contribute. After all, I only know what I happen to experience and see in Groningen here. Together we can learn much more.

It’s not real until it’s real

It is great that we are conducting pilots, living labs and experiments. But only when a citizen actually experiences better service, we can get coffee. Therefore, it is not strange to spend as much time sharing your work and following what happens with it as you do the actual research. What good is it if you put in all that effort and then nothing happens with it?

Let us strive to do full circle research. We start with the living world, with the citizen, of course. With the insights, we enter our organization and climb up the waterfall. We can. We work with others to adapt processes and systems, to adjust policies and, if necessary, legislation. We then re-examine how to translate those adjustments into individual experiences.

Full circle research begins and ends in the living world.

Full circle researching begins and ends with the citizen.

When I became a civil servant, my then manager Theo said, “Maike, it’s going to take a very long time for you to change anything in government. But if you succeed, you will have really accomplished something.”

So let’s start continue.

Continue reading?

This blog is full of tips on how to research and get your organization on board. For example:

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How do you do research? Promoklip

Fingers on the keyboard

Writing an academic article on government services is very different from writing a blog. I have noticed that by now. I just sent the draft of my second article to my supervisor and it feels great.

While writing, I had a lot of help from other researchers who shared on Instagram, Youtube or on their blog how they go about it. So I do something in return of course.

In this blog, I show my writing process, how I prepare and what tools I use.

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A different ball game

I am not writing a book, blog or newspaper article, but a scholarly article. This is a very functional text and very different from what I am used to. You always write for your reader, and in this case my reader wants to know as quickly as possible, “what knowledge is in this piece and can I use it for my research?” There are rules associated with writing a scientific paper, which may also vary by research field.

For example, articles have a set structure: introduction, research question and aim, method, findings, discussion and conclusion. This took a lot of getting used to at first. If I shared a nice anecdote in the discussion, my promoters mercilessly moved it to the findings, or worse, deleted it completely from the article. If I gave even a small hint of the findings and what you could do with them, it was moved to the discussion. But as I plow through many articles myself, I am grateful for that logical format.

Photo taken from above of my desk with laptop and all sorts of notes on paper
Notes ready, tapping away

In April 2023, based on the data that 7 years of blogging gave me, I wrote an empirical article. Now I’m working on a conceptual piece. I now have a little more freedom to shape the article, but that also makes it immediately more difficult. The argument for my conceptual framework determines the structure of the article, so that argument must be excellent.

I use two articles as a guide for how to build such a conceptual piece. I make a theoretical synthesis of concepts found in the fields of design, services and public administration (Jaakkola, 2020). I bring these concepts together like an architect building a house (MacInnis, 2011).

Building arguments

PhD research is actually an education: with every step you take, you must first learn how to take it. So I took two courses to help me with writing.

  1. Philosophy of Science at Erasmus University. I learned what makes a good argument and how to check that the structure is sound. We had to analyze others’ texts and dissect them completely.
  2. Creative tools for scientific writing. For example, how to create overview for yourself, how to extract the main message from a paragraph and write towards it, and how to draw the reader into a text and hold their attention. And also: how to avoid writing those scientific sentences that seem like monstrosities. So that, even though it contains a lot of knowledge, it is also a bit of fun to read your article.

My writing process

After all this preparation, nothing stopped me from keeping my fingers on the keyboard. In January, I had three weeks, nonstop. I had also lost my voice, so I really couldn’t plan anything else.

During the second course, I wrote the introduction to the article, describing the research question, the purpose of the article and the approach to arriving at answers. This introduction covered about 500 words and I discussed it at length with my supervisors. After some scraping, I also sent it to Servsig, a service conference in June. It would be nice if I could give a presentation about the article there; I’ll hear about that later in the spring.

I had already done a lot of reading and made notes. As a library for scientific articles, I use Zotero, which is also useful for keeping track of references while writing. I read through all my notes again. I then created a visual outline in Miro with the main arguments and figures I was going to use, as well as the flow from one point to another.

Picture of my screen with all the figures while holding a tasty cup of coffee in front of it so you can't read everything
Expanded Miro board with all figures

So the real writing began quite functionally. I started with the main research questions and built the answer step by step in blocks. I added the main sources.

Then I worked out the blocks point by point. Each sentence I placed on a separate line with a number in front of it. The sentences were short and staccato. The important thing was that the argument was clear, and if it was, I marked the most important line. That was the point I was trying to make. I shuffled back and forth some more, looking critically to see if all the sentences were building toward that conclusion. And then I moved on to the next block.

I want to publish in an English-language journal, but I don’t really think in English yet. So I started in Dutch and translated sentences into English when I was satisfied with the structure. I used Deepl as a translation assistant to help me.

Making beautiful sentences

Now it was time to do what I used to call writing: make beautiful sentences. I removed the numbers and wrote the sentences together. Some sentences I added together. Other sentences I worked out and became as many as three sentences. I divided the information into paragraphs and again marked the main message for each paragraph, building toward the conclusion of the entire block. The sentences were much less staccato, but carried full-blown information. And of course I added all the references of the sources I relied on.

For editing, I used Edit.gpt. Mainly for English grammar, but also to improve overall flow. Some adaptations I adopted, others I did not. Then I checked that the sentences ran smoothly and were not too long. I did this by reading the text aloud.

When that was all done, I moved on to the next block. After completing all the blocks within a segment, I read through everything a few times. I watched the transitions from one point to another. I checked that all the research questions were answered and that the whole thing invited further reading.

And so last month I wrote a whopping 8,000 words.

Photo of my desk and window, with my legs stretched out in the window frame
8,000 words later

This writing is very different from typing a blog. At first, I had to get used to it tremendously. And it required an awful lot of discipline. With a blog, I usually wait for inspiration, but writing an article went step by step. In December, I resolved to take one step every day, or say, 300 words, so that I would have a draft ready by the end of January. And it succeeded. Even on days without inspiration.

Now what I wrote goes “into the mix. That means receiving feedback from my promoters. They will ask a lot of questions about the argument and rearrange things again. Some of the blocks also need better elaboration, but after 8,000 words I had a toasty brain. I am very curious to see what they come back with.

And about the content itself, because I understand that you are also extremely curious about that, there will be a blog later too :).

References

Jaakkola, E. (2020). Designing conceptual articles: Four approaches. AMS Review, 10(1-2), 18-26.

MacInnis, D. J. (2011). A framework for conceptual contributions in marketing. Journal of Marketing, 75(4), 136-154.

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Behind the scenes retrospective blog 2023

Around the turn of the year, I usually write a review of the past year. And this year, of course, it is about my doctoral research.

The 2022 retrospective blog was about how I set up my research on government services that are good for (the) people. Since this year, I have been sharing an update every month with a nice group of readers on how things are going behind the scenes. That actually makes writing this blog more difficult, because I have so much material now. Death by data is what they call it at the university. All right, let’s get to work!

Would you also like an update in your mailbox every month about my research? Then subscribe to my newsletter (in Dutch).

On a beer mat

Every doctoral research project begins with an exploration of what we already know, to build on that. In the spring, I devised a strategy for this with my supervisors. The best strategy should fit on a beer mat, but a napkin will do as well.

Year 1 research strategy on a napkin from the cafeteria
The research strategy on a napkin

The plan is to do a theoretical exploration as well as a practical exploration. That last one is bonus. I already have a lot of practical experience which happens to be neatly documented on this blog. A shame to do nothing with that. These two explorations reinforce each other and together form the basis for further research.

In March, we saw that there was a very interesting conference in the fall that my practical experiences fit perfectly with. Only the deadline was already in April! It may be that I learned how to write a scientific paper in four weeks then, and I actually still need to recover a bit from it. But it worked and the article was also accepted. In October I presented it in Milan and, of course, I wrote a nice little blog for you about the results: trusting the process is not enough. ✅

Then the theory

I did/do need more than four weeks for that. And this is an understatement. Wow, how hard I find this. Fortunately, I really like reading and writing, but it’s really different from what I’m used to.

In May, I took a course in Philosophy of Science for PhD students. I learned things that my sister was already learning during her undergraduate degree in college, but with a backhround of an applied college student, it was new to me. The question “what is knowledge?” was central, and the course helped me immensely to read texts more critically and to better substantiate my own arguments.

I wrote several blogs about these first steps in science:

Over the summer, my promotor Maaike Kleinsmann and I spent three days visiting Karlstad University, where Jasper van Kuijk, co-supervisor lives and works. Here we decided to adjust our strategy for theoretical exploration. We cut it into two parts.

Part 1: because my research is actually in three fields, the literature I want to use is also scattered (and a lot!). We are first going to make some good working definitions and properly conceptualize the phenomenon we are studying, government services, from those disciplines. I use this research framework:

Research Framework
From three disciplines, I zoom in on “my” phenomenon.

Part 2: then from that inner circle we are going to do a good search for everything that has been explored before me. I’m going to look at different sources:

  • case study research on improving government services,
  • research about the practices of officials who create and deliver government services, and
  • so-called “practitioner self-reports,” you know, those idiots from practice who keep a blog about their work ;). But also organizations that once shared a blog, a case study in their annual report, etc. They are not scientific sources (yet), we call it gray literature, but there is valuable info in them that I would like to have included.

To collect all this, I am going to collaborate with master students. And with you of course, you’ll later hear how. But wait, this is 2024 already, I’m doing a retrospective.

An official GO

In October, I had the 12-month meeting, as we call it in Delft. After the first year, you will present the progress of the first year and show the potential of your research to a committee of the university and an external expert.

It was a super fun conversation, with critical questions about the project and at the end a unanimous recommendation to move forward ✅.

In November and December, I worked on the conceptual framework on government services, and gave a series of presentations at my employer: the Executive Agency of Education (DUO). In fact, I was facilitatied to do this research last year by DUO, and I thought that was really special 🧡.

As an advisor, I thought about how DUO can grow from implementer to service organization. I helped with a number of concrete projects such as how we can set up checks of the move-out scholarship differently. And I ended the year with a workshop on my research for the board and tactical management. I also gave a super short summary at our employee event that you can read back here: Executor and Service Provider.

Working openly

Then I would like to say something about “working in the open” in this study. If you have been reading my blog for some time, you know that I share a lot. I find that super fun and it also helps me think.

I noticed last year that the time lines in science are much longer than in practice. Often I was pondering what to write next, because yes, you spend weeks and months on the same thing. Also, you don’t want to give away too many of your insights on your blog if they still need to be in a scholarly article. But I also don’t want to be a gatekeeper of interesting insights, because that’s exactly what we need in government.

I find it a tricky area of tension at times but I have built it up like this now:

  • This blog for short thoughts and to elaborate on something a bit more so that I can ask for feedback from you on it. And of course it will be on the blog as soon as I can share something that is finished.
  • The newsletter, where I can ask you questions even more easily, share loose snippets and communicate about the progress.
  • My second brain in Notion, parts of which are public and which I share through my newsletter. And parts of which are also nicely not public because it’s not finished yet, I’m free to think there and because occasionally what it says is also just crap.

I find working openly more difficult than when I started blogging. That’s because this is the most difficult project I’ve done so far and I am therefore insecure to share intermediate steps that could also fail. And because there are many more people reading along. Sometimes I miss the time when I was still messing around in a corner of the Internet without anyone noticing and caring.

But by working openly, I also learn a lot from you. Last year, more than ever, I received feedback from you on how certain things are going in your organizations, questions that are prevalent and insights from the field as well as from other scholars (hello, new audience). This is very useful for my research, so I will continue this approach in 2024 ✅.

How it continues, well, you’ll have to follow my newsletter for that or wait patiently for another blog to come online.

Have a good 2024!

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Executor and service provider

Are government organizations such as the Executive Agency of Education an executor or a service provider? In this blog, I argue that we are both. And that we must learn to connect those two roles.

Last week the directorate at the Executive Agency of Education (DUO) where I work, for those in the know the Directorate of Education Followers, organized an event for employees to explore these kinds of questions. It was a super fun program and I got to talk about my research. In this blog, I share the short speech I gave during the morning program. And of course I was on a stage during this speech so you have to imagine while reading that I was also walking left and right across that stage during the speech.

Imagine a line.

We start here on the left side. This is the side of the collective. On the far right, there on the other side, is the individual.

What the collective finds valuable is not always the same as what an individual finds valuable. There is tension between them.

The side of the collective

Here on the left is where the conversation among politicians takes place. Political parties, together with the cabinet, legislate how we envision society. We just voted again, then we all had a say in how we are represented as a collective. Here it is conceived that we want to keep education accessible. But that it should also not be too expensive. At the time, the majority of the House of Representatives thought the loan system for student finance was a good idea. And last year, the majority of the House of Representatives felt that the basic scholarship should be brought back after all.

Those adjustments are translated into laws and into policies, by ministries. For example, at our ministry, of Education. And those laws and those policies must then be brought to the citizens.

We do that. DUO.

If you look at it that way, it is simple to say: we execute laws. We are an executor.

The side of the individual

Let’s go to that other side. The right side. This is the side of the individual. For example, a student. Who comes from a particular home, with parents, brothers and sisters. Has a certain background, culture, atmosphere at home, at school, a certain upbringing. She chooses a study. Art Academy in Utrecht, or sports at Alphacollege, here in Groningen. Perhaps she is studying law in Leiden.

In any case, what we know for almost certain is that she is applying for student finance. On duo.nl, logging in with DigiD, she wants the supplementary grant as well. After a year also the move-out scholarship, because she is moving out of the house.

We actually think of these types of students as citizen service numbers. They go smoothly through our systems. They arrange their own student finance, their loan, change their travel entitlement. We rarely speak to them, maybe if they call once. But they only do that when the shit hits the fan. And sometimes not even then.

I have been your colleague for 10 years. In recent years, I worked as a user researcher, investigating how students perceive us. A few years ago, I made a photo series of colleagues. I explored how we make our choices and how to be a compasstionate civil servant in the process. Now for a year I have been doing scientific research together with Delft University of Technology on how to make government services that are good for (the) people.

The value of student finance

Scientific research says about organizations like DUO that we are a service organization. A service provider.

Student finance is a service. Something that allows a student to create value. What is that value anyway? I would say to develop yourself as a person. Leaving home. Travel. Discovering life and discovering your place in it. Education is super important in this. That’s the goal. And that is our mission: to enable this development.

But scientific research also says that such a service organization must then organize itself from the outside in. So all the way around it should be: focused on the user, on the student on that right side. Continually listening and asking: how valuable does the student find our services? What can we improve?

The organization must then be set up with clear accountability over these experiences. Customer experiences then are not a catch-all or nice-to-haves. No golden taps but they are the starting point. Actually even before policy, and even before ICT changes. Indeed, those policies and ICT changes stem from increasing “customer value.

Government organizations have two outsides

But you can’t quite compare government to an average service organization. Because we have that flow from the left too, remember. That is also an outside. And that outside flows very strongly in our organization. That’s how we’re actually set up now, focused on that left outside to execute legislation. And rightly so, because the collective is also the citizen.

You probably recognize those flows. We are all in the middle of it. You might be a little closer to the collective stream. Or you might, on the contrary, experience more that individual side. It depends on where you are in the organization.

But the tension between that collective, what the law requires, and the individual, how it works out for that one student… We all feel that tension.

That is the big task for the coming time.

How can we translate what the collective finds valuable, in our democracy, into individual experiences that students also find valuable?

How should we deal with that tension? It poses difficult questions:

  • What does this mean for how we offer the student finance? Should applying for student loans from DUO be easy or difficult? Super accessible, because there should be no barriers to arranging anything with the government, or difficult, because the loan results in student debt and thus an unlucky generation?
  • How are we supposed to check if someone is misusing the student finance? For example, with the move-out scholarship? We verify on misuse in the interest of the collective. But can this verifying process also be a valuable experience for the individual, or are we really just harming them with the way we do it?
  • How should we measure for customer satisfaction? For that, is wait time at the customer contact center really the most important KPI or should we have more qualitative measurements?
  • Do we actually have a really good overview of the entire student experience? And does that flow get enough space in our organzation at all?
  • And if you see something as a staff member that is not going well with a student, or a group of students, can you go against the flow?
  • Do you dare?

Needed: Compassionate civil servants

In my photo series, I interviewed colleagues about how they are as a compassionate civil servant. And also, why sometimes they can’t be one. You can view the photos and stories at debegripvolleambtenaar.nl.

I want to highlight this one from Mirjam. She was an account manager when I photographed her. She’s actually pretty close to that collective side in her work.

Mirjam, account manager at DUO in the photo series The compassionate civil servant
Portrait of Mirjam from the photo series The compassionate civil servant

Mirjam says, “DUO needs to be a connector.” At the ministry, at the collective side, stand for the student. As a kind of ambassador. This is possible only if that flow of the individual flows strongly in the organization.

“And at the student standing firm for policy.” So showing that collective flow here on the right.

Then you might think, pff, that will be chaos. We just have to embrace that chaos. And helping each other with that.

For that, we need to learn new things.

It starts with seeing both streams as equal. And to have our role in focus. Executor and also service provider. And especially connector of those two roles.

Want to know more?

On this blog, I think out loud how we can make government services that are good for people. I am researching this together with Delft University of Technology and public service organizations such as DUO.

  • Student finance is a service, and its value is in the classroom. In this blog, I explain what this means for a different way of working in government.
  • That government is not a typical service organization, but has two exteriors, I explain in the blog Trusting the process is not enough.
  • If you want to follow my research, subscribe to my newsletter.
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The forest of maturity models

In the Dutch government we are all currently working to improve our services. That is super of course, but how do you know if you are getting better at it?

For the Executive Agency of Education, I looked up some maturity models to measure this growth. You helped me with this by sending all kinds of tips through this post on LinkedIn. In this blog, an overview of some models that will help you measure your growth, and some tips on how to use them.

Do you want to follow my research on how to design government services that are good for people? Then subscribe to my newsletter (in Dutch).

Goal: be a good service provider

The first question to answer is: what do you actually want to know/measure? There are all kinds of models to measure organizational growth, and also to measure growth toward a human-centered service organization. But what is the end goal? What do you want to be in the end?

A good service provider delivers a good service. That sounds logical, but it means that you only have a chance to become a good service provider if you therefore make your service better.

There are all kinds of standards for good services. For example, the ISO standard for service excellence. The Dutch government has developed a vision of what citizens should expect from government services. And otherwise, you can always consult what the National Ombudsman thinks is decent.

A proven approach to making good services is human-centered design. This blog is full of it. In the jargon, you quickly end up with terms such as human centered design (HCD), user experience (UX), customer experience (XC), and design for excellent services (DfES). Again, you will find ISO standards for this, as well as all kinds of maturity models to develop in this.

What the all the models say

MacDonald et al (2021) collected 21 such models to see what is the common denominator of all these approaches to measuring UX capability in your organization. They also conducted a literature review and interviewed UX experts. They list 6 components in which to grow as an organization, which are common to many models:

  1. People: how are teams structured, how does management function, what skills do employees have, and how is career development organized?
  2. Resources: what are models for funding of UX work, what is the infrastructure in the organization, and what standards are used?
  3. Practices and processes: how is user experience incorporated into the way of working, how is planning and prioritizing done in the organization, what UX methods are used and what activities take place?
  4. Organizational literacy: how well does management understand the perspective of users, is there strategic support, how are user insights shared in the organization, are employees involved in UX activities?
  5. Organizational decision-making: are user insights guiding strategic decisions (or not), who is responsible for decisions that affect users, is there user ambassadorship in the organization and at what level?
  6. Benefits: are products and services getting better, is the same true of processes and, of course, is user satisfaction going up?

Models: an inventory

Ahead, then, a list of models as well.

  • The UXCAF model of MacDonald et al (2021), as described above.
  • The ISO 24082 standard for service excellence. ISO also provides standards for designing (ISO 23592) and measuring (ISO 23686) service excellence. In the standard, they distinguish 4 levels, with the highest level being excellent services.
  • The Nielsen Norman Group’s UX maturity model. Jakob Nielsen has published several academic articles and books on UX and UX maturity. For your convenience, here is the starting point on the NN Group website about the UX maturity model he developed. The UX Academy has developed workshop materials for the NN model to use in a group session.
  • The CXPA maturity model is based on Forrester Research’s CX framework. It is used by a number of Dutch government organizations, including members of User Central’s CX community. Both the framework and the growth model have been adopted by the international CX Professionals Association (CXPA) and made a standard with CXPA certification.
  • User Central published this maturity scan a few years ago. They are now facilitating the CX community that is further developing the CXPA model.
  • Service Design Maturity Model by Koos, published in The Service Design Network (an international network of service designers).
  • I myself wrote a framework for a standard for professional listening based on internal organizational research at the National Ombudsman. Not yet further validated, but this research provides input for my doctoral research.

Such a list is nice, but how do you choose one?

The above models have similarities and differences. Of course, the list of models in circulation is much longer than I am sharing here on this blog. So how do you choose what to use in your organization? Does the model measure what you want to know?

Does the model measure what you want to know?

Does it reflect the competencies you want to work on as an organization? It makes no sense to use a model that measures something other than what you want to know. There is some nuance between the models. Some focus more on data-driven work, are commercial and find marketing aspects important, or focus more on culture in the organization. I would choose a model that starts with the quality of your service and “peels off the onion” from there. I got that onion metaphor from Jasper van Kuijk who presents it this way in his dissertation Managing Product Usability (2010).

At what organizational level do you want to use it?

Individually, by team, by executive unit or at the highest organizational level? Most models include growth from operational to tactical and strategic level, but it is nevertheless good to consider where and how you want to use the model. On the NN-Group website you can see how to use the model by team or as an organization. Then again, the ISO standard, for example, looks only at the organizational level.

Is it a scientific model or also practically applicable?

You want a model that is well validated (preferably scientifically) but also convenient to use in the organization. In the LinkedIn post I saw some beautifully designed models in workshop format, but with little validation. At the same time, the article by MacDonald et al (2021) may be a bit difficult to digest if you are handing it out in your team. The CXPA/Forrester model is super useful in practice (and there are many parties offering this model to implement in the organization) but it has not yet been scientifically validated, for what I can see. The NN Group is my favorite in this area. Nice scan to fill in, there are background articles with explanations, and Nielsen and Norman are scientific giants who published their first UX bibles back in the early 1980s.

Are the criteria per level clear?

Is it clear what each maturity step entails and how to get there? The government also doesn’t always have the same amount of “doing power” to act and grow, so it needs to be super clear what each step means. The models in my list score fine on this.

Is it applicable to the context of government?

The government is not a commercial service provider and we do not have customers with choice. Government service organizations are guided by democratic input through the House of Representatives or the City Council in addition to the experiences of citizens as users. Most models are not made specifically for the government sector and do not take this dynamic into account. This is the conclusion of my first scientific publication that I wrote this blog about the other day. And so to which I can now give Klip-Veltman et al (2023) as a source – what’s up!

Some models are very specifically commercial, and have included in the maturity model commercial dynamics, such as marketing strategies. Even though most elements from these models seem applicable to the government context with a little creativity, a more fundamental risk lurks. Unconsciously, you are taking on dynamics that do not (should not) fit the character of government. My advice would be to choose the least commercial model possible.

How to use: internally or externally focused?

Numbers and rankings always do well, because managers obviously don’t want to dangle at the bottom of the list. There is nothing wrong with this externally focused approach, but I find the internal approach even more valuable. This is the time to be allowed to stare at your own reflection in the mirror! To first, as an organization, properly understand what maturity in good service actually means, how to get there and what steps your organization needs to take. Then after that you can…

Do you want to benchmark with other organizations?

Then it may pay to choose the same model as other (government) service organizations. The question, though, is what do you get out of it? What does it really benefit you to know whether you are doing better or worse than, say, the Tax Office? It’s like learning in class: nice to get a passing grade, but the qualitative feedback is much more helpful. How can you improve?

And if you’re all about exchange, are you actively exchanging knowledge and experience with other organizations and how does this help your growth?

Final Opinion

With the above criteria as a guide, you can’t really make a wrong choice, I think. Especially if you see a maturity model not as a goal but as a tool. Tools are not cast in concrete, you use them and when you have outgrown them, or the coat doesn’t quite fit after all, you can choose another one. Above all, do so!

The goal is not to be compliant with a maturity model. The goal is to grow: to improve your services so that people can find their way around the government and achieve their goals. That is a process and it is never finished.

Want to follow my research on how to make government services that are good for people? Then subscribe to my newsletter (in Dutch).

Continue reading

  • MacDonald, C. M., Sosebee, J., & Srp, A. (2022). A Framework for Assessing Organizational User Experience (UX) Capacity. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 38(11), 1064-1080.
  • ISO. (2021). ISO 24082 –Service excellence – Designing excellent service to achieve outstanding customer experience. Geneva, Switzerland, International Organization for Standardization.
  • Klip-Veltman, M., van Kuijk, J., and Kleinsmann, M.(2023). More than the process, exploring themes in Dutch public service design practice through embedded research, in De Sainz Molestina, D., Galluzzo, L., Rizzo, F., Spallazzo, D. (eds.), IASDR 2023: Life-Changing Design, October 9-13, Milan, Italy.
  • Van Kuijk, J. I. (2010). Managing Product usability: How companies deal with usability in the development of electronic consumer products. Delft University of Technology, Delft.
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Trusting the process is not enough

A well-known saying among designers is trust the process. Indeed, since I started working in government 10 years ago, as a designer of (digital) government services for citizens, I have often heard and said that you have to trust the process. In this blog, I tell you why that’s not enough when it comes to government services.

This blog is a summary of my first scientific article “More than the process: exploring themes in Dutch public service practice through embedded research. This article was published at IASDR2023 and you can download it here. Want to follow my research on government services that are good for people? Then subscribe to my newsletter (in Dutch).

About government services

In many Western democratic countries, the state’s job is to provide health care, education, safety and social security. We do this by translating laws and policies into public services. The classic image of a government service is an official with a stamp behind a counter, but today services are increasingly digitized. This has significantly changed the government as an organization and the interaction with government (Bovens & Zouridis, 2002).

Public service organizations are in in the lead of connecting government (and its laws and policies) with citizens (with their own needs). A public service organization can be 100% government or even completely commercial, or something in between. My research focuses on service organizations that are truly government: government service organizations.

I do my research in the Netherlands. Here we use the word “the implementation” to refer to these organizations, but for a few years now there has been a change. After years of austerity and a few service scandals, the call for more human touch is sounding loudly. This leads to all kinds of change programs to government service organizations within these organizations.

A proven way for delivering human-centered (public) services is to design them human-centered. With the rise of digital services, human-centered design practices have emerged in many government organizations worldwide. But applying this new competence is not without struggle. So write, for example, Bason (2010), Clarke (2020), Downe (2020) and Greenway & Terrett (2018).

What is human-centered design?

Human-centered design is a field that goes back decades. There are now even ISO standards for service excellence (ISO, 2021) and how to design it (ISO, 2019). An important part of this is the service user’s experience. To what extent can users use the service effectively, efficiently and satisfactorily?

There are all kinds of design models for making good services. The common denominator: a combination of divergent and convergent thinking, an iterative way of working and involving users in the design process.

Seven years of blogging in the mix

In 2017, I wrote my first blog about my work to create human-centered services in government. In the archive you will now find a long list of blogs.

Together with my promoters Maaike Kleinsmann and Jasper van Kuijk, I took a close look at all these blogs. We wondered what we can learn from all these practical experiences. What dynamics do we see that affect how government services are made?

Our research design looked like this schematically:

Schematic research design

We divided all the blogs into four projects that followed each other (in part). I will go through them one by one.

Project 1: setting up a UX research practice at DUO

I wrote the first blog about my work at the Executive Agency of Education (DUO) in 2017, and when I left the team in 2021, I created a summary of all 98 blogs up to that point: the structure of research.

I noticed that the impact of user research remained low. In fact, the process was often finished by the time the user research was done, the website was pretty much done, the system could not be changed, and policy always took precedence.

User research did not fit the way development teams worked. There was no overarching direction on user feedback and no tools such as customer journeys to give development teams guidance. To change this bottom-up was a considerable undertaking, and it was not a priority to better structure the governance of this.

You can see the position of the UX research team in the context of the organization in this drawing:

Schematic representation of the organization’s structure and positioning of the UX research team.

Delivering services that meet user needs required taking users’ perspectives into account much earlier in the process, I noticed. Thus was born the next project.

Project 2: The compassionate civil servant

This was the research project for my master’s degree on the role of empathy for citizens among digital government creators, also at DUO. I previously shared the results of this research on debegripvolleambtenaar.nl and you can read the work in progress in detail in the archives of this blog (2018 – 2020).

I used photography to reflect with colleagues. This is how it went:

I had four key insights:

  1. Participants do not know where citizen responsibility ends and government responsibility begins. As a result, they encounter dilemmas they do not know how to deal with. For example, should a loan for young students be very accessible online or contain hurdles?
  2. Participants do not experience space for their own humanity. They should be neutral and simply implement the law, but go through all sorts of things that impact them: reorganizations, political changes, unclear communication and their own insecurity. Reflective conversations lag behind as a result.
  3. Participants do not have an overview of how citizens experience the service and therefore do not know their part in it. Processes and responsibilities are divided. Each one does his piece and passes the relay baton to the next without knowing exactly how it will proceed.
  4. Participants do not have the skills or feel the freedom to act on feedback from citizens. As a civil servant, you work for the minister and it quickly becomes political, they think. The hierarchy goes from top to bottom: the ministry together with parliament makes the law; the execution executes.

These four insights come into play at different points in the law-to-counter relay, as you can see in this drawing:

Schematic overview of where the four insights impact the law-to-counter relay.

Project 3: the CoronaMelder app

For the app, I did part of the user research at the Ministry of Health. You can read back all the blogs via the tag coronamelder.

I chose the corona app as a counter example of how it can be done. The design and development team came together in a special way, using the Covid crisis conditions to engage users at each iteration. This successful way of working was confirmed by the Dutch ICT Review Advisory Board (2022), among others.

But success shines less when you look at the app not in isolation, but as an interaction point in the entire service, namely source and contact investigation. Responsibilities to combat the coronavirus were divided between the ministry and regional health organizations (RHOs). The dynamics between these organizations led to a less effective app, and this in turn impacted the overall service.

So even though there is a lot of design freedom and users are well involved from the beginning, that does not necessarily make for a successful service. We need more. Apps and services are part of a larger eco-system, as this drawing shows:

Schematic representation of the relationship between the ministry, the 26 RHOs, the user and the design team.

Project 4: A month from my own relationship with the government

I explored that larger eco-system by keeping track of my own interactions with the government on a large map for a month and mapped the government’s side of it as well. This project was the starting point for my doctoral research. You can go through the map yourself on this Miro board.

Fairly simplified schematic representation of my own relationship with government.

I learned that laws and services for government are always bulk and collective in nature. For citizens, it is always personal. The total of the interaction adds up, as does stress, and citizens soon lose track. After all, you must be a total nerd to want/be able to make such a map :).

The lack of oversight makes it difficult for citizens to manage their relationship with government (Keizer, et al, 2019). Government service organizations do not take this into account because each organization has its own processes, structures and financial flows. There is no overarching responsibility of the entire relationship with the citizen.

The specific dynamics of government services

What can we learn from these government service projects?

  1. There is tension between collective and individual values. What constitutes public value is defined and discussed by political parties, in public debate and in parliament. Project 2 and 4 show that it is left to the government service organization to translate that collective value into individual experiences, without having the skills or guidelines to do so.
  2. Government services should be inclusive for all. Not every citizen has the same ability to manage their relationship with government. Commercial organizations also want to be inclusive, but the government has a monopoly. If you don’t manage as a citizen, you have nowhere else to go. Designing for inclusion means involving a wide variety of users in the design process, but as project 1 shows, this is not standard practice. Fortunately, Project 3 shows how this can be done.
  3. A top-down, hierarchical culture hinders focus on the user. Government organizations operate in a political context (with political reckoning). Read: you work for the minister and less for citizens. Project 1 shows that UX insights were only allowed at the operational level and did not influence strategic decisions of the organization. These dynamics are further explained in project 2. Project 3 shows, because of the team composition and nature of the Covid crisis, that this political culture played a smaller role.
  4. User feedback competes with policy implementation and ICT changes. Changes around policy and ICT are invariably prioritized higher than citizens’ experience with service delivery. In project 1, you see little room for user feedback in the way the organization works. This is further encouraged by the focus on the legal aspect of policy, as shown in Project 2. Project 3 shows precisely that with the right capabilities and priorities, user feedback can play an essential role in how a team works.
  5. Government service providers are part of a larger services eco-system. Organizations are part of an interplay of policy departments and other service providers, some of which have even been privatized. In project 4, you see how each organization makes its own translation of the law (or parts of it) into services and takes no responsibility for the impact of it all on citizens. The culture behind this is explained in Project 2. In Project 3, you can see this in the dynamics between the ministry and the RHOs.

Two outsides

Comparing the outcomes of the projects with the literature on human centered service design, I certainly see opportunities for more human touch in government service delivery. But this is easier said than done.

The theory about (making) good service is unruly in the practice of government organizations. For example, the political hierarchy contradicts with the first principle of service excellence (ISO; 2021): “manage the organization from the outside in.”

One would then say that we need a 180-degree turnaround in government, but that does not do justice to the democratic nature of government organizations. The challenge for government service organizations, then, is both to manage the organization from the outside in and to be accountable within the democratic context as well, and thus to listen to two outsides. This is what it looks like:

Schematic representation of the service eco-system within which government organizations operate, including the two outsides.

Conclusion

If we want to create truly human-centered government services, we must embrace human-centered design at the strategic level in organizations (Project 1). An organizational culture that enables this is essential for this (Project 2). But even if the organization has the required capabilities (project 3), this does not mean that the entire service is good for people, since government organizations are part of a service eco-system (project 4).

To make service standards and design processes applicable to the context of government service delivery, we need to adapt them to deal with the specific dynamics of government organizations.

When we do this, it will hopefully enable government service organizations to help citizens achieve their goals in life, even if they need different services from different organizations. Government as a whole must work beyond silos, and begin orchestrating the experience of government services for citizens.

What’s next?

Further developing these standards and design processes is, of course, a nice task for me in my doctoral research.

The first thing I want to do in the coming period is to define some concepts further. I use the term government service organization, but the specifics of this can be explored in more depth. I am going to look at it from different perspectives: from the public administration field, the service literature and from the design field. I envision it as a scale that you can start defining from different dimensions:

This fall I am working on this conceptual framework. Then I will create a research design to research in practice how Dutch national government service organizations learn to improve their services.

If you want to know more about this, read on in these blogs about:

References

Bason, C. (2010). Leading public sector innovation (Vol. 10). Bristol: Policy Press.

Bovens, M., & Zouridis, S. (2002). From street-level to system-level bureaucracies: how information and communication technology is transforming administrative discretion and constitutional control. Public administration review, 62(2), 174-184.

Clarke, A. (2020). Digital government units: what are they, and what do they mean for digital era public management renewal? International Public Management Journal, 23(3), 358-379.

Downe, L. (2020). Good Services: How to design services that work. BIS Publishers.

Greenway, A., Terrett, B., Bracken, M., & Loosemore, T. (2018). Digital transformation at scale: Why the strategy is delivery: Why the strategy is delivery, London Publishing Partnership.

Keizer, A. G., Tiemeijer, W., & Bovens, M. (2019). Why knowing what to do is not enough: A realistic perspective on self-reliance (p. 157). Springer Nature.

ISO. (2019). ISO 9421-210 – Ergonomics of human-system interaction – Part 210: Human-centred design for interactive systems. Geneva, Switzerland, International Organization for Standardization.

ISO. (2021). ISO 23592 – Service excellence – Principles and model. Geneva, Switzerland, International Organization for Standardization.

ISO. (2021). ISO 24082 – Service excellence – Designing excellent service to achieve outstanding customer experience. Geneva, Switzerland, International Organization for Standardization.

Adviescollege ICT-toetsing (2022). Evaluatie Ontwikkelproces CoronaMelder. Den Haag, Adviescollege ICT-toetsing.

All 43 references I used in the article can be found here.

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Reading without a road map

If you follow me on Instagram, you will see that for the past few months I have been sharing almost only ‘reading views’. I love reading, I even took a speed reading course when I started my PhD, but reading academic literature (for the first time in your life) and finding structure in what you read, that’s something else.

In this blog, I will give an update on all this reading and a first attempt at that structure, or, what we also call: the fuzzy front-end of research. With reading tips for you of course!

Parallel disciplines

When I started this PhD research, I knew I wanted to look from two disciplines: design and public administration. Later, a third was added: services. Because I keep hopping between areas of research, it sometimes feels a little unsteady for me. Now how does this belong together? From what lens will I now examine? Should I actually choose one or can I combine them? And how do you know when you have everything?

With each discipline, I am in contact with an academic institute.

  1. Design is of course my home base, Industrial Design at Delft University of Technology.
  2. At CTF at Karlstad University, where I regularly work for a week, they know all about services.
  3. And I ‘flirt’ a bit with the USBO (Faculty of Public Administration) of Utrecht University and the Faculty of Administrative Law of the University of Groningen.

I see more and more clearly where these areas overlap. Fortunately, plenty has been written about those crossovers as well.

Drawing of three subject areas combined so you can see how they overlap.
Drawing of three subject areas combined so you can see how they overlap.

Designing services: service design

This is, of course, a bit of a home game. This blog is full of all kinds of methods, case histories and also a bit of theory on how to design services, how to test them with users, and how to include your organization. In the blog “The Structure of Research”, for example, I summarized 99 blogs about our design research team at the Executive Agency of Education and how we proceeded.

It is a feast of recognition to dive into the literature on this topic. Most of what I learned in practice helps me so reading about it instantly clicks. If you like to brush up on some theoretical background as well, here are a few of my favorites:

  • Usability engineering by Jakob Nielsen from 1985, classic!
  • Frame innovation by Kees Dorst, 2015. The first design book I ever read: 5 stars.
  • The Service Design Network: not a book, but an interactive network with many resources, by founder Birgit Mager.
  • This is service design by Marc Stickdorn from 2011.
  • And my favorite book: Good services by Lou Downe from 2019.

Where government and service research overlap

At the Fronteers in Service conference in June, I realized that the services field is quite commercial. It is also a subfield of Marketing, so that makes sense. Still, there is a “public services” branch. In January, I was at CTF to learn more about services, and was put on the trail of public service logic:

An important part of combining these two fields of study is that I properly define what “public service” is. I want to do that by reading more about public value and how it is viewed. Next, I want to look at what government service within the large rubric of public service means. And so I will also have to define what a public service provider is. This is what I will be working on this fall.

Design in government

I discover that there are two major streams here:

  1. policy design: designing policy. For example, what the Danish Design Center like Christian Bason writes about it in 2017’s Leading public design.
  2. service design in government: designing government services. For example, Digital transformation at scale, why the strategy is delivery by Andrew Greenway from 2018 who describes from the UK government how they go about creating (often digital) services.

I find that second movement particularly interesting, but realize that I overlap with policy design and must relate to it. In the Netherlands, policy and implementation/ service delivery is quite separated at the national level, but in other countries (or in our local governments) this is much less the case.

I also enjoy reading about the rise of service teams in government, internationally. And I want to know what they are up against and what has helped them make government services that are good for people. So I also cannot escape delving into organizational dynamics and growth.

But first: what is the next step?

The above exploration and all these reading views will have a place in my second article. With this conceptual piece, I will give the rest of my research a good framework, I will have some working definitions which help me be clear and unambiguous, and all of that together can later nicely be the second chapter of the dissertation.

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How to survive your first conference: Frontiers in Service 2023

The sun was shining, I was in one of my favorite cities (Maastricht) and had breakfast with Limburg pie every morning. Last week was Frontiers in Service 2023. My first academic conference. Four days, with a day especially for PhD candidates, dedicated to the most current research on services.

In this blog, I share what I learned from this conference for my own research on public services that are good for people, in my case study on Dutch national public service providers. I do so in the form of 4 reasons why it is a smart idea as a beginning researcher to attend conferences right from the start of your PhD.

Reason 1: get a good overview quickly

The service field is actually not my own domain. I do research from the Technical University of Delft, Industrial Design Engineering. Design is my home base, and I do research on how to design services in government. My research connects three disciplines: design, services and public administration. To fully understand the services part, I went to Frontiers and regularly visit CTF, Karlstad University’s service research center. (I wrote this blog about my first visit at CTF.)

Through conversations at CTF, I stumbled into the service field. From there I looked for a route like a snowball finding its way. Of course, I read the classics, for example, on service-dominant logic. I practiced how to apply this way of thinking in my research context by writing the blog the value is in the classroom.

A conference highlights the most current state of a research field. One look at the program and you see how much there is. The services field is much larger than I thought!

I found out that public services are a niche here, and government services may be the niche within the niche.

Entering through a side door

Frontiers in service is a conference that deals with services, including the creation and delivery of services in the broadest sense. The keynotes focused on the child care benefit scandal in the Netherlands and Starbucks’ new service concepts in Asia. We saw experimental examples of VR glasses in education and service robots in healthcare. Nearly 250 studies were presented in 60 sub-sessions. View the entire program here.

I discovered that “transformative service research” is very hot right now and, as a separate research topic, even has its own acronym: TSR. From my own reading nook, I had not yet come across this. This is something I will be looking up more about in the near future.

Reason 2: free advice

If at the beginning you still nervously walk with your coffee to a table where no one is standing, by the end of the conference you know that you can join a busy table. Indeed, that is a very good idea. After your name and your university, you drop that you have only just started your PhD and it immediately starts raining tips from the seniors at the table. They ask questions, talk about their own early days and give advice on writing good articles for top journals. That they sometimes contradict each other we will never let them know of course.

Coffee and tips

This free advice makes sense because the purpose of a conference is to exchange knowledge. Everyone seeks each other out and talks about each other’s research. Rarely have I received such good (and critical) questions about my research: what I want to contribute to it, how I want to approach it and more.

In line for the ice cream truck, for example, I was engaged in a discussion about what public value is with Jakob Trischler (whose articles I have read before). Is that really well defined yet (we thought not) and does public value actually have a place within the marketing-dominated world of service research? I’ll have vanilla with raspberry in a cone, please.

Extra helpful was the advice of Mike Brady, Professor of Marketing at Florida State University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Service Research (JSR). In a small ask-me-anything session, he talked at length about JSR’s editorial process and how to write and submit your first articles to top journals as a young researcher. Those were a lot of useful tips.

Reason 3: practice pitching and learn from others

Most people gave presentations themselves; I was there as a consumer. If my paper will be accepted, I may present at a design conference this fall. During Frontiers, I was able to watch how others show their work. What are the codes, the unwritten rules? How do others structure their presentation? How do they deal with critical questions?

Very interesting presentation by Koskela-Huotari et all (2023) on systemic dynamics in (un)sustainable behavior

Yet I could not consume alone.

Regularly, someone asked what my research is about. I am now over six months in and exactly at that stage when you start doubting everything. My rehearsed pitch “I’m doing research on how to design government services that are good for people” is starting to come out slicker and slicker, but by now I’m having doubts about the definition of government services, about what is design, what is good and what are people really??!

That’s okay. By telling what you do and why it is relevant over and over again, you learn to put it into words better and better. After the fifth pitch (and because of the questions I received), I subconsciously adjusted the pitch a bit. By the fourth day, the insecurity was gone and I surprised myself how much better I could explain what I want to do.

I am still on “how to make government services that are good for people” haha. But also on how important it is to properly define that “public value. Maybe I can do that by just delving more into the public administrative side: the principles of good governance and the Rule of Law of course! The radars are already turning at full speed again.

Session on thinking from ecosystems in service research

Reason 4: meet nice people in a new city

As an external PhD candidate, I am not at the university much. I live in Groningen, which is 3+ hours by train to Delft. My supervisors live in Delft and Karlstad, so most of my research happens online, from home or from my research context, in the Dutch government. I don’t know that many other PhD candidates to exchange experiences and joke around with. However, this can be done at a conference (Della and Mike, I see you), especially if a special Doctoral Consortium for PhD candidates is organized.

Maastricht is a super fun city is and the University of Maastricht knows how to organize a cool conference. Attending a multi-day conference is also getting away from the grind, from behind your desk, and getting new inspiration. Rent a bike, have breakfast on a terrace, take your new friends into town. I even got to row on the Maas River with the Maastricht rowing team.

Rowing on the Maas River

In short: many new experiences bring new questions to delve into in the coming time. The next conference will hopefully be IASDR2023 in October. But first, in August, I am going to CTF in Sweden again :).

Want to follow my research on Dutch government services? You can! Through my newsletter (in Dutch) or follow this blog via my Linkedin.

References and reading tips

Koskela-Huotari, K., Svärd, K., Williams, H., Trischler, J., & Wikström, F. (2023). Drivers and Hinderers of (Un) Sustainable Service: A Systems View. Journal of Service Research, 10946705231176071.

Jakob Trischler & Jessica Westman Trischler (2022). Design for experience – a public service design approach in the age of digitalization. Public Management Review, 24:8, 1251-1270.

This page lists all the books and articles I use in my research.

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Billy bureaucracy

Yesterday I attended a session on Health in Groningen: a special government for vulnerable citizens. The afternoon was organized on behalf of the Province of Groningen, and I got to kick off the conversation with a short speech together with Albert Jan Kruiter. Albert Jan began and talked about the breakthrough method and why it was needed for the roughly 20% of our population who, despite (or perhaps because of) interference from many institutions, are no longer getting out of trouble.

You can read my speech below; I am posting it in full.

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‘Build the right thing, build the thing right,’ is a well-known saying in the design world (Buxton, 2010).

But what is the right thing, and how can we make it right?

Besides the regular patchwork of social security benefits, which Albert Jan just spoke excellently about, Groningen has another coarsely knitted plaid on top: the earthquake problems.

Recently, the Cabinet announced 50 measures to address these problems. In which I like that they see, now more than before, what is going wrong. But even in these 50 measures, what we also heard in Albert Jan’s story continues to shine through: no integrated approach to the whole problem, rather: something here, and something there. The problems are taken apart in the analysis, and then solved separately, but what they forget is that with residents it can never be taken apart.

What is still missing is an overall picture of what, for example, a household in an average Groningen locality can now expect, especially for the group that has the most damage. I won’t go into detail about the various components of schemes, or the issues themselves: I look around and see that the public here is extremely knowledgeable about what is going on in our region.

What gives me hope is that those measures do include a Social and Economic Agenda, which hopefully we do start to set up in an integrated way. That could be a start for building the right thing.

But even when we build the right thing, I still worry. For will the right thing also be rightly build? That concern about “building the thing right” is something I want to explore with you today.

Is the right thing rightly build?

I think of a lady in Appingedam whom I visited two years ago. She bought an extra bookcase for all her administration.

Imagine it.

A billy bookcase especially for all your earthquake stuff.

Screenshot from ikea.co.uk showing the billy bookcase

Let’s look at 1 paper from such a closet I take a letter I received myself.

I want to start by saying that this is a fine arrangement that many people in Groningen are grateful for. Apart from that lack of integrality, this is really a bit of “build the right thing”: the €4000 grant for sustainability at the SNN. I applied for it myself last year for the windows at the back of my house.

A few weeks ago, I received an email that I fell into the sample. I had not heard anything about it for over a year by then. I had to show that the windows were actually installed. No problem, I looked out through them, proof enough.

Screenshot of email that my project fell into the sample for review.

But here is the thing… I had asked my contractor at the time to do a new quote for the windows because the quote I had, which was actually an invoice and it said all kinds of things more that he had done to our house, that quote was not accepted by the system. It did not have the right things on it, including the right date for the application period, nor the exact description of the job. So I got a nice new quote that met all the conditions perfectly and arranged the application with that. Nothing wrong, I thought.

But now with that sample I also had to send the invoice, of which I had no separate one at all. The invoice was even a few months in the past in terms of date. The proof of payment, a statement from my bank, was also months before the offer date and belonged to that earlier invoice. By the way, it was also a different amount than was on that new quote. Had I faked it now?

Well, I uploaded everything. By the way, there was no way to upload before and after pictures, it was purely for administration. Fortunately, there was a field near it where I could put something of a note and well, here’s to hoping.

I worried

I was talking to friends about it. I whined to my husband about it. I got angry. Because I had modified that whole quote in the first place because the reality that was there did not fit the application system. I thought up – obviously with my eyes peering at the ceiling in the dark – an angry speech for how none of this could be my fault and I wouldn’t have to pay back that grant. I cannot deny that some of that angry speech is now in this speech.

And then I got an email that the application had been completed.

Screenshot of email with notification that the grant has been “established.

Okay … completed what?

Good or bad? Can I keep it, should I give it back?

I could not see it clearly in the portal except that the case was “fixed”. I was hoping for a who’s-the-mole green or red screen, or something of a sign, but after some clicking through, I found this letter and read that I was indeed getting a grant. After which I drew the conclusion that this was the end of it.

Screenshot of SNN portal showing the overview page of my file.

Now you may be thinking this is not a good example.

Because it all worked out. It turned out to be a storm in a teacup; besides, I’m not a vulnerable citizen at all, right? I am smart, I have studied, I have a partner who listens patiently to my whining, I have a house, in the city of all places, so I shouldn’t say anything, and I can even cope financially if I had to pay it back.

But still… this feeling I had, like I was stupid and didn’t get it. That instant stress that I was being peeved anyway, and that I was thinking all the time ‘what would they want to hear’ and trying to write the application towards that…

As if there are two realities

A paper one that I had to mold myself to and put in the application so I checked the right boxes and got the grant. And the real reality, that of my windows that I can look at while uploading the documents. And which are actually now of double instead of single glass. But whose administration – as it had gone – did not fit perfectly into the application process, even though the arrangement was intended for exactly these windows.

That feeling is what philosopher David Graeber (2015) calls the “stupidity of bureaucracy. That feeling that bureaucracy makes you stupid. That you think “this is on me.

As a designer, I have learned, “it’s never the user’s fault. It is never down to the user, processes and systems must serve the human, the user, and never the other way around! Build the right thing, and build the thing right

Back to the folder. This is 1 paper.

I could have taken a much harder example from residents in Groningen. I could have chosen defense papers. Intimidating letters from the country’s attorney. Lingering email exchanges with the NCG about house reinforcement. Or with the municipality about the community center. Or the icing on the cake: everyone remembers those lines for the €10000 grant on Jan. 2, 2021.

Apart from the fact that all these separate arrangements are not the right thing, they are also poorly made

Letters that are not clear. Portals where you have to search for what you need to know. Application forms where you feel stupid and have to empathize with what they would want to hear. Or that are just clumsy because you read while filling out the form that your attachment should not be larger than 5MB and you don’t know how to convert that right away so you then get kicked out because you have not been active in the portal for too long.

In addition to new individual pots of money, the cabinet response announces a new digital portal and communication ways. There is also investment in earthquake coaches at the same time to stand beside people, Stut-and-support gets an additional grant.

Today we are going to talk about the health of people in Groningen, and the relationship between the government and citizens in this. Special government for vulnerable citizens. I think it’s commendable, I sincerely believe, that the province, and the Groningen National Program are thinking about this. But I can’t help but see the irony in this as well. “The government” – it doesn’t exist, of course, but let’s pretend for a moment that there is such a 1 government – wants to create a nice, good treatment plan to increase the health capacity of vulnerable people.

But let’s also take a look at the patient’s diagnosis.

Imagine how many papers fit in 1 folder. And then how many folders in a Billy bookcase? Then tell me what people in Groningen are getting sick from now?

It’s from this – mostly government-generated, poorly made – billy bureaucracy.

References and reading tips

Buxton, B. (2010). Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design. Morgan Kaufmann.

Graeber, D. (2015). The utopia of rules: On technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy. Melville House.

Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate, 2023. Nij Begun, on the road to recognition, recovery and perspective.