A compassionate future Not part of a category

Make room

When I saw yet another manel (panel of white men) in a photo on twitter yesterday, a panel that I myself could have been among, I was angry. I angrily texted my girlfriends and then went off to rage row 10km in the canal of Groningen.

You should never blog angry right away, always let a night pass over it but if you’re still angry after that, it’s okay.

So here we go.

In this blog why it is so sad that manels exist and how I myself try to make room on stage that I can share. Because in designing digital government, we need stories and experiences of all kinds, shapes and colors.

First, about that picture on twitter. It was about this one.

It’s still a man’s world if you don’t invite the rest.

What IBestuur does not realize is that it is very demotivating for (young) women and people of color to see such a picture. This is where issues are discussed, the agenda is set and we get to listen. Don’t tell.

It stings me extra because I was watching the program in the weeks before. The theme of the conference was “digitization and the human dimension. A subject I have only been working on my entire career. Why wasn’t I standing there?

Well of course you don’t say that out loud. But insecurity hit me and the following thoughts ran through me:

  • Don’t they know me?
  • They don’t think I’m a good speaker?
  • Oh god, they think my blog is stupid!
  • Should I or my employer have sponsored?
  • Should I have just boldly invited myself?
  • But if I do that, won’t they think I’m way too cunning?

And so I did nothing.

And didn’t go there either. Because even though the theme was “human dimension,” the program looked mostly classically IT. Too bad, because if I did go there I might have met nice people, shared knowledge and learned new things. And there had been one more woman anyway, if only in the audience.

Do you know Margaret Hamilton? She wrote the software for NASA’s Apollo program

The first time I thought ‘I want to tell something too’.

It was years ago, 2017. With some colleagues from DUO, I was in London at a Government Digital Service conference. Lou Downe talked about service design and I thought they were great. In casual sports pants, they told how to make government services that are good for people. With humor, style and in a way that I thought ‘I can make such services too’.

During the break, I started this blog. I wanted to write down and preserve what I learned as a junior researching civil servant. Maybe others had some use for it as well?

Through this writing, I got to know Karin den Bouwmeester. She organized meet-ups for user researchers that I attended more and more often. In small rooms we told each other how we did our work, for example about usability research together with Aegon. Later, at UX insight, I got to do my first talk on a stage (with lights!). I gave a ten-minute presentation on the Integration law and the research I had done for it. I had memorized the entire ten minutes and despite the fact that I was throwing up on the toilet from stress just before, it went pretty well.

Ada Lovelace was designing computer software before it was cool – love the dress by the way

A few years later, I started a new course where I had to talk to experts. In online articles, I came across Marije van den Berg. A world opened up to me: this is how our democracy could be if we organize it together with citizens. With a big bunch of flowers, trembling knees and a friend for mental support, I walked through Leiden. Needless to say, it was a super fun conversation and we have since made a podcast episode together and she is on my speed dial for questions about government, life and happiness in general.

From Marije, I also learned why sharing is such an important part of your work. She explained to me, withthis blog by Harold Jarche, that people who research a lot, know how to make sense out of it and then share it, are very valuable. These are fine people to follow, to work with and we desperately need them to tell the good stories. That’s how I wanted to start blogging, too.

After Marije, there were more conversations like that. For example, with Marlies van Eck. I had used her doctoral research on legal protection and chain automation as an important foundation for my research on empathy in digital government. I even had a whole blog dedicated to her (hahaha, it is the ultimate fan blog – I am not ashamed). When I finally found the courage to send her an email a year and a half later, it went like lightning. She asked me to give a lecture together at the NSOB and to help in a project to research algorithms.

Where is the stair step?

When I started blogging and sharing, I didn’t have so many examples of how to do this. I didn’t know any other civil servants who blogged. Who shared their sense-making.

On the big stages were, yes, actually like yesterday, white men in suits. I didn’t know the rules of their game. I didn’t have a suit either. I don’t recognize myself in that world at all. I had no idea where the steps for such a stage were.

So I happily tapped away on my blog.

Sometimes after posting a blog I would get stressed about the reactions. Colleagues who thought it lacked integrity. Am I doing it right? Who can I imitate? I once heard in a podcast of Haagse Zaken that you are not supposed to do this kind of thing at all as a civil servant. That the “Oekaze Kok” says you can’t talk to journalists or chamber members. Well, yes, I didn’t. Not directly. They probably didn’t read my blog.

Again, why did I want to tell things when it stressed me out so much?

Grace Hopper who briefly womansplained to the boys how COBOL works.

For those unfamiliar with my research The Compassionate Civil Servant: I researched with my colleagues at DUO what place understanding citizens should have when we make digital government. How are we compassionate civil servants and what does this mean? Where in the law-to-counter relay should this actually have a place?

I began this research because I often felt unheard. I went to schools and community centers and came back with stories from students and refugees, but the process was already finished, the architecture already conceived, and policy was not what we were about at DUO. For the stories of these students and refugees, I needed other venues. Places to tell where people who did have policies about architecture and processes sat.

Yes, then you automatically end up in places of people with more power than you. Sometimes a little bit more, sometimes a lot more.

I noticed that these stories, as I told on UX Insight about the citizenship law, were not often told there. Understanding citizens is something for customer service, not IT or governance. The human dimension was not as cool then as it is now.

By now it is ‘cool’ and we know that in government we have created systems that are not good for people. The people who suffer from this are usually very different people from ourselves. They had no voice when we came up with those systems. We didn’t know them, we didn’t hear their stories and we didn’t look for them.

Apparently that is still the case in some places when I see the photo from yesterday’s IBestuur conference.

The smartest minds cracked the Germans’ secret war codes during World War II.

As I type this blog, I realize that Lou, Karin, Marije and Marlies are all blogging, writing, organizing, podcasting and telling what they think the world needs to hear. I don’t know if I would still be blogging now if I hadn’t had these kinds of examples (I don’t think so).

They create their own stage and then share it with others. They know we all learn more that way because we hear voices that otherwise don’t get space. They are not worried about whether there will be enough room left. Then again, they do invent new stages where there is even more room for diversity.

So, white man in suit, suppose you are asked for a manel, what can you do?

Is it enough to say up from the stage that it makes you uncomfortable? No. Make way. Don’t get on that stage and if you do accidentally get on it, walk right off. That would be equally uncomfortable for that small group of white men next to you, but it was uncomfortable for everyone else anyway.

Make room, there is plenty of room.

(Un)understood citizens A compassionate future Not part of a category

This is not about customization

‘Nice this story about customization, but surely that can never be done for everyone?’ That was the first question I got from the audience the other day when I gave a lecture at a government organization about The Compassionate Civil Servant and the relationship citizens have with government. I was confused. I hadn’t mentioned customization in services I thought. I get questions like that a lot, by the way.

Why do people keep thinking I’m talking about customization when I talk about more empathy in government?

Hence this blog, which is NOT about customization. Okay, a little bit then. But it is mostly about standard services that are good for people because it is better to go full steam ahead with that than with customization.

What is customization?

If you ask me, I say ‘anything that deviates from the process because the situation calls for it’. A very human and fine process does not have to be customized if that is always how it goes.

Customization involves a real deviation from the standard. For example, a government employee makes a decision that allows someone to get or do something even though they are not entitled to it under the regulation. Or a staff member (or sometimes an entire team) looks at the situation separately with the person to figure out what is going on when in the normal process there is no time for that. An exception will be made for someone.

This is directly also the tricky thing about customization, because you have to justify the decision anyway. Therefore, in some regulations there is a hardship clause that provides a legal basis for exceptions. But even then you should be able to explain why the exception is justified, because otherwise the neighbors will complain ‘how come she got it, and I didn’t’. Unequal cases should be treated equally unequally, so to speak. How you do that is quite tricky and can also put a lot of mental pressure on the deciding officials.

I started with ‘if you ask me’, because there is no official definition of customization in the Dutch government yet. We are working on it, but right now each organization, and perhaps each team – you know how it goes – uses its own definition. That makes it difficult to have a good conversation about this, I think.

Instead of focusing on customization, I prefer to talk about customization’s antithesis: the standard service. When we invest heavily in government services that are already so good for people you don’t necessarily need customization. The service itself can be good.

Rather a good standard process than customization.

Citizens like that too, because no one likes being the exception and going through extra hassles (customization is also more hassle for citizens than if it had been appropriate right away).

What is a standard service?

I draw the steps that are usually in there.

An example. You want to apply for student loans because you are going to start studying. You search for information, online, through school, through your dad. Finally, you log in to MyDUO and fill out the digital form. You get a confirmation email and a while later the student finance in your account.

It is not rocket science. Government services often mean: seeking information, filling out forms, possibly with supporting documents and then waiting for you to ‘get the thing (settled)’ you are concerned about, possibly with confirmation. Sometimes you go to a counter for this, but usually the counter is online at a website.

Another example. You can argue about whether it is really a service but fine: you get a fine from the CJIB, the Dutch debt collection centre. Which starts on your door mat (or actually on the road when you started the offense by going beyond the speed limit maybe). You may be looking for some additional information and pay. Done.

As a service designer, I call these examples the happy flow. How someone experiences this can be called a customer journey (but I kind of hate that word ‘customer’ in government). You can expand this diagram to include the government side and show the work process behind it. This is called a service blue print, a schematic of a service from the perspective of the customer (citizen) and the provider (government). For example, like this.

Want to see a much more elaborate version than this sketch? I once tracked for a month everything that I was doing with the government and then mapped out the government’s side of things as well as my own. I made a big schematic drawing of it.

You could add to this the standard steps the government offers for when you disagree. You can appeal the decision, for example, if you think the fine is unjustified, and then even go to court. All standard.

So when then customization? If this happy flow doesn’t work?

No, not yet.

The policy has also come up with exceptions as to why something might not work. There are then additional arrangements for that and you can incorporate them into a standard service. A kind of variation on the happy flow.

For example, with student loans. Suppose you become ill during your studies, physically or mentally. Your studies are not going that good anymore and you get delayed. At the end of your studies, you get into a jam, because you are basically entitled to x number of years of student finance and it runs out, but your studies are not finished. With a letter from your dean or doctor, you can apply for an additional year of student loans. No customization! It is just a regulation that is a side branch of the happy flow.

An example from the CJIB then. You receive a fine, but the letter is still sent to your old address. That’s where your ex lives, you broke up and your ex didn’t forward the fine. Very annoying and now it has accumulated to a much larger amount due to the reminders. You call the CJIB, explain the situation, and the CJIB says ‘if you pay the original amount, it’s fine’. This must be customized, surely.

No, it’s not, this situation happens more often and the work instruction for CJIB employees tells them how to resolve it. (I can well imagine that this was once a custom process and then CJIB included it in the work instruction when it turned out not to be so incidental – hooray for CJIB).

What we can learn from CJIB is that you can adjust services. Based on feedback from citizens through the telephone, the website, social media or in many other ways, you can learn, add interventions in your process and thus make your service better and better. Perfecting your standard. Love it.

You might already notice. These are standard services. Employees do not have to make their own consideration of whether it is lawful and not arbitrary. That consideration has already been done by including it in the standard service – for everyone. Parts of these types of services can even be left to computers by the government so that you, as a citizen, get instant confirmation that it is in order and do not have to wait for an official to look.

But the problem in government is that most services are not created from the user’s perspective.

The happy flow that the government comes up with does not necessarily make people happy. The government invents services that are mostly good for the government itself.

Processes must be as efficient as possible and are outsourced entirely to computers. Changes require a business case first, preferably for savings. KPIs (success metrics) are about whether people can deal with it on their own and most importantly Don’t Call. To help with that, we are setting up points in libraries to make people more digitally proficient (oh the irony).

Organizations carry out regulations that they have as a statutory duty and how this intersects with other regulations of other organizations… well, that’s not their responsibility now, is it? And that someone could arrange something with multiple organizations in one fell swoop, and they won’t have to go from site to site, or that the government proactively thinks along: ‘oh gosh, this will also affect your rent allowance if you apply for this with us’… Wouldn’t that be something?

And so people get into trouble and in the newspapers. Everyone angry, the House of Representatives angry: the social pendulum is swinging toward More Human Size. We get high on stress and exclaim: ‘okay, we’ll solve it with customization.’

We don’t have to if we start with services that are good for people.

How to make good services? That’s for other blogs. But you can read Good services by Lou Downe to get a start (or this summary of it I wrote earlier).

(Un)understood citizens A compassionate future Not part of a category

Three lessons I learned at the National Ombudsman’s office

My last week at the National Ombudsman’s office is entering. A year ago, I started asking all kinds of new questions that I wanted to learn. The main one: what do you see when you look for a while not through the blinders of government but really from the perspective of the citizen? In this blog, three lessons I learned last year.

Blinkers off means seeing more

When you work in government, you unintentionally have blinders on. This is not on purpose; it happens automatically. It is incredibly difficult not to have the frameworks and agreements you know so well as a civil servant in the back of your mind when you hear other people’s stories.

When you take off the blinders, the starting point is not the regulation or its implementation, but the question: what kind of society do we want to be? What kind of perspective do citizens want? In what context does their life take place? And only then: what place does government have in that story, including my little piece of service provision?

One of my questions a year ago was: how do your experiences with government affect the life you lead and the confidence you have in your future? What causes trust to be lost and how can government restore trust?

Among other things, I dove into the world of gas extraction: cracks in walls, a debate about what is safe and a lack of perspective and trust in institutions. I sat with Groningers in the garden telling their stories, got in the car with people giving a tour of their village and joined courses for case workers and social workers in the earthquake area.

Together with the National Ombudsman on a working visit to ‘t Zandt. Photo by Hans Roggen.

It was usually not about specific procedures, sometimes it was, but more often it was about confidence in the future. About children growing up without feeling comfortable at home. About not knowing whether you should remodel your house now, or not. About falling behind on maintenance, maybe wanting to move, but can you still get rid of the house? Your life put on hold by a sluggish government. Communities facing not only the effects of gas production, but also shrinkage, an aging population, social problems and high energy prices. But certainly not all doom and gloom either, life goes on. Babies are born, people get new jobs or relationships, dedicate themselves to the neighborhood and meanwhile we live, yes, I live there too, on one of the most beautiful pieces in the sprawling Netherlands.

When you’re making public services, it’s super hard be guided by that whole context. But I found it liberating to take off the blinders and listen to stories freely. Without blinders, my gaze was more open and I saw more.

I dare not say I now have a ready-made answer on how to restore trust. But I saw how to get rid of it, though.

When I was in Valkenburg in March one of the residents left homeless by the floods said: “Maybe naive, but during the floods Rutte, the King, Grapperhaus came here, and ‘the government jumped into the breach,’ they promised. I believed it and thought ‘we’ll deal with it.’ But now there is fuss about who pays the bill and whether the water damage is due to horizontal or vertical water. Meanwhile, no contractor wants to work here yet.”

That’s how you lose confidence.

Camille points toward The Geul that flooded last year. His house is still uninhabitable and there doesn’t seem to be any progress in changing that anytime soon.

By going there, you hear the real stories. You see the consequences of a decision that leads to new problems you had not anticipated. You learn this in practice and not at your desk. Listening without blinders means questioning your own assumptions. Not always determining the research question in advance, but going in that direction with an open mind.

I practiced it once at DUO. I asked students to write cards that they thought we should know. Back to the office with those post cards, I got an uneasy feeling. What was I supposed to do with it now? Most of it was about stuff that was out of our hands. Which brings me to my second lesson.

From the citizen’s perspective, government is hassle and chaos

At DUO I was part of the system, at the National Ombudsman I was on the sidelines. You immediately have a better overview because you can survey the entire field at a glance. You also immediately see what a tangle of players and rules it is. So whether you really have a good overview, again, I don’t want to say.

Government is fragmented and cut up into all sorts of loose chunks. Each piece has a defined task or assignment. Within those organizations, all sorts of things have also been cut up and delineated. From an organizational perspective, I understand that, because you have to create structures somewhere and break up big jobs so that the work becomes manageable at the level of teams and employees.

But the citizen’s context is then increasingly difficult to fit in, though. Cash flows including organizations’ own funding run along those cut lines and with them, accountability for the success or failure of the mission. That rich context of the living world of citizens gets lost. Because who can take responsibility for that? Or should I say dare?

The Groninger Gasberaad made this overview of all agencies involved in the consequences of gas extraction in 2020. It has since changed.

Last year, I spoke to representatives of different levels of government. With employees of various implementing agencies working together in chains, with administrators and also with a few ministers. Super fun to hear so many different perspectives, but also sad to see how much speech confusion there is between them. And how much distrust there is between the organizations.

For example, between local governments and the state. Difficult problems are passed back and forth like hot potatoes. That is not a sustainable way of working together. How to do that when major social changes call for a collaborative approach? As with the energy transition where citizens are in big trouble with their energy bills and cannot keep up in the energy transition. Or to give perspective to the generation growing up in debt, with no chance of good housing and steady work? When the climate damage will soon really erupt and be physically felt by most people?

Then we need a government that works well together, listens well and is open to feedback from citizens and each other.

I am really shocked by this.

The government is arguing with itself and you are still living in your garage. A resident from Meerssen tells how he got into a jam with the Wts (Damage Compensation Act) after the floods last year.

I didn’t realize it much myself as a government employee. I told a friend of mine who works at the municipality in Groningen the other day. She said once that she could tell from my blogs that I worked at the National level of government. Her response: ‘Gosh, you sure are late to the party’. She and her colleagues had long since figured that out. So that was my blind spot!

I’d rather not be on the sidelines

This lesson I learned about myself. I wanted to take the blinders off and learn more about the citizen’s perspective, but then I lacked insight into the dilemmas of government itself. After making recommendations from research, I wanted to get started. But then again, that wasn’t my job this time. That is not what the Ombudsman is about; that is what the government itself is about. Rightfully so, but too bad for me.

I want to work on those “wicked problems” myself. Wicked problems are problems that are networked, whose context is constantly changing and that involve a variety of competing interests. We can only address these if we start both from the citizen’s perspective and then work from a strong public partnership. We need both.

Screenshot from a presentation on The Energy Bill. This is the story of Ellen who contacted us. I photographed her at home and highlighted in her story what “her energy transition” looks like.

In recent weeks, for example, I worked with colleagues on a story about the citizen perspective in the energy transition (not yet online). For a workable narrative, that includes the story of the government and not just the citizen. After all, it’s about the interaction between the two.

It’s about how to design schemes from broad societal questions and feedback, make them fit together, how to align policies accordingly, and thus design cyclically with citizens. Basically how we design government together.

I like that the most anyway.