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).

How do you do research? Not part of a category Visual working

How we can see an automated decision

With increasing talk of algorithm supervision, it is important to know how a third-party study of algorithms can be conducted in government. Preferably in such a way that day-to-day implementation processes are not disrupted but according to the principle that government shows itself.

Since January, I have been working with a very nice group to design a work method for this. We focus mainly on the fixed, ‘dumb’ algorithms and not yet on self-learning algorithms. In this blog, a behind-the-scenes look at our approach, initial observations and two questions for you.

I can just see it

When I had just finished the study The compassionate civil servant, I was sitting with Marlies van Eck on a terrace in Utrecht toasting. She mentioned that she had a follow-up idea to her dissertation (on legal protection in automated chain decisions). Her main conclusion was that, as a lawyer, she could not say whether citizens were sufficiently protected because she could not see the algorithms. The government was a black box, so how can you test whether the decisions it makes are right?

Over my beer I said “but, how weird, because at the Executive Agency of Education, where I worked, I can just see them’. Of course, I immediately began to doubt myself when I said that, but I looked up the photo interview of Cees-Jan talking about decision rules from which the code is then derived. And I mentioned that we were also working to derive the calculation tools on from these decision rules so that, as a student, you can simulate how the computer will decide in the future how to pay off your student debt.

Opening and viewing

I am reminded of our conversation frequently because “being able to see the algorithm” is central to this research.

Marleen Stikker writes in her book The Internet is Broken that you only really own something when you can open it up to fix or change it. If you can’t, as with most contemporary technology, the device owns you. Can we open up government’s computers and see how they decide and possibly change that if necessary?

This area is still relatively unknown. The Dutch Tax Service has developed a method for making algorithms testable and explainable. The State Audit Office and accounting firms are preparing for this new task. The General Audit Office has developed a review framework. Recently, the State Council issued a report on automated law enforcement, among other things.

But what is suitable for a financial expert may not work for a researcher who wants to do a legal check. It is also tedious for an implementing organization when different disciplines and organizations consider the use of algorithms at different times and burden the implementation with questions. Both for researchers, and for implementing organizations, a more integrated approach is important.

Say no more. So with a group that I spontaneously get imposter syndrome from, we started in January to experimentally design a method for this. The group: Marlies van Eck, Steven Gort, Abram Klop, Robert van Doesburg, Mariette Lokin, Carlijn Oldeman, Giulia Bƶssenecker and me. Colleagues from the Executive Agency of Education and the Social Secutiry Bank are cooperating and offering us their automated decisions as trial material to design the method on.

What we want to achieve

Allright. We want to develop a working method for conducting third-party research on a government organization’s use of algorithms. To this end, we have formulated a thought scheme:

  • We study how the use of algorithms can be examined simultaneously legally, financially and model-wise[topic].
  • because we want to know which discipline would like to see which research questions answered[rationale].
  • so that we understand the least burdensome approach to a multidisciplinary and comprehensive assessment[significance].

To keep the research sufficiently concrete but also manageable, we propose that the working method should meet the following four objectives:

  • the working method allows a lawyer to make a judgment on the legality and propriety of the system,
  • the working method allows a data scientist/ information scientist to make a judgment about the quality of the system,
  • the working method enables an accountant or internal controller to make a judgment about …[to be completed, see also help question at the end of this blog],
  • the working method is suitable for repeated use in various public organizations.

Designing the method

In a series of on-site making days, we will work with a government organization. Lucky for me: the first 2 making days are at the Executive Agency of Education in Groningen where I live.

To arrive at a working method that can stand on its own within a few months, we take an embedded and iterative approach. But we must remember to design ourselves out of the method as well, and thus critically examine our bias. We learn by doing: we dive into an algorithm and record our process. Then we reflect on our process and make it explicit. What comes out of this is potentially the method we want to develop.

This is how we shape the creation process:

Outline of the design process divided into the 4 making days and intermediate actions

Together with the Executive Agency of Education, we chose a few automated decisions that are part of the big decision whether or not a student will receive a student loan: the nationality test, the age test and the partner test. Beforehand, we were given the sets of decision rules of these three tests to study firmly.

We decided to look from three perspectives or levels of abstraction. Different questions are important for each perspective.

Perspective 1 is the algorithm itself. How does the decision come about?

  • What are the decision rules dealing with the nationality test?
  • What sections of the law are the decision rules based on?
  • How are the decision rules programmed?
  • How are they included in the work instruction?
  • What data is needed and what are sources?
  • How is the decision explained to the student (user) in personal and general communication?
  • What interaction does a student (user) have with the algorithm and how does this influence the decision?

Perspective 2 is the creators of the algorithm. How does the algorithm come about?

  • Who (what roles and also individuals) are involved in the creation of the algorithm?
  • What considerations were made in the creation of the decision rules?
  • On what basis do these individuals make these trade-offs? What personal bias is there?
  • Is there documentation of this creation, and if so, what is recorded here and for what purpose?
  • What is implicit and difficult to make explicit here? In other words, what do we not know (yet) or cannot know (anymore)? How does this come about?

Perspective 3 is ourselves, the supervisors so to speak. How does the method come about?

  • How did we proceed? What questions did we ask? What worked well and what didn’t?
  • Which questions belong to which discipline (lawyer, accountant and information scientist)? Is there any overlap? Were all disciplines able to get their answers? How do they reinforce each other?
  • What knowledge and expertise do we have that allows us to ask these questions?
  • Can we reproduce our process next time? What would be different?

‘How crazy it is here’

The first day of making was wonderfully chaotic. We were flying in all directions, asking all kinds of questions, and Jean and Cees-Jan from the Executive Agency of Education were infinitely patient to answer all questions. Sometimes we ended up in heated discussion about the way the organization was organized, only to conclude after an hour that that shouldn’t matter at all for the method. Or as Steven so aptly noted, “I couldn’t care less how it is put together.” :’)

After this day of making, Marlies wrote a first blog with her observations and I made a video for the scientific guidance committee and the sounding board group.

Video (in Dutch) showing the experience of the first day of making at the Executive Agency of Education.

The second day of making went a lot more structured. In preparation, I visualized on a digital board all the steps from law to decision. I asked Cees-Jan if he could fill in everything from another decision (the partner test). This was not so simple because the information and docs had to come from all sorts of nooks and crannies of the organization.

I printed what I got (or left a step open) and put the steps on the floor. Underneath I put 3 long sheets of paper for the questions the lawyer, accountant or developer could ask. Perspective 1 and 3 are below each other. We took all afternoon to fill them out and see if we could get answers directly from Cees-Jan and colleagues (perspective 2).

An impression of what that looked like:

In two weeks we will have make day 3 at the Social Security Bank. That will be uncharted territory for me, fun! We are going to look at the age and partner test in the state pension.

In preparation, I digitized the large board we made on the ground at the Executive Agency of Education. It became a version with questions and a blank version for the Social Security Bank colleagues to fill in themselves. We are going to test this prototype and see if this is already a tool for self-assessment to show as an organization how your algorithm comes about and makes a decision.

Through this miro board, you can better zoom in on the prototype. You can also post comments here, and feedback is welcome!

Prototype of the working method we will soon test with the Social Security Bank

Two questions

You can see that the accountant’s perspective has no questions yet. Here we are still searching. Auditors are very busy around February and March because of wrapping up the previous year. So we haven’t been able to include much input from that side. Do you know more about this or know someone who can help, let me know.

And of course: feedback in general. In this blog, I describe our making process and show the prototype. I’m curious what you think of this and how it would work in your organization. After design day 3, we would like to update our prototype and share it with organizations to use without us for self-assessment. So we want to learn from your findings in turn.

If you would like to help with this, please send me a message. You can do so through maike @ or the other known ways. Thanks!

(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.

Not part of a category The compassionate civil servant

How to reflect

The Department of Civil Service Professionalism at the Ministry of Interior asked if I could list some of my designs from my research on The Compassionate Civil Servant that could help other civil servants reflect. I love doing that, so why not for you too?

The Compassionate Civil Servant is a self-examination at the Executive Agency of Education (DUO) into what role empathy for citizens plays in our relay from law to counter. I asked my colleagues if I could photograph them as compassionate civil servants. This produced frank conversations. My colleague looked at himself through my camera. And together we looked at all the portraits and what we learned from them. Are we happy with what we see in the mirror? Or do we want it to be different, and how?

The photo interview is not the only reflective experiment I designed. In this blog, a list of other examples, what they are based on (so everyone can get started themselves) and who I was inspired by.

You can read why reflecting is important in my essays on The Compassionate Civil Servant. Or watch in this short film about the study.

Methods and experiments I designed

Starting from a central question, I designed experiments to explore sub-questions with participants. This big question was: how can digital government have an understanding connection with citizens.

This method of inquiry is called design research. On this blog, I kept track of the approach and progress. I wrote out all the experiments and findings, and I shared the material so that another organization could easily use it as well. All blogs about the creation of the research are in the archives.

In my designs, reflection plays a major role. I divide the experiments to reflect roughly into 4 categories.

  • Relating to the other person. For example, in the rope conversations between students and officials. Or the experiment Stories for Civil Servants in which I played legal texts over a student’s personal story and had colleagues respond to them. Or the role-play the drama triangle I did with a class of students and a few colleagues.
  • Listening to how the other person relates to you. For example, working with students and giving them the lead on how they want to explore their relationship with DUO. Or when I myself confronted passersby at the market in Rotterdam. I collected cards from students for colleagues.
  • Relating to yourself. That happened in the photo interview, of course. And also in the experiment A Timeline where colleagues reflected on when they could or could not be a compassionate civil servant. I later did this timeline regularly with a group of officials, and it always leads to great conversations.
  • Relating yourself to the whole. After each blog I wrote about a compassionate civil servant, colleagues joined the conversation. On the government portal, in the elevator, at the coffee corner. From all the photos together, I made an exhibition. I also organized many semi-public meetings where anyone could exchange stories, often including students. Compassionate civil servant Gabe told (in Dutch) how he experienced all these conversations a year after his photo interview (for my exam :)).

Gabe: “making the implicit explicit.

My inspiration and influences from the work of others

You will find all sources and influences from the study neatly listed. I highlight a few.

Donald Schon’s 1991 book Reflective practitioner, how professionals think in action is the Bible, a tough one admittedly, but the Bible nonetheless. For me, by the way, this blog where I think out loud and can engage in conversation with fellow officials is a way to reflect-in-action as this book describes.

The book Moral Leadership by Alex Brenninkmeijer. Organizations, leaders but also every individual, no matter how small your part in the whole, everyone can and should show moral leadership. In his argument, he falls back on the ingredients from Aristotle’s art of reasoning: logos, pathos and ethos. I wrote about it in the essay ‘Room for our own humanity’.

On the Hidden Design website you will find the strategy and steps I took to set up my design research. The strategy circles and the ways I set up and analyzed an experiment. By the way, they also offer master classes to master this way of design.

I used Jet Gispen’ s Ethics for Designers toolkit to work with colleagues to dissect some of DUO’s service delivery products and reflect on our role.

Joost and Britt during the review of my exhibit at the Willem de Koning Academy.

The work of my classmates Joost van Wijmen and Britt Hoogenboom is intertwined with The Compassionate Civil Servant. Joost uses confrontation and experience in Encounter, his research of the altered body. He makes you feel things and helps you use your body in the process. The timeline I had officials create is a copy paste of his timeline he has seniors create about their changing bodies. Britt explored how she could use images to help people understand each other better. She uses awareness, delay, empathy and connection in her designs. Ideal ingredients for a good reflection. She designed the photo exhibit for me so that it entices officials to do a good deal of their own reflection when visiting. I also met with them every other week on Tuesday nights at a pub to discuss each other’s research. That critical reflection together also helps šŸ™‚

And Astrid Poot. I did not yet know her when I made The Compassionate Civil Servant; she started her research on ethics when I had just finished. But I love how cool she does that. Follow her progress and findings, as she is far from finished. (I was also allowed into her podcast earlier this year where we had a cool conversation about both of our research, fine listening tip – if I may say so myself).

Is reflection allowed to have consequences?

While researching The Compassionate Civil Servant, I stayed with reflection itself, the methods I designed to do so, and what I learned from this first set of reflections. All the spin-offs that arose in the organization (and beyond) were not really under my control. I let that go fairly early on; I was fine with it rising above me, gladly so.

But I sometimes found it difficult, that I can’t really explain well what The Compassionate Civil Servant changed in organizations. How do you measure this? Sometimes I hear snippets of choices made in other organizations because they were inspired by, or read something on this blog.

With her research, Astrid is also designing a language to talk about reflection and what changes it leads to. This in turn gives me guidance to better examine and place the fragments I catch. For example, Astrid uses this ladder in her ethics research. Reflection I would put in the first or second bullet.

Reflecting is the beginning. When you start this, anything can happen. That’s exciting, and super. There should be room for this. You can take that space yourself, and if enough people start doing that, things will change.

For example Jean, the analyst in the photo series sighed in his photo interview that he couldn’t do much with empathy as a public servant. After this experience, he set out to shape his analyses from the perspective of the citizen and not just the organization. He wrote a memo to the board on how to give citizens’ doing abilities a concrete role in policy. He was later invited to talk about this at the Academy of Law.

Jean began interested. He helped with the research from the beginning, first in the background later actively participating. He began to change his own approach and set to work to create a new standard so that his analyses properly include the citizen perspective from the beginning.

Of all my colleagues who participated, I can tell that kind of story. Whether they participated in the photo interview and were in full glory on my blog, or in another experiment, or even when they were readers, such a collective reflection does something to you. And it should!

My goal was to initiate a government-wide reflection on our relationship with citizens. And what impact each individual official has on this, wherever you sit in the relay from law to counter.

Whenever I got stuck for a while, I would watch this video.

Can you also do “a compassionate civil servant” with us?

I have been toying with the idea of creating a toolkit of all the experiments. After all, they are all already on this blog, most of them even with instructions and downloads. But reflecting is not plug and play. A tool here, a conversation there. In doing so, I make it too flat, and shortchange my own research.

Reflecting on the relationship between citizen and government, on your role as a civil servant in it, that is something that needs to be done continuously and facilitated. It is a culture change. You can’t do that with just one fun workshop. So as far as I’m concerned, don’t pick one nice experiment from the list, no, pick them all. Because together they have an effect.

Or better yet, design ways to reflect with each other yourself and involve your colleagues. Invite your target audience to that as well. Ha, then it’s about something!

I concluded my essays on the research with three words: open, fair and inclusive. That, as far as I am concerned, is the core of the reflection that needs to be initiated in government. Openess, fairness and inclusive to/ with citizens.

(Un)understood citizens Not part of a category The consequences of gas extraction

Participation on steroids

Wednesday evening, 8 p.m. A residents’ evening at Village Hall de Pompel in Overschild. I parked my car on Meerweg among the construction materials because there is a lot of reinforcing going on in Overschild.

It was the farewell week of Susan Top, secretary of the Groninger Gasberaad. During the day, she walked from village to village with prominent figures involved in the gas extraction issue. On this Wednesday evening, she recounted the state of affairs for those who wanted to hear. There was a small group. The die-hards, she called them, they had not yet dropped out.

This week she was interviewed by the NRC. A snippet from this:

“A lot of people think the problems are solved. The gas tap closes, a blow of money goes towards Growingen, done.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the homes are still unsafe. “There you can only fill a cup of coffee halfway because otherwise it will overflow, that’s how crooked the houses are.” Moreover, the seriousness of the bureaucracy in Groningen remains underexposed, while as a result more and more Groningers are dropping out, Top observes. “Many victims have become totally numb, because they have had to make choices for years, the consequences of which they cannot oversee.”

Reports full of errors about their homes, which they have to correct themselves. Government letters suddenly reconsidering promises made. Envelopes with six leaflets inside that you have to do something with. “The responsibility lies entirely with the public, while these people did not ask for the earth quakes. It was done to them,” Top said. “But the government lets them swim first, then drown. They just let them down. I really find that unimaginable.”

She sighs. It is not just the fault of one minister or of NAM, she says. There are flaws in the system made in recent years.

From: NRC, Sept. 27, 2021. These people did not ask for the tremors. It was done to them, Mark Middel.

Weaknesses and incomprehensible patterns

In my previous job, at the Executive Agency of Education, I also investigated flaws in the system. I called them dark patterns.

I learned that in government, we can only design the system world with the wisdom of the citizen. Only by first looking at the living world of citizens can you devise a good system world. If you don’t, things will go wrong. All the best intentions notwithstanding, government then goes into overdrive and bureaucracy grows like algae in a summer canal.

That effect reinforces itself. The less you know citizens, the less you talk to them, and the less you know them again. I explored this earlier in the child care benefit scandal. There Janet Ramesar called on the government not to reduce her and so many others to victims, but rather to ask her to help and invite her as an expert. After all, she knew better than anyone else what was wrong.

What is participation?

Since working at the National Ombudsman, I am learning a lot about participation and voice. It strikes me that much of the literature is about participation in the public domain and especially in your community. For example, in your neighborhood, at a solar farm to be built or the station neighborhood that is going upside down. There are participation guides, ladders, and manuals for professionals on how to organize this.

In addition to this public-space participation, you have two more levels of participation, I think. And in Groningen, those are upside down.

LevelsWho should open the door?
Your own life, your own homeYourself
Your environment, the public spaceYou meet in the middle, the government organizes
The system of governmentThe government

You have the individual level, of your own life and your own home. Here you are the boss. In the earthquake area, the government knocks on your door and you “must” participate in your own reinforcement operation. Your home is not safe, the government says. You lose control of it; the government takes it out of your hands.

The third level is that of the government itself. That’s how she makes the system world. How it decides which counters to have. What the customer journey of your experience how you do business with the organization looks like. How she sets up objection procedures that you have to go through if you disagree.

Again, citizens would like to have a say. They want the government to know how to deal with them. This is precisely where participation is much needed: we can only make a good system world from the perspective of the citizen. If we don’t, then we put all our wrong assumptions about the citizen into the systems and processes. It is not surprising that these then do not match reality.

How can we connect to reality if we make the system world behind closed doors?

Stories are there for the taking

In my job at DUO, I was always looking for enthusiastic students to do an assignment for us. Or who enjoyed visiting us at Kempkensberg. Then I dragged my colleagues into the cafeteria: look, a real student who wants to talk to you. And wants to share how she uses our services, what goes wrong and what could be better. I always had to look carefully for these types of students. Most were reluctant to share their stories with DUO and make time to do so.

When I started at the National Ombudsman in May, I discovered: in Groningen, the stories are there for the taking.

For example: Groningers have actively united in advocacy organizations, such as the Groninger Gasberaad and the Groninger Bodem Beweging. Groningers very faithfully keep an eye on their own files and know very well how to explain to you where things are pinching. Some keep a blog. You come to them, they show you whole timelines of how it all happened.

One of them, Nicole van Eijkern, emailed me a black-and-white book she made with acquaintances. For problems they encountered, they thought of possible solutions. There are books like I’m Waiting from Dagblad van het Noorden for which dozens of residents have been interviewed.

There are even two special knowledge platforms that have focused purely on the issues surrounding the consequences of gas production, the Kennisplatform Leefbaar en Kansrijk Groningen and Groningen Perspective.

How much participation, wisdom and knowledge do you want?

Participation on steroids

If I had still worked at DUO, my job as a citizen researcher would have been redundant in 1 fell swoop. Citizens report themselves in Groningen. It is participation on steroids and it should be the dream of the learning government.

I think it is a telling sign that Susan Top is quitting.

Whether that feels like giving up? “Yes, actually a little bit,” she says, after the silence. “Because you don’t quit thinking that it’s all settled and done now.” […] “Actually, it’s shocking how many issues that were already on the agenda in 2014 are still on the agenda now.”

From: NRC, Sept. 27, 2021. These people did not ask for the tremors. It was done to them, Mark Middel.

During the residents’ evening in Overschild, she told of an encounter that morning at a family in the midst of reinforcement. One wall was torn down and behind it they found to larger cracks than was anticipated. The NCG-owned operation was shut down. First, the IMG had to re-measure the damage. Phone calls. Scheduling a new visit. The construction workers drove off in their van, and just like that, days and weeks pass. And the residents … yes, they are waiting again. It is one of the consequences of the government’s separate counters, while from the beginning residents had asked for one counter.

Working together as equals

How then? It starts with wanting to see reality. With listening and hearing stories.

Also at the residents’ evening was a young guy who had just worked at the NCG for 3 months. He had quit a great job in Amsterdam, he told us. He worked in the IT department, basically had no contact with residents, but wanted to hear firsthand from residents how they saw it. Found it a bit exciting too, if he was honest, the NCG had not the best reputation. But he asked a lot of open-ended questions and was curious about the answers. He was one of the last to go home.

It is something small, and the Groninger who has been waiting for years will read this with a heavy dose of cynicism. But ultimately, this is where it starts: asking open questions and listening. To then acknowledge reality and invite the other as an equal partner. Adapt the processes together. Together, tease out loopholes in the system, reinsert them and straighten them out.

The initiative for this lies with the government.

The photo at the top of this blog was taken by Nicole van Eijkern’s daughter on the morning of the residents’ evening. It is the last part of their old house to be demolished.

How do you do research? Not part of a category

New work = new questions

It has been quiet on this blog for a while, as I began a new adventure in May: working at the National Ombudsman. In this blog, I share what prompted me to make the switch and what new questions I will be working on in the near future.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, I’m sure the switch will come as no surprise and you’ll also recognize that I invariably begin each new project with a bundle of questions. So a great first blog about a new adventure.

In April, I was a guest on the podcast Astrid and Vasilis Talk Easy (listen tip!). It was my last week at DUO, and in the podcast I talk at length about why I love working in government and why I’m continuing to work at the National Ombudsman.

Beautiful drawing by Astrid Poot about the podcast

In January, I told my manager at DUO that I wanted to work with issues that are government-wide. Problems for citizens with the government don’t stop at that one counter; that’s what I wanted to learn more about.

We agreed that I would look for the next step and coach colleagues to take over my role. I still mapped out as much as I could, for example, our research methodology, which I could very usefully use in my application to the No (new acronym yay).

But before it came to that, I started looking. After all, what exactly did I want to learn?

Government-wide, citizen-based

During that conversation with my manager, I had been working one day a week for a while for the Work in Progress Program where I was co-writing a government-wide vision for shared service delivery. It struck me that it is difficult for government organizations to take responsibility beyond their own boundaries for problems that citizens experience, even though this is necessary to really improve the relationship between citizens and government.

I also noticed that I had blinders on myself. I had been working at the Executive Agency of Education for 7 years and was mostly concerned with digital services, cash flows and education. I sometimes got comments on this blog “yes, you work for the national government for sure, with the municipality things are very different you know”.

Your relationship with government is broader than digital (financial) services. And I don’t really know much about that yet. So I wanted to engage with topics about citizens’ environments, their homes, their lives, the goals they themselves have and not necessarily just the (digital) contact with the government.

Last November, I tracked my own relationship with the government for a month. I visualized my contact (however small) with a government counter and what departments, processes, organizations, ministries and laws were behind it. It was some work, but I learned a lot.

An experience with one counter intervenes with the experience with another process. Some things came to me all at once, but the organizations didn’t know about them. Small encounters, sometimes unconscious, didn’t seem like much, but piled up, I had a stressful month.

The first sketch I made when I wanted to chart a month out of my relationship with the government

I met Janet Ramesar and together we mapped out her experiences with the government around the benefits scandal. On a timeline you can see how one turns into the other: you have one relationship with the government and interaction with one organization is not isolated but builds (or breaks) your entire government relationship.

I decided that over the next few years I wanted to look at the dynamics between government and citizens from different angles, in order to gain better insight, fine-tune my vision and iteratively improve that relationship between government and citizens in the places where I work. Spending time looking through the glasses of the National Ombudsman fits perfectly with that goal.

What does the Ombudsman do?

You can go to the National Ombudsman if things go wrong between you and the government. We will help you get started if you call, email, send a message through the website, mail, or smoke signal. Complaints from citizens can also become patterns. In this case, we examine structural problems and trends in government. With this, we want to help government learn to be ever better at being there for its citizens and acting properly.

The National Ombudsman is a person, Reinier van Zutphen. He was appointed by the House of Representatives. But the National Ombudsman is also an institution, an organization with 200+ colleagues who support the person the National Ombudsman is working for.

As project manager, I am responsible for one of the research topics on the ombuds agenda, the one on Livability. This includes studies such as the energy transition, environmental law and the effects of gas extraction in Groningen and its surroundings. In addition, I will be working on our own research structures and the effect we are having with them to help the government learn.

The collection is expanding

About what I learn and do, and how I approach it, I continue to write. Following the example of the wonderful comic A day at the park, I am adding the following questions to my growing collection:

  • How do your experiences with the 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? For example,with residents in the earthquake area.
  • What patterns interact government-wide, and how can you organize responsibility (and thus solutions!) for this in a chain of organizations?
  • How can we tell citizens’ stories that do justice to their perceptions and complexities, when they do not fit into the estimated boxes of government?
  • How do you structure and organize ombudsman research to help government learn? The National Ombudsman has the feedback loop of citizen – policy – counter, what can I learn from this how to organize that kind of feedback loop government-wide in the government itself?
  • How can the government bring citizens along in major changes such as the energy transition so that it is fair? What does this mean for citizen participation, the way you interact with government and how it organizes its services?
  • If the government withdraws itself more and leaves more to the market or to citizens themselves, how can the government still remain available to citizens to help them when things go wrong or support them in their new civic role (for example, with the new Dutch environmental law)?

Oh, and with each book or article I read, this list gets longer. So I’m sure there will be some blogs coming out of that in the near future :). If you have any tips, on the above questions or new questions, let me know, great!

Not part of a category

More color

In the end of November is the User Central conference and I am hosting it this year. This week I spoke to one of the speakers and she told me that she did not want to be at an all-white conference. She did have some names of good speakers of color that we could invite, possibly instead of her if there was no more room in the program.

In this blog my thoughts about, from where I can see, there are few designers of color working in the Dutch government and why that is a problem.

A very white frame

A month before my interview with the speaker in question, I was looking for great speakers to shortlist. I obviously wanted a lot of good women who really have something to say, after all, there are quite a lot of them. Of course some men, but no pancakes please, they too should really have something to report. I looked proudly at my list which secretly had more women on it than men, gna gna. You get it, I’m well sick of these all-male conferences.

Only, my list was very white. That bugged me. I searched on, but wasn’t really sure how. If you search for designers or anything with “design thinking” in combination with “government” on LinkedIn you will scroll through lists of white people. In my own network (and it is not small) there are also mostly a lot of white people. Asking out loud on Twitter for tips, I felt quite a bit of trepidation there. How do I formulate that question?

After the video call, I lingered on the call with co-organizer Robert. We both wanted things to be different. Of course we were going to ask someone from her list, but the following days it stayed in my head. Why do I know so few designers of color in the Netherlands? I’m sure there are, there must be.

“How do you start?” I asked Robert. “Do I just pop on Twitter: ‘hello, designers of color, where are you?” “Yeah, maybe that’s the beginning.”

Design in government is too white and that’s a problem

The core of design thinking is that you start with people. The human perspective is leading, and then you align organizational and technical interests. The government is there for everyone, or at least it should be. That also means for people who are not white. In my opinion, white people are by far the majority in government. They look at me from their LinkedIn profiles and from the pictures that accompany government vacancies and are highlighted on Twitter. They are on the stages of government conferences, and even my portrait series The Compassionate Civil Servant is a gallery of white people.

In my research into what role understanding has in digital government, I discovered that technology is not neutral. The white creators of digital government unknowingly put pieces of themselves into what they create. Pieces about how they see the world, what is good or bad behavior and how laws are interpreted. It is people work that is currently done mostly by white people. Technology reflects our cultural and political values. I wrote the essay “Empathy in Government” about this.

If white is the norm, and you are the norm, it’s hard to notice how people who are not that norm perceive your digital services. There are so many advantages to having a more diverse team. To have more perspectives and not blindly follow the norm that is not normal for everyone.

In 2017, I conducted research on integrating in the Netherlands. I am from Suriname and moved to the Netherlands when I was 14. My own homesickness came back during the study. The mix of emotions I felt when I had to “Dutchify” I recognized in the refugees with whom I did research. My research became richer. Our conversations went into more depth about cultural differences, what it’s actually like to move from country to country and how that affects the integration process. My background actually helped to do this research.

My colleague Ruth who has a Caribbean background herself did research last year on debt burdens in the Caribbean Netherlands. Precisely because of her background, she had a different starting point, spoke the same language, knew the right cultural differences and the research became better than if I, for example, had done it.

When we tested the Arabic version of the app for CoronaMelder, I felt awkward. I didn’t even know what to look for. The language, of course, but because Arabic is right-to-left it also changes the app’s user interface. On Twitter, I learned that just the readability of Arabic fonts alone could get you an evening of tweeting. You will only find this out if you work intensively with people of Arab background, even better if they are on your team.

Are we making enough of an effort?

When I asked colleagues if I could photograph them as compassionate civil servants, they were mostly white men. After the fifth photo, I couldn’t ignore it. “I should ask more women,” I thought. After the seventh photo, I looked at the prints hanging in my studio and thought “everyone is white, I don’t want that.” It sometimes gave me a stomach ache. Where I sometimes found it hard to find a woman in a department full of ict workers, I found it even harder to find someone of color. And, I ask that person then just because they are a woman, or because they are of color, or is it about the content job? I often struggled with these questions.

We can’t find them because they don’t seem to be there. And since they don’t seem to be there, we don’t include them.

‘But if you’re good, you’ll surface naturally, right?’ That’s not true.

When I started as a government researcher 7 years ago, I didn’t come out on top because I was so good. No, I saw an opportunity, was bold and said I could do it. I had all the traffic lights with me. I was lucky. I knew the person who made the selection and I bluffed myself in. I was given the opportunity.

Then I threw myself into the subject matter like mad, read books, asked questions out loud, and started this blog to share what I learned. My colleague Ruth once told me that because she is black, she always feels like she has to work harder, prove more and can’t bluff without immediately falling through.

A lot of research has been done on this. If you are white, it is easier to “float to the top” than if you are black. Anousha Nzume’s book “Hello White People” is a great starting point if you want to learn more about this.

I would like myself to change this.

That’s why I think it would be fun to get to know designers of color, especially if you work in government. Send me a message on Twitter or an email to maike @ klipklaar. nl. Who are you, and how are you thinking about these things? And how can we change it together?