Welcome to the academic world of public services

At the entrance to the coffee room was a large sign “Welcome Maike from Delft! I was given my own key to a wonderfully quiet study and everyone made time for me. I am talking about my week at Karlstad University, where I visited the Service Research Center.

In this blog, a travel report. Just don’t expect exciting stories of mountain climbing and picturesque restaurants at this point: it’s a first step into the academic world of public services. Although, of course, mental mountains are also climbed here and the Swedish coffee rolls are delicious.

Center för Tjänsteforskning

I visited Karlstad University for two reasons. My supervisor Jasper van Kuijk is living in Karlstad since last year, so we were able to work a week together in a focused way. We created a table of contents for the dissertation which should be on the shelf in a few years. Each chapter can become a paper that we will be writing in the coming years.

Are you curious about this table of contents and do you want to provide feedback on it? In my monthly newsletter, coming out next week, I will share it.

The other reason for the visit was CTF, the university’s research center that conducts multi-disciplinary research on service delivery and everything around it. It also employs a number of researchers focused on the public sector. Perfect!

Several of them made time to introduce me to the theoretical world behind services, what they are and how we can look at them from different perspectives.

So practical

My strength is that I come from practice, have a large network and that you all are going to help me (right?). A big disadvantage is that I come from practice and therefore I still am very much stuck in practice. This adventure started out of practical frustrations, but in the end it is also about contributing to the theory. But which theory? And how do I do that?

During fika on Friday, I told the department about my research.

Fortunately, I was able to ask all those ‘dumb’ questions in Karlstad. For example, to Per Skålen who told me at length about what services are and service-dominant logic. And that I should definitely read Stephan Osborne’s book Public service logic (ordered immediately!).

The most common characteristics for services are abbreviated IHIP: Intangibility, Heterogeneity, Inseparability, and Perishability. In Dutch: diensten zijn niet tastbaar, ongelijksoortig, onafscheidelijk en vergankelijk.

The student finance, for example. There is certainly a tangible aspect to it, money, but the whole service is not necessarily tangible. It can take a different form for everyone, some have longer travel rights, others not. You can’t pull parts of the service apart, one affects the other. And it is perishabil: you cannot ‘save’ your visit to MijnDUO, so to speak.

Choosing a lens

I also spoke with Johan Quist who primarily does research with and for Swedish government organizations. And I talked to Jakob Trischler who later sent me two articles on design for experience that I like very much. He advocates examining government services from three lenses: the macro, meso and micro lens. Which fits very well with my timeline experiment, which I shared in the blog about the big plan, of looking at the inside of government organizations from both collective values and individual experiences.

Back in the Netherlands, packages of new books were already delivered. As I put them on the shelf to take out one by one later, I also noticed the books I read before. ‘Hey, this book also refers to that SD logic. I just read over that last time!’ So you understand that I am already rereading, haha.

In short: plenty to do.

In the next blog, I talk about public service logic. In fact, I just finished that book and it fits very well with how I want to approach this research.

Read along?

Then you might like these reading tips:

  • Osborne, S. (2020). Public Service Logic: Creating Value for Public Service Users, Citizens, and Society Through Public Service Delivery (1st ed.). Routledge.
  • Trischler, J., & Charles, M. (2019). The Application of a Service Ecosystems Lens to Public Policy Analysis and Design: Exploring the Frontiers. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 38(1), 19-35.
  • Jakob Trischler & Jessica Westman Trischler (2022) Design for experience – a public service design approach in the age of digitalization, Public Management Review, 24:8, 1251-1270.
  • Downe, L. (2020). Good services: how to design services that work. Bis Publishing.
  • Stickdorn, (M), Schneider, (J), et al (2016). This is service design thinking: basics, tools, cases. Bis Publisher.

What helps and hinders?

Every research, including action research, starts with a good foundation. In previous blogs I shared the big plan and approach for the coming years. This first year is a preparation year and I mainly work on the foundation: what will I research and a plan how.

In this blog I will tell you about this first step: how I dive into the literature and thus lay a foundation for the research years that follow.

This blog is a summary of this more extensive literature review design. literature review design (in Dutch). This is my working document and changes from time to time. Do you want to follow the research closely? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.

Momentum for good services

Since the benefits affair came into the news around 2019, the human dimension has been high on the government’s agenda. In February 2021, the Temporary Committee for Implementing Organizations (TCU) made recommendations to bring back this human dimension to the government. Together with the child care benefit affair as a trigger, this resulted in the great government improvement program, Werk aan Uitvoering (Work to Execute).

Last week, for example, their the State of Execution came out with a thorough analysis of what is going wrong and could be better in services for citizens and business owners.

And I like it that they now increasingly call themselves public service providers – focused on the citizen – instead of as before implementing organizations – focused on the ministry. I need to update that on this blog as well :).

Landscape of public service providers from State of the Execution 2023

So for several years now, there has been political and administrative momentum to improve government services.

This is good news because in previous years, several organisations were already actively advocating to put services higher on the agenda. The National Ombudsman continuously appealed to the government with his reports. Gebruiker Centraal (User Central) found ground within the government and is increasingly growing as a collaborative effort for and by professionals within the (executive) government.

The report “Knowing is not yet doing” by the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) also created quite a stir in the government. The WRR warns the government that it often overestimates the mental capabilities of citizens. They introduce the term act-ability, as a counterpart to ‘thinking’ abilities.

In this video, researcher Anne-Greet Keizer explains what is meant by that:

As a follow-up to Knowing is Not Yet Doing, the WRR came up with the guidebook From Test to Tools to conduct an act-ability test. WRR member Mark Bovens was questioned by the TCU about the report. In his questioning, and later in the Scheltema Lecture 2021, he suggested that the government should become proficient in service design and UX.

Haa! That’s my area of expertise.

Service design and UX design are certainly not new fields, and government, especially at the operational level, has also made strides over the past decade. In some organizations, there are UX teams, CX officers, customer journey managers, user researchers, etc. There is even an ISO standard for human centered design!

New dilemmas

At the same time, not only the call for more humanity has become stronger, but also that for customization. Both terms are regularly used interchangeably and are not yet defined, according to the Dutch School of Public Administration (NSOB).

Government services are highly automated at most organizations and “going back” to manual handling combined with individual customization on a large scale is not obvious. It also, as the NSOB describes, brings with it all sorts of new dilemmas (including legal ones such as the legality of government decisions). Directors fear that the pendulum will swing the other way.

We seem to be skipping in the momentum that there can also be good (digital) services that are user-friendly and connect to citizens’ lives. I elaborated on this thought earlier in the blog This is not about customization.

A sketch of how not to do it. From the blog: This is not about customization.

What I want to know: how can the government create and offer services to citizens while maintaining both the efficient nature of automation and legal legitimacy but also assuming a realistic perspective of citizen resilience?

The field of user centered service design has already proven itself in the non-public sector and seems to have potential for government as an organization as well. What will it take for this to mature? What are the reasons why this is not working and what needs to change for this to happen? What does this mean for the design and management of our government as an organization?

In short, my main question for this year:

What helps and hinders the realization of user-centric services in governments?

With this (literature) research, I aim to increase knowledge about applying user centered service design in government with the goal of making government services “doable” for citizens.

This will be the basis for getting started in the following years. I naturally devide this main question into a number of sub-questions.

The three most important are:

  1. What is “the state of the art” when it comes to user-oriented design of services? For this, I also need to look at what services actually are.
  2. How do governments create services and how have they organized themselves for this purpose? How does one affect the other?
  3. How mature is the government in realizing (at both strategic and operational levels) user-centered service delivery?

This month I tackle that first question. So prepare for a deep dive into the world of service delivery and user-centered design.

Not part of a category How do you do research? Promoklip

Open action research

This month I write about my new research on government services that are good for people. I wrote the big plan and the journey so far. In this blog you can read about the approach and an initial planning for the coming years.

You can sign up for my newsletter. Once a month you will receive a summary of the research in your mailbox. This way you won’t miss anything and you can easily respond and participate in the research.

Choosing the approach

A number of personal considerations quickly helped me decide how to approach this research. For several years now I have enjoyed working across government, from the perspective of citizens who have to deal with the entire government. During my master’s, I really enjoyed the critical sparring with an external institute. I therefore contacted TUDelft to find such a construction again. In the form of a PhD research I was able to find both an excuse to work government-wide and to collaborate with a university.

But… I am not concerned with ‘just’ producing new knowledge. No, I want us to learn how to work from a human perspective in practice at the government. And of course I have developed my own design and research skills in a certain direction in recent years, which you have been able to read on this blog since 2017.

An approach that fits well with all of this is action research. To me that is open action research because I blog about every step. Not only the result is open, but the process while we are working. So you have every chance to adjust the process!

Combining practice and theory

Action research is not your average scientific research. It is a much more practical approach, which is why I will not be working at the university in the coming years, but at the government’s implementing organizations itself. To research from the inside in practice together with colleagues.

Research that starts from the problems generated by organizational contexts and focuses on change requires a radical reappraisal of the relationship between knowledge and action, and of the related image of the ‘academic researcher in an armchair’.

Van Marrewijk, A., Veenswijk, M., & Clegg, S. (2010) ‘The organizing reflexivity in designed change: The ethnoventionist approach’, Journal of Organizational Change Management, 23(3): 212‹29

Action research has a number of properties that suit me and the issue well. Action research is:

  • in the situation: it requires direct involvement with real and complex problems in the natural context
  • relationship-based: we learn through relationships with stakeholders who all have different perspectives and contribute in their own ways to understanding and solving problems
  • focused on change: together we look for ways to initiate, promote and manage change
  • reflexive: we continuously (in action) critically consider our own practice; I as a researcher and together with all participants. We learn together and an open and explicit learning process is created.

From: Giuseppe Scaratti, Mara Gorli, Laura Galuppo and Silvio Ripamonti. Action research: knowing and changing (in) organizational contexts. In: The SAGE handbook of qualitative business and management research methods: history and traditions, 2019.

Reading tips

In the near future I will learn more about this way of doing research. During my master’s I learned a lot of practical skills and now I’m also immersing myself in the methodological background. In addition to the article from the previous section, the following books are very helpful to me:

  • Introduction to action research, social research for social change by Davydd Greenwood en Morten Levin. This book provides a good overview of the background of action research and a number of examples of different trends and approaches.
  • The reflective practitioner by David Schön. I already read this while making the photo interviews from The compassionate civil servant. Very good book about reflecting while you are in the middle of it all, about reflection-in-action.
  • Doing action research in your own organization by David Coghlan. I’m reading this one at the moment. Much corresponds to the approach I also used with The compassionate civil servant, but it is much more extensive and explains action research in a more fundamental way.

Role of this blog

If you’ve been following my blog for some time, you might find it super logical that I’m going to write about this research. That’s how it feels to me too. But in the near future this blog (and the newsletter) will have an important function.

I once started writing as my own archive, for myself and the handful of colleagues who might also find it useful. Later it became a place to document my research results and after that a place to participate in the social discourse about the human dimension in government.

Since October I speak to my supervisors Maaike Kleinsmann and Jasper van Kuijk every month. They noticed that I often quickly determine how something should be interpreted when it comes to government. “Yes, that’s just how the government works,” I say. I have been a civil servant for 10 years and, through this blog, I hear so many stories from you about how your organization is doing, that many things are so self-evident to me. That’s all tacit knowledge that I myself sometimes don’t even know I know.

By writing I make my own thoughts and choices explicit. And by sharing you can react to it and add knowledge and new questions. This is how we reflect together in action.

Then the schedule

This is a long-term project. It will certainly take several years. Overall, I look at it something like this:

Year 1, we are in the middle of this, is a year of preparation. Important is:

  • setting up the project and connecting with you and other stakeholders
  • dive into the literature and build a foundation for the years to come
  • make a concrete research plan for the following years, including agreements with organizations, make a data management plan, pass the ethics committee, and probably more that I can’t yet oversee
  • working on my own skills, because it’s quite a different story doing PhD research

Year 2 and 3 I will work in practice together with public service organizations. For example, I might come to work in your organization and together we create a service from A to Z from the perspective of the citizen. Together we reflect and learn. In the coming year I will develop this further and I will also share which criteria such a case preferably meets.

Year 4 consists of finishing. Insights become shareable and beautiful end products are produced. This will be very practical and applicable for everyone who helped and theoretically in the form of a dissertation.

In the next blog, which will be online soon, I will share more about the first year, especially about diving into literature.


The journey so far

Last week I shared my new big plan: working with government colleagues to figure out how to create and deliver services that are good for people. What does this mean for how the government as an organization is or should be?

In this blog I tell about the journey so far. It started exactly one year ago, in January 2022 and took many cups of coffee, video calls, thinking, reading and pondering. Many of you have already helped. I like to make this journey transparent, for accountability and for your interest. Who knows, if one of you has research plans of your own, I have some tips for you below.

I blog about this research: about the content, the approach and the process ‘behind the scenes’. Every month I summarize everything in my newsletter. Subscribe and don’t miss a thing.

A vague idea

I had had a vague idea for some time to continue with the topics fromThe compassionate civil servant, a study that I completed in 2020. I wanted to find out how we as digital government can have an understanding connection with citizens. It resulted in a portrait series of colleagues who talked about how difficult it is to make good services for citizens – very interesting – but I didn’t yet have an answer to that big question, I thought.

I learned a lot about myself in those two years. I like to study. I like doing something difficult and having a big goal. I want freedom and space to work creatively and connectively. And I had the dream to, one day, continue studying, maybe even get a PhD?

In the winter of 2020/2021 I noticed more and more that the job I did then didn’t suit me. I walked with my soul under my arm, because what was I supposed to do?

I actually called Jasper van Kuijk for something else, but suddenly I blurted it out. “By the way, I’ve had a vague idea for a fun study for a while.” I told him about it. And Jasper said: “But you have to come and do this with us, in Delft!”

At the beginning of January, a year ago, we agreed to spend an entire morning discussing the vague idea and seeing if there was anything in it. And it turned out: there was. ✅

Industrial design at TUDelft

At that time I had already looked here and there at other faculties in the Netherlands, usually at Public Administration. But when Jasper told about Delft, it felt very familiar.

Combining service design (my field) and public administration (my context) often means speaking two different languages. I noticed later in conversations that I had to use different words with other conversation partners. That a pitch in administrative language fell dead with fellow designers and vice versa: that a pitch with too much design-mumbo-jumbo did not appeal to a director.

I decided to organize the academic accountability of the research in Delft, where the language is familiar to me. Because I don’t want to find out what user-oriented services are – a world is already known about that – I want to know how we can do this in the government.

Jasper van Kuijk is my supervisor from Delft. He is an assistant professor and researches how organizations deal with user-oriented design and innovation in practice. Since this summer he is also affiliated with the University of Karlstad in Sweden. ✅

Together we looked for a professor who fits the issue and we almost immediately ended up with Maaike Kleinsmann. She is professor of Design for digital transformation in organizations, and my promotor. She is also head of the Design, Organization and Strategy (DOS) department, the department where I have been working since October 1. ✅

How to get a PhD?

I read books about getting a PhD, these helped me the most:

  • Handboek buitenpromoveren by Floor Basten and Kerstin van Tichelen, with all the practical steps you need to take before, during and after your PhD.
  • Promoveren als bijbaan by Meike Bokhorst and others with all honest stories about what it’s like to get a PhD. (Horrible, you’ll love it!)
  • The craft of research by Wayne Booth and others about doing scientific research.

In February I wrote a first draft (Dutch) of the vague idea. Warning: it was still very vague. I sent it around to some people for feedback. I got that, and how! ✅

In April I decided to stop early with my job the Ombudsman. From May until the summer I gave myself the chance to realize the plan with the aim of starting sometime in 2022. Sink or swim, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll look for another nice job.

Gallons of coffee and hours of pitching

When you come up with an idea for a PhD yourself, and don’t apply for a PhD in the traditional way, you have to arrange everything yourself. I needed a few things:

  • validation of my idea in my domain: what did directors of organizations think about the research idea?
  • participants, a research context, places where I can collect data
  • a sponsor, because you also have to pay for it yourself

One of the first conversations was with a director of the Central Judicial Collection Agency who discussed the plan thorougly with me and gave me a lot of tips. She arranged for me to give a pitch at the Social Security Bank. I combined this with an afternoon of discussions at Novum, their innovation lab. Later, my sister, who recently started working at the Employees Insurance Agency, arranged for me to give a pitch there as well. There I also got a look behind the scenes of their new service plans. And of course I spoke to my own directors at the Executive Agency of Education, who offered to facilitate the first year 🧡✅.

I spoke to many more nice colleagues in the government. With all the feedback I kept adjusting the draft until so much had to be changed and I wrote a second draft (also Dutch). Last week I summarized this in this blog.

Pitch to a group of designers at IxDNL in Utrecht

In addition to the draft, I made a cost overview, a schedule and a global plan. When pitching, I also asked directors to consider participating in the research at a later time. (In future blogs I will share more about how you can collaborate.)

I officially started October 1. ✅

Ready set go

The first three months were pretty chaotic. I got to know TUDelft, had a team outing (curling with scientists!) and started with the first monthly fun conversations with Maaike and Jasper, after which I really didn’t think every time ‘holy shit, what have I begun?’.

I did a first course in Qualitative Research Methods for PhD candidates at Erasmus University in preparation for my own research approach. I made a plan for the first year of doing research. And I got to know my new team at the Executive Agency of Education that I’m joining this year.

But that’s what the next blogs are about, which will be online soon.

Promoklip Visual working

The big plan

It’s always exciting to start something new. Even more exciting to write a first blog about it. So here it is.

In the fall I started a new major study that will keep me entertained for years to come. I will do this research in the open, I hope we will do this together.

This month I will be sharing a few blogs about this big plan, how I got here, how you can get involved, and more. You can also sign up for my newsletter. This way you don’t miss anything and you don’t have to check this blog or Linkedin yourself to see if there’s something new.

In this first blog I will tell you what I want to research in the coming years.

A month of spaghetti

It’s been a while, but in November 2020 I kept track of what I experienced with the Dutch government for a month. On a timeline you could see which things I did at government counters, whether these counters were automated or manned and which implementing organizations and policy departments were involved. I also looked at what legislation and social value was above it.

It turned out to be a big spaghetti and I wrote this blog about it. Later, together with colleague Maureen Hermeling, I did this exercise with an employee of the Money Affairs desk of the Municipality of The Hague with one of their cases.

I learned a couple things:

  • For the government, laws and services are always bulk. It has these kinds of timelines with all citizens at the same time, but for the citizen it is always tailor-made and personal. It’s my life, my bank account, my house.
  • Stress adds up and citizens easily lose the overview, if they already have it. It was a pain in the ass to make this map anyway. Organizations do not take into account each other’s services and the burden this brings to citizens.
  • There is no joint responsibility with the government. Everything comes together with the citizen, but the government is compartmentalised. Everyone has their own counter. Sometimes even per department, mind you! Each has its own processes, organizational structures and its own funding stream.

On this board you can zoom in on the timeline and view it (in Dutch).

Which perspective do we choose?

In this INNovember 2022,Jasper van Kuijk talks about the four perspectives from which you work as a designer (based on the three lenses of IDEO).

‘Start with the human lens’, of course, but real innovation only takes place when you look from all four lenses.

Collective values are coordinated in a political process and elaborated in laws and policy. When we bring this legislation to the public at the government, we usually first make a business case and then choose the most efficient technical implementation. The usability (the lens ‘human’) is often tested at the end, if we are lucky.

When I place these lenses on my timeline you see them coming back in different layers. In this presentation at CSSDay 2022 I elaborated this with the help of a case from the gas extraction in the Netherlands.

In my previous studies (such as The Compassionate Civil Servant) I came to the conclusion that the government has designed itself as a relay race from law to counter. In doing so, it easily forgets the social purpose (the yellow layer) and finds it difficult to take into account the living environment of citizens (the blue layer).

The green and pink layers become a world in itself, a system world that becomes leading for what and how the relationship between government and citizens is.

In recent years, there has been an increasing call for government policy and services that does take into account the perspective of citizens, how legislation works out for them in their lifeworld (human lens) and whether this will lead to the society we envisioned ( social lens).

At the same time, implementing organizations experience that this is a problem. They are not designed to take this into account. They are driven (and financed) from silos and have to deal with sometimes volatile political wishes and technical debt from the past.

How can this be done? That is what I want to find out in the coming years.

Together with TU Delft and the government’s implementing organizations, I will work on this issue step by step in practice. That means together with you.

How we’re going to do that, I don’t know exactly yet. But it is certain that I want to do it openly and from practice. From now on you can follow every step on this blog and find ways how you can participate, yourself and/or with your organization.

The easiest way to follow this adventure is through my newsletter (Dutch). Here I share updates, summaries, jokes, questions to you every month and I will make sure you don’t miss anything. I will write the first at the end of this month. Subscribe here.

In the next blog I will share my journey so far. A look behind the scenes at how (and with whom) I developed this idea last year.