Reading without a road map

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

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

Parallel disciplines

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

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

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

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

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

Designing services: service design

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

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

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

Where government and service research overlap

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

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

Design in government

I discover that there are two major streams here:

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

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

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

But first: what is the next step?

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

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How do you do research? Promoklip

How to survive your first conference: Frontiers in Service 2023

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

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

Reason 1: get a good overview quickly

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

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

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

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

Entering through a side door

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

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

Reason 2: free advice

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

Coffee and tips

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

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

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

Reason 3: practice pitching and learn from others

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

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

Yet I could not consume alone.

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

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

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

Session on thinking from ecosystems in service research

Reason 4: meet nice people in a new city

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

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

Rowing on the Maas River

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

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

References and reading tips

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

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

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

Promoklip The consequences of gas extraction

Billy bureaucracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the right thing rightly build?

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

Imagine it.

A billy bookcase especially for all your earthquake stuff.

Screenshot from showing the billy bookcase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I worried

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

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

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

Okay … completed what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

As if there are two realities

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

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

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

Back to the folder. This is 1 paper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and reading tips

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

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

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


Mapping the field of design in government

Design in government is gaining momentum in the Netherlands. At implementing organizations, there are more and more design teams and at ministries, service and policy designers are increasingly being hired; the Ministry of Justice and Safety has even started a Makers Collective. External agencies have been setting up design projects with and in public organizations for decades, and the Ministry of Education will soon launch a multi-year program to involve designers in social challenges. Finally, let’s not forget how hot “design thinking” is becoming among managers.

Design in government is hot. But what is what really?

What role do designers have in government? Where in the process do you need what type of design? What does the context of government look like and how does a design approach fit into it? In this blog, a start to form my point of view. To give some insight into what the area looks like, a map to help us have a conversation and explain when we make what contribution. But also maybe as a bit of a provocation, because nothing is more fun than discussing design with designers, ha!

Evolution of the map

The map I see before me does not come out of the blue. In the archives of my blog are all kinds of building blocks and thinking steps I made over the years that led to this map. I’ll explain.

I started an experiment in 2018 in Rotterdam with a yellow rope. I stood on one side, as the government, and asked passersby how they wanted to be connected to me. A simple relationship between two parties.

Me as a public servant seeking connection with citizens.

I built this into a multi-party role-play. I asked students to take position with their classmates, teacher and staff of the Executive Agency of Education (DUO): what role do they themselves, their friends, parents, school, DUO and politics have in the way they deal with student loans. The relationship was no longer a simple dyad.

DUO employees who participated in the experiments all took different positions. That confused me, which made me want to know what role empathy for citizens had for them, in the path from law to counter. I started with this blog and photo-interviewed colleagues to map out the steps. The result: the law-to-counter relay on I placed the relay in the context of the democratic cycle.

The law-to-counter relay at the Executive Agency of Education

I elaborated further by surveying a month of my own relationship and figuring out how the side of the government was organized, including the making of policies, laws and the collective values underneath. I began my doctoral research with this timeline in this blog.

On that timeline, I often got feedback that the bottom and the top were also connected. And that I missed the whole civil society. When I worked at the National Ombudsman, I learned more about the part where citizens have a say and (want to) influence how we organize society from the view point of their lifeworld. For example, by looking into participation in Groningen for the reinforcement of houses.

The maps and experiments weren’t quite it yet.

So I made a new map

Over the past few weeks, I talked to several people about it including Prof. Mark Bovens of Utrecht University’s Faculty of Public Administration to check if I was on the right path. With the feedback, I adjusted the map.

The map consists of two axes. The horizontal axis has the collective on the left and the individual on the right. The vertical axis has above the system world versus below the lifeworld.

This gives us 4 quadrants, and I’ll go through them with you one by one.

System world / collective

Parlement, together with the Cabinet, devises how society should be. Collective values are enshrined in laws and translated into interventions to realize the collective values (enshrined in policies).

A drawing of the quadrant collective / system world

System world / Individual

Those interventions are implemented and embedded in existing processes and services, by government executive organizations and/or private service providers. For example: the student finance is transferred, the hybrid heat pump installed, as well as the trains that are running. Much of this goes automated or is supported by digital processes, hence the softly buzzing data center.

A drawing of the quadrant system world/ individual

Living world / Individual

Such a service does not stand alone but happens in context. I am applying for a grant for a heat pump for my house where I live with Jasper on a street with neighbors. I have family, friends, I am in a certain stage of life. This all affects the interaction and what else I need, in this case, to make my home more sustainable.

A drawing of the quadrant individual/living world

Living world / collective

Individuals unite. In a sports club or neighborhood association to make your neighborhood finer. People seek each other out around an issue and work together to influence and have a say in how we live together as a collective. Civil society, as well as political parties that run for election to represent the people in democracy.

A drawing of the quadrant lifeworld/ collective

Those are the four quadrants.

The whole map looks like this. Pay particular attention to when it moves from one quadrant to another. Interesting things usually happen there.

Then the design field

Although designers have a shared way of working and mindset, we do not all work on the same things and our approaches are often different. Where you are on the map, the issues are different, your design outcome is different, and so your role and approach may be too.

I sketch my own position on the map…

My own design practice plotted on the map

You see: I spent most of my time in the system-world/individual quadrant.

I first was as a user researcher on the overlap between system world and lifeworld, with the individual. I observed as students used Later, on the project The Compassionate Civil Servant, I walked deep into the caverns of the system world. And at the Legitimate I dove into that buzzing computer.

Richard Buchanan (1992) in his “four orders of design” describes the difference between, for example, user interface design and service design. The latter is much more holistic. So now, with my current research on government services, I am going to zoom out and want to touch more of the other quadrants as well.

And then the provocate bit: maybe you can plot other design disciplines this way as well.

A map of design disciplines in government

Social design on the lower left, policy design of course at the policy side, with an additional zoom in for legal design. On the right, of course, UI design. And that doesn’t even include all kinds of other types .. content design, design thinking, systems design, graphic design, organization design, product design … what else do you have?

Are you a designer, in government? How do you plot yourself? And why? I’d love to hear about it so we can learn together what design in government can look like and what you have to deal with in what place.

References and reading tips

The four orders of design come from Buchanan, Richard. “Wicked problems in design thinking.” Design issues 8.2 (1992): 5-21.

A fine book for understanding the roles of all the players in this cycle is Willink, Tjeenk. “Herman, Thinking Bigger, Doing Smaller.” (2018). Publisher Prometheus, Amsterdam

The poetic “softly buzzing data center” comes from Zouridis, Stavros. “Digital discipline: on ICT, organization, legislation and the automation of dispositions.” (2000).

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


The value is in the classroom

The Social Security Bank in the Netherlands once came up with the term ‘working from purpose’. You are faced with a complicated situation and think “what was ever the purpose behind this?”

Legislation is made from such a social purpose to organize and shape society in a certain way. We make policies for that, such as interventions of something that may or may not be allowed (manifested in permits for example a driver’s license), certain incentives (money you recieve or have to pay) or certain information that may or may not be recorded (in the Netherlands gender may be changed in a passport). Next, implementing organizations are in charge of implementing the policy, and thus are service providers.

In this blog you will find an exploration of what we (should) be talking about when we talk about services in the public sector.

I lean on the literature on service dominant logic (Vargo & Lusch, 2004). I learned about this at Karlstad University and wrote this blog. I also draw on practical experience over the past few years, as you can read in the archives of this blog, and on existing literature on service standards and service design.

As I delved into the literature on service-dominant logic, I frequently thought of that term “purpose”. SD-logic calls it: offering products or services to users so they can create value for themselves. That overarching value is essentially the service. I will explain this with an example that fits the Executive Agency of Education, where I work now.

Value is created in the classroom

I have long thought that in the case of the Law on Student Finance, the goal was met when a student could apply for student finance flawlessly. But it doesn’t.

The goal is to develop yourself. To a large extent, the student must do this themselves, but we can help. I see that ‘we’ very broadly: government, society, we. To learn well and to make something of yourself, you need all kinds of things. I’ll mention a few:

  • good teachers and thus teacher education, grants for professionals who want to retrain as teachers,
  • a safe and comfortable classroom and thus a school board that can work with the municipality to achieve fine school locations, and can pay for it,
  • good teaching materials, which is organized by the school, as well as private parties who write textbooks,
  • traveling to school, using a student travel product or pupil transportation,
  • validation of your learning in the form of exams and certified diplomas.

It looks something like this in my head.

Providing these resources so that a student can use them to develop themselves, that is the service.

You already notice: some of these resources are sub-services. For example, an accounting application (a product) that helps a school keep student records (a service) that allows the school to schedule funding from the government (a service) to pay the salaries (another service) of the teachers (also can be seen as a service) who teach (a service) to the students who, if they do their best, learn as a result (hey, we’re here). A sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-service.

Policy should be about value in the classroom, and so should the implementation of it. What does value mean in the classroom: is everyone allowed in that classroom? Can you learn without having breakfast? Does everyone have the financial resources to access the school? Are thinking skills worth as much as doing skills?

I’m making it very big now, sorry.

But I think it’s that big. All those (sub)resources eventually contribute step by step to those big questions. At the Executive Agency of Education, I’ve often heard that those questions “get political very quickly,” and of course we, the implementation should not be involved in politics. Fortunately, that is beginning to change a bit.

Not so easy

Much is known about how to create and deliver services. There are all kinds of standards, principles and processes for it. But they cannot yet be applied 1 to 1 in government.

For example, the government is there for everyone, but can everyone create value for themselves? We know from the well-received WRR-report Knowing is not yet doing (Bovens, 2017) that we tend as a government to overestimate citizens and thus overwhelm them with resources, letters and things to do but lose track of.

In addition, there is tension on value for the collective and for the individual. The student loan system is a good example. Conceived as a cut to keep education affordable, but it led to a mountain of debt among young people in the Netherlands. Perhaps this actually made higher education less accessible. As a service provider, how do you offer such a service? So that students can develop themselves but do not run into sideways problems with their livelihood or future prospects? Should you make the application process for such a loan super easy and accessible, or difficult? I actually don’t know.

Executor or service provider?

The ISO standard on service excellence (ISO, 2021) states as its first principle that “the organization should be managed from the outside in”. Read: user feedback should guide how you create and offer services. That feedback is crucial, and should also be the basis for the policies you make.

In commercial businesses, you see that continuously listening to the target audience leads to new ideas of what resources they can offer so that customers will enjoy a purchase even more. For example: a friend of mine has an electric car with a built-in app that calculates exactly how long you can drive and where on the route you can recharge most conveniently (with good coffee). The company behind it is a car manufacturer, but knows that with apps like this as an extra service, you help the user in his goal: getting from a to b pleasantly and on time. The latter is the actual service.

In government, we don’t think that way yet. We are focused on the commissioning policy departments, and obediently implement what they come up with. Transferring student loans? Okay. Managing diplomas? Sure. Distribute funding to schools? We’re on it.

So we are executors. Being service providers requires something else.

What if: we turn around and look at the classroom. Together with pupils, students and schools, and others in that service eco-system, we figure out what it takes for people to be able to develop themselves, how can we offer that to them in the smartest and finest way collectively so that the intent turns out in the classroom the way we wanted?

I am not a fan of Shell, but they do understand that for a fine car mobility experience, you need to offer services bundled and layered. The fast-charging locations connect to navigation services, there are fresh croissants, they outsource the coffee to Starbucks, all kinds of brands that together form an eco-system around car mobility and interact with each other.

Why not offer services bundled more often when we see and hear from users that they need them together? For example, why can’t you apply for student finance while enrolling in college? Research on the life event “Going to college” shows it belongs together. With both Studielink and MyDUO you log in with DigiD, in fact, the Executive Agency of Education uses the data from Studielink to decide whether you are entitled to student finance. But they are different organizations, with different clients, and we don’t perform under the same orchestrator. Unfortunately.

From arrow to lemniscate

See, with examples like this, it already feels a little less big and a lot more concrete how you can think of, design and offer services with purpose.

“But,” I hear you thinking, “you can’t sit in the policy department’s chair as an executor, can you? If the Executive Agency of Education comes up with the student finance law, wow wow… What about Parliament, which also represents citizens, right?”

True. There is a big difference there between the public sector and the commercial sector. Government organizations need to look both ways, both at the citizen in the classroom and the citizen represented in politics. I still find this quite difficult and am doing considerable reading in the literature as to what this means for service design and delivery.

But I suspect that this strict separation between policy and implementation that we have very strongly in the Netherlands does not help. We should make the process of law to execution from a straight arrow from left to right to a lemniscate, an always continuous 8. Policy and implementation then are not so far apart, because devising and offering resources cannot be thought of in isolation, and certainly not without an understanding of how it plays out “in the classroom”.

I’ve tried it out with the education domain, which is nice and familiar to me. What would this look like around a topic like livelihood security? Around perspective on work, or care and health? And how do these domains overlap? That looks like a fun exercise for public service providers in the near future.

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References and reading tips

The report on act-ability: Bovens, M., Keizer, A. G., & Tiemeijer, W. (2017). Knowing is not yet doing: a realistic perspective on resilience (No. 97). Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR).

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

Article on SD-logic with almost cult status: Vargo, S. L., & Lusch, R. F. (2004). Evolving to a new dominant logic for marketing. Journal of marketing, 68(1), 1-17.

On this page you will see a list of books and articles I use in my research.


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.