Not part of a category The compassionate civil servant

How to reflect

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

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

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

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

Methods and experiments I designed

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

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

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

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

Gabe: “making the implicit explicit.

My inspiration and influences from the work of others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is reflection allowed to have consequences?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Un)understood citizens The compassionate civil servant

Not whistleblower, but gatekeeper

In recent weeks, I have been glued to the tube. I am watching the House of Representatives and their questioning on the problems in government implementation of policy. I listen back to all the interviews at double the speed as I walk around the neighborhood. The hearings cover both the major issues at the Temporary Committee on the Implementation Organizations and very specifically the child care benefit scandal.

Yesterday I listened to our boss of all, Prime Minister Mark Rutte. He was referring to Ms. Palmen’s memo, which was questioned a week earlier. In that 2017 memo, she raises the alarm to her management team and writes in plain language that something bad is going on.

Rutte called that memo a whistleblowers alert.

I was startled. By saying that, he is basically saying that if you disagree with your manager and hit the emergency brake hard, you are a whistleblower. That when you provide unwelcome feedback to colleagues and managers neatly through the official process, because that is what a memo is, just internally in your own organization, you are a whistleblower.

Mark Rutte on the memo and the ‘Rutte doctrine’

As a public servant, you would rather not be a whistleblower. That’s really not a fun role and might come back to bite you later.

I know this because I am a public servant myself and regularly go back to my organization with difficult feedback from citizens. I am one of thousands of officials in the “implementation proces”.

Understanding and yet misunderstood

I work at Uncle DUO (as students sometimes call the Executive Agency of Education), and it’s my job to find out how students, citizens and school employees experience our (digital) services. I think my work is super. I get everywhere, even into people’s homes, and I hear the most wonderful stories. And sometimes the saddest stories of people who feel misunderstood.

I also know that whistleblowing is not cool because for the past two years, in addition to my work as a user researcher, I have been studying public service problems and blogging openly about them. I did a photo project photographing my colleagues as a compassionate civil servant. You might think, huh, what does that look like? Well, my colleagues wondered that too. When are you a compassionate civil servant actually? And why can’t you be one? We talked about that and at the end I wrote a blog about each portrait.

The reasons why my colleagues are not (or cannot be) compassionate is what I call the dark patterns of government. To understand them, I consulted all kinds of experts, for example Reinier van Zutphen, the National Ombudsman, and Mark Bovens, a member of the Scientific Council for Government Policy. Both have also been guests at the hearings in recent weeks.

Yes, Minister

Last summer, in completion of the study, I wrote several essays on about those dark patterns and how we can break them. During the hearings, I heard my essays come alive again. For example, one of the essays is aptly titled ‘We cannot be compassionate civil servants because we are afraid it will become political‘. By the way, the working title I first had was Yes, Minister, after the British TV series of the same name.

In this essay, I talk about the classic hierarchical line that is the default in many government organizations. The minister determines and the implementation executes. In between is a steep ladder of managers and directors, from law to counter. They bear the responsibility, but the substance of implementation lies with the officials in “the operational layer”.

Still from Yes Minister

In conversations in Parliament, the Oekaze Kok came up frequently. The Oekaze Kok says that as a simple civil servant you should neither talk to members of parliament nor journalists. It was about “greening”: difficult messages were made a little less difficult up the ladder all the time.

Who was also invited in the hearings: public administration expert Paul ‘t Hart. He wrote a year ago in the Volkskrant that “fear reigns in the civil service towers. Yes, I do recognize that. In fact, there were many colleagues who did not dare to be photographed. Afraid to speak out and afraid of “the consequences.

I found it scary myself to blog about it, so openly on the Internet.

Not a whistleblower, but a gatekeeper

Through my research on government performance, I discovered how to be a compassionate civil servant: by taking your role as gatekeeper seriously. Indeed, at the public counter, policy becomes real. We, the officials who man the front desk, or no, even better, we, officials who make the front desk including all automated counters: we are the gatekeepers. Through us, the citizen meets the government.

Emine U─čur, also a civil servant, articulated this very strongly on Twitter yesterday.

So officials in implementing organizations do bear a responsibility too, not just our bosses. The responsibility how we guard that gate.

Citizen feedback is seeping into our organizations from all sides. We have citizens on the phone every day, they show up on our website, leave messages in our feedback tools, show up on our Facebook channels and submit their concerns and complaints to us. I wrote earlier in this blog: it is my job to research the experience of citizens, and I am certainly not the only one in government with this job. Sure, things can and should be done more often and better, but the officials in the implementation really do listen to the citizens.

Being a gatekeeper means that we also do something with what we hear. That means writing difficult memos, bringing bad news to the surface, giving feedback and putting our foot down when we need to choose the citizen over the boss. That is what I call begin a compassionate civil servant.

But how can we do that if we are not allowed to give feedback to our managers? If they ‘green’ our signals? When we have to listen not to the citizen, but to the boss?

When the Prime Minister calls us whistleblowers while we are just doing our job as gatekeepers?

Government, show yourself

It can be different.

Public administration expert Mark Bovens calls it horizontal accountability in his book The Digital Republic. Where it is usually vertical, the minister does the talking on behalf of everyone, and the implementation thus keeps its mouth shut, horizontal accountability is about the whole ladder being accountable for choices made.

A government that shows itself. All the layers, open and honest and not just the nicely polished bits. Especially the dilemmas, the difficult trade-offs and how government is building a compassionate connection with citizens.

Let me give an example. This summer, I collaborated on the CoronaMelder app. This app was created in openness. I walked along with staff at the local health organizations and observed and interviewed them as they conducted source and contact tracing. After each visit, I wrote a report that was published on Github. With my own name signed to it.

As a result, I took just a little more time than usual to do my reports neatly. I asked a colleague to check in with me to make sure I had substantiated the conclusions. After several weeks, the file grew. You could compare different versions of the app’s design and the research it was based on. Everyone could see how the final app came about, including the crazy ideas that fell through halfway through. In a community, critical citizens and experts thought along. I got difficult questions from them, why I was researching certain things and not others. I also received help to explore further together.

Working this openly can be done at any level. Of course, it goes beyond “posting something on Github,” but it’s the principle that counts. Taiwan’s Digital Minister, Audrey Tang, for example, records her conversations so citizens can read them back because she believes it is important for everyone to be able to see how and by whom she is influenced. How beautiful!

As a society, we want a transparent government that is accountable. A government we can follow and engage with. For that, we need to know how that government operates and we need a level playing field. Government, show yourself so that citizens can come to you. Such an open culture is diametrically opposed to calling internal memos whistleblower signals.

Good example follows, Mr. Rutte: your colleague from Taiwan uses this tool to record and automatically annotate conversations. Taking notes is so old school; there’s an app for that now.