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.

Don’t miss a blog? Sign up for my newsletter.

‘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.

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

Participation on steroids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weaknesses and incomprehensible patterns

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

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

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

What is participation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories are there for the taking

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

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

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

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

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

How much participation, wisdom and knowledge do you want?

Participation on steroids

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

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

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

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

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

Working together as equals

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

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

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

The initiative for this lies with the government.

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

(Un)understood citizens The consequences of gas extraction

Urban eyes

The first time I saw struts on a house was years ago when I went to lunch with Fiora, a colleague. In the middle of her kitchen were four struts. The kitchen table fit right in between. A chair on all sides, you could walk around it and it would be full. It was an idyllic little house next to the church in Huizinge. We ate a cheese sandwich and we didn’t necessarily talk about it. This is Groningen.

Fioor now lives with her girlfriend Wieneke in Bedum and she is no longer a colleague but a friend. Two months ago I was there with Jasper, another kitchen table, this time with gin tonic. “I got the job,” I cheered. “What does the National Ombudsman actually do?” asked Wieneke.

I explained. “If you can’t work it out with the government, you can come to us. We deal with your complaint and we help the government learn from it. So we also do broader research, and especially with the latter I’m going to work on.” I hadn’t finished talking or Wieneke slapped her hand on the table. “Well, I do have another complaint for you then.”

Appingedam’s hanging kitchen. Left some struts. Upper right there is an unsafe chimney.

I knew they were remodeling. The front facade and living room had been impassable for weeks. In the winter, I had enjoyed bobbing along in the rented hot tub to break the grind of sitting in the kitchen every day. I knew they had earthquake damage. But they had discovered new damage during the renovation, even quite large ones, and had to stop the job halfway through, call the IMG again, wait, hesitate, go ahead with the job, or not, or do, with the risk that it would have to be reopened later anyway. So they were back in the kitchen, in that kitchen for months, and still went ahead with the renovation but tried to not get too attached to that beautiful color on the wall because it might have to be redone later. Fuss, fuss, fuss.

“And now that it’s almost finished,” I asked, “what are you going to do with the outside?” “Yeah, what else can you do,” said Fioor. “Stuccoing, sealing? It won’t look great anymore anyway.” You can really only put a band-aid on it; you won’t get your beautiful stones back.

The Hinkoostingstraat in ‘t Zandt has turned into a construction site.

I have now been on the job for 4 weeks as project leader for Liveability at the National Ombudsman. The subject of livability includes, for example, the research we are doing on the environmental law, energy transition and also the gas mining damage and earthquakes in Groningen and its surroundings. How does the government treat its citizens? Does she do that properly?

Last week, my colleagues and I were in Groningen for three days talking to residents with damage, seeing how the strengthening of houses was going, and speaking to all kinds of agencies and hearing their side of things. Colleagues slept in Appingedam, I slept in my own bed in the city of Groningen. By car, I drove back and forth, several times a day on the N360. From Appingedam to Garmerwolde, to Kantens, through Loppersum, ‘t Zandt and back towards Delfzijl.

Strengthening can be done in several ways. For example, by “wrapping” the house with prefabricated blocks.

In Appingedam, a lady told of her difficult objection process at the IMG. In Kantens, we were given a tour by a couple. Hop, into the car, through the village. Past their old house that was now a lawn, the neighbors still had no reinforcement advice. Through Centerparcs, as they called the temporary change houses on the outskirts of the village, toward their “new” farmhouse where, on top of the pile of bricks that was their kitchen, they told how it should be again.

Next day a tour of ‘t Zandt where the entire village is reinforced. From the main street, we walked along de Molenweg. While the right side of the street had already received a letter for reinforcement, the left side still knew nothing. In the neighborhood app, it went back and forth. What is going on? The further we walked the more the village turned into a construction site around us.

The Molenweg in ‘t Zandt. The right already has clarity on reinforcement; the left does not yet.

In the evening back home, for once I didn’t take the N360 but drove back via the Graauwedijk and the Rijksweg. Roadways that I normally love to take when I take my inflatable canoe out to boat somewhere in the province. I ride here so often, I paddle between these villages. I have been reading about the earthquakes and following the news for years. I myself have some damage to my home in the city.

But with my urban eyes, I had not seen that it was like this. I did not see what the couple from Kantens was pointing out from their car. What it is really like to live among struts and cracks.