(Un)understood citizens

Good intention: listening in on the telly

Good resolution for 2023: visit your help desk for a day.

This fall, I visited colleagues at DUO’s Customer Contact Center twice. At the invitation of my colleague Maureen, whom I happened to run into somewhere. I have resolved to do this every two months because really, I am amazed every time at how much you learn from listening in for a few hours.

In this blog what I am learning at these moments and – hopefully – an encouragement for you to also listen in next year at your own contact centre, workplace, help desk, phone unit, ah, whatever you call it in your organization.

9 a.m., report to reception

DUO’s contact centre is in another building that I don’t have a pass for. Lisa picks me up, I am joining her today. We get coffee and she starts up all the applications on the computer. When you call a help desk and the employee ‘takes a quick look in the system’… Well, that system turns out to be a bit more elaborate than the image I always had of it.

I get a headset so I can listen in on the conversation. I can’t participate though, I’m on mute. Lisa logs on to the call system and the phone starts flashing.

“I had heard that I can get an allowance because of Covid. I am eligible but have not received it yet. I am doing mbo, level 4 and could not do an internship so my studies are taking longer.”

Caller 1

Lisa looks at and compares the terms with the caller’s details she has on the screen. Unfortunately, the caller does not meet all the conditions after all. For example, she should have completed her degree by August 2021 but is now only in year 3. The caller is dissapointed, “Isn’t there anything else possible?”

A second caller

“I have a question about my tuition. If I unenroll before February, do I have to pay the whole fee? After all, I want to transfer to another study, I think.”

Caller 2

Lisa does the identity check with the caller so she can see his information as known to DUO. She sees that he has already been enrolled in a few different studies but also that he does not receive a supplemental scholarship. First, the tuition question.

“Would you like to go with me to and then click on ‘register and pay for school’? Quitting because you don’t like a study is not a reason to reduce tuition. And if you go on to do another study, you have to keep paying tuition for that as well.”


After the conversation, Lisa tells me that she got the idea that he himself didn’t really know what he wanted either. “Based on my answers, he’s going to make his choice.” That seems pretty tricky in how you give advice. Lisa says she regularly talks with colleagues about how to deal with this and give objective advice.

“I also see that you don’t get a supplemental scholarship from us. Did you know this? This is because we don’t have the income of one of your parents.”


Lisa explains to the caller what he needs to do to arrange this and then completes the call.

On to caller number 3

“I heard from a friend that you can get an allowance from Corona. Does it apply to me as well?”

Caller 3

This is the second question about corona. Which is crazy, Lisa tells me, because that arrangement was actually very popular last year. Most people entitled to that allowance have already applied for it. While listening in, a few more people call about this arrangement. We see the wait time increasing: there are quite a few callers hanging on the line.

After an hour, Maureen, with whom I paired last time, comes by to have a chat. She says there is a TikTok video going around calling for young people to call about corona. Aha!

But, Lisa and I look at each other, all these young people who called, and didn’t qualify for the corona allowance, we were able to help. As Lisa looked into the system, she could see that some of them had not applied for supplemental scholarships, for example, or were behind on their payments. We were able to address and arrange that directly with them. It was actually very good that they had contact with DUO.


#aanhechten met @Daisy Piras €1500 Corona vergoeding!

♬ origineel geluid – Daisy Piras
@daisypiras on tiktok about DUO’s corona fee

Is such a TikTok movie annoying, because it messes up our schedule, or just a good additional motivation and education for our target audience?

It goes on like this for a while. I see Lisa as she hangs on the line with students clicking through screens, finding messages, taking a quick look in the work instructions to see exactly how things are, and in the meantime kindly explaining how someone can best take care of something, whether it applies to the caller, and giving them extra reminders or something to take care of.

I have worked on some of the applications that I now see in action on Lisa’s screen over the past few years. I occasionally shake my head because it does turn out differently in practice than how we designed it, oops.

Three reasons why listening in is so insightful

The first reason. You hear what people are calling about, directly with tone, context, and everything to it. On one call, the partner dialed in briefly to hear the explanation as well, on another call there was a mother in the background shouting questions through the conversation, and on yet another call the caller became angry and sad.

Reason 2: You see how employees deal with this. You see everything coming together. It’s very tempting when working on applications to think it’s all about that one thing, but next to Lisa, you see how everything works together (or not). In our organizations, departments are separate, sometimes with different directors even, but on the phone everything comes together.

Third reason: you hear the stories of Lisa and colleagues between calls. Whether situations are more frequent, or incidental. How to deal with difficult questions and where they fix things because they went wrong earlier in the processes. “This is actually something we always look at, because that just doesn’t work well in the process. So then we can give people a little extra reminder.”

Good intention

Therefore, start the new year with the resolution to spend a morning or afternoon in 2023 listening in on the conversations your target audience is having with your organization.

Whoever you are in the organization, the boss, the it-person or someone from legal, it doesn’t matter: listening in is fun and you learn a lot.

(Un)understood citizens

Error unknown

Spend an afternoon at an IDO to see what questions people have about digital government. IDO (Dutch) stands for Information Point Digital Government. This is a low-threshold counter with information about digital government with people who will help you on your way if you find something difficult to arrange.

In this blog what I experienced at the IDO in my neighbourhood and what I learn about digital government from it.

I took the pictures of the books in the library around us. Entirely by feel, they form a poetic summary. The title ‘error unknown’ because we did encounter frustrating unknown error codes while figuring it out.

The setting

I walked along for an afternoon, on Thursdays from 1 to 4 in the afternoon, with 2 staff members from the IDO. In the middle of the library was a hip picnic bench-like structure. Two laptops on one side and a stack of information leaflets. On the other side, space for someone to sit down and ask a question or look something up on the laptop together.

When I came there were already 2 people with a question. I politely kept waiting a bit but was soon pulled in by one of the staff members. I became acquainted with the other staff member and the man with the question was also fine with me listening in. We ended up spending almost 2 hours with him sorting out all sorts of things. Then I stayed until the end and heard from the staff about their experiences.

What if this is it? Civilizations.

The case study

Time: still before 1 p.m. There was a somewhat elderly gentleman with a letter from his housing association. What the problem was exactly I don’t know because I joined a little later. Even the employee didn’t get the story completely clear I believe, but it came down to the following:

If you want to have a chance of renting a house through the social rental system, you must be registered with Woningnet, a joint regional platform of housing associations. Those who have been registered the longest have the best chance of finding a home. So you also have to renew that registration every year. This can be done automatically, if you have that turned on.

There was no trace of his registration.

Sir had been living in a house with the same housing association for 20 years, was he registrated for 20 years? He thought so, but Woningnet hasn’t been around that long. “But he had had something to do with Woningnet before, hadn’t he?” After calling Woningnet (by the IDO employee) we found out that he was not in the system. Whether this was ever the case, “no one could know anymore”.

You understand, sir was high on stress. Not only because he had little experience with getting things done digitally, but also because he wanted the option of perhaps moving to a senior housing facility later.

Well, we had our goal for the afternoon: a new registration with Woningnet with automatic renewal.

This shouldn’t be too difficult, I thought.

A puppet show?

This happened

13.18. The employee went to the Woningnet website. Together with sir, she created an account. They filled out some personal information such as name and address on a form. Sir chose a password. To really complete the account, a confirmation then comes via e-mail that you must click on. This was no problem as the e-mail came in on his phone, super.

Then the payment. To register on Woningnet cost 20 euros, an annual renewal cost 11 euros. You turn that renewel on with a direct debit authorization in your account. Payment for registration can easily be made via Ideal or also by online banking.

13.32. We peer at sir’s phone screen for payment options (because we went through the account confirmation and arrived at this payment page). Paying via Ideal has never been done by sir, so we try the authorization. The screen loads and then we are in the bank’s payment environment.

But sir doesn’t actually have online banking either. But wait a minute… a week ago he got an E.dentifier because he was tired of walking to the ATM all the time to check his balance. He just hadn’t tried it out yet.

The employee gently closes the flap of the mobile case so that the payment screen remains on the phone. Sir puts his mobile in the pocket and goes home with his moped to pick up the E.dentifier.

The innocent

All IT-people who read this blog, I think, already know what comes next.

That payment session expires after a few minutes of course. When sir returns by 2 p.m. and we try to pay with the E.dentifier, it fails.

At first, this is still because the usability of that payment environment leaves something to be desired. In fact, we only find out after entering the account number 3 times that you should not enter your entire IBAN but only the account portion. The pop-up picture where this is explained has letters that are far too small to read on mobile. And instead of good feedback, we keep getting ‘error unknown’ when we click ‘continue’.

But even the fourth time it fails. Frustrated with that mobile screen, the employee decides to work with sir on the laptop again. Logging into Woningnet and looking up that payment task.

But it is no longer there. Well it’s there, but it has the status ‘awaiting payment’.

What to do now?

in free fall.

14.17. Calling Woningnet again. On hold, of course. At the IDO, they don’t have special call-through numbers; staff members are also put on hold.

14.42. The lady who picks up at Woningnet doesn’t really know what to do either. ‘The system is indeed waiting for payment.’ When this will be reset, she doesn’t know either. ‘You have to wait now.’

She does tell us that sit. can also opt for payment by letter. Yes! A physical letter. Meanwhile – I couldn’t contain myself – I had found that somewhere on the Woningnet website as well. But that option is not offered by default in the process, for that you have to call. But she couldn’t fix that either now that the system was waiting.

In short: sir may return to the IDO on his moped the following Thursday.

Get used to it,

What I learn from this

Pff… where to start? So much was happening. From those simple little things like a time-out from a system, with no clear new route you can then take. Error codes not giving good feedback. Instructional copy that drops out or is not readable.

Why is a payment via a physical letter a sneaky third choice and not just listed in the online portal? This, of course, is in the interest of the organization that wants to save money and not in the interest of the user who wants, no, needs good service.

On a more abstract level, why do we in the Netherlands unite organizations in large platforms with all kinds of underlying data-exchanging systems with this kind of poor service, and come up with an information point where you can go with questions about those complex digital networks as a solution? Why not make those services better?

And we also don’t give the people on that IDO a speed dial number. Why do they also have to stand on hold for minutes to help someone when they are the ones closing the gaps?

Game over!

Where does public service end and self-reliance begin?

Of course, this is different for everyone.

Most people find it convenient to pay via online banking, myself included. A lot of people understand the mental model that you go from the digital environment of Woningnet to the bank and back again, or they have seen that happen several times on their phone when they ordered something online. With that, they have some sense of how systems are connected and communicate with each other. That kind of mental model helps you find your way digitally. So yes, I understand the idea of courses and information points to enhance digital skills.

But the staff told me that most people don’t come to them with questions about how digital government works. No, they want to take care of something and it has to be done digitally. They want another house, they need to do income tax, they want some extra money, for example, a rent allowance. And to do so, they must go through a trail of online forms, logging in, confirmation emails, passwords and unknown error codes.

Employees of the IDO are not so much giving information about the digital government, they are temporarily fixing the digital government.

(Un)understood citizens A compassionate future Not part of a category

This is not about customization

‘Nice this story about customization, but surely that can never be done for everyone?’ That was the first question I got from the audience the other day when I gave a lecture at a government organization about The Compassionate Civil Servant and the relationship citizens have with government. I was confused. I hadn’t mentioned customization in services I thought. I get questions like that a lot, by the way.

Why do people keep thinking I’m talking about customization when I talk about more empathy in government?

Hence this blog, which is NOT about customization. Okay, a little bit then. But it is mostly about standard services that are good for people because it is better to go full steam ahead with that than with customization.

What is customization?

If you ask me, I say ‘anything that deviates from the process because the situation calls for it’. A very human and fine process does not have to be customized if that is always how it goes.

Customization involves a real deviation from the standard. For example, a government employee makes a decision that allows someone to get or do something even though they are not entitled to it under the regulation. Or a staff member (or sometimes an entire team) looks at the situation separately with the person to figure out what is going on when in the normal process there is no time for that. An exception will be made for someone.

This is directly also the tricky thing about customization, because you have to justify the decision anyway. Therefore, in some regulations there is a hardship clause that provides a legal basis for exceptions. But even then you should be able to explain why the exception is justified, because otherwise the neighbors will complain ‘how come she got it, and I didn’t’. Unequal cases should be treated equally unequally, so to speak. How you do that is quite tricky and can also put a lot of mental pressure on the deciding officials.

I started with ‘if you ask me’, because there is no official definition of customization in the Dutch government yet. We are working on it, but right now each organization, and perhaps each team – you know how it goes – uses its own definition. That makes it difficult to have a good conversation about this, I think.

Instead of focusing on customization, I prefer to talk about customization’s antithesis: the standard service. When we invest heavily in government services that are already so good for people you don’t necessarily need customization. The service itself can be good.

Rather a good standard process than customization.

Citizens like that too, because no one likes being the exception and going through extra hassles (customization is also more hassle for citizens than if it had been appropriate right away).

What is a standard service?

I draw the steps that are usually in there.

An example. You want to apply for student loans because you are going to start studying. You search for information, online, through school, through your dad. Finally, you log in to MyDUO and fill out the digital form. You get a confirmation email and a while later the student finance in your account.

It is not rocket science. Government services often mean: seeking information, filling out forms, possibly with supporting documents and then waiting for you to ‘get the thing (settled)’ you are concerned about, possibly with confirmation. Sometimes you go to a counter for this, but usually the counter is online at a website.

Another example. You can argue about whether it is really a service but fine: you get a fine from the CJIB, the Dutch debt collection centre. Which starts on your door mat (or actually on the road when you started the offense by going beyond the speed limit maybe). You may be looking for some additional information and pay. Done.

As a service designer, I call these examples the happy flow. How someone experiences this can be called a customer journey (but I kind of hate that word ‘customer’ in government). You can expand this diagram to include the government side and show the work process behind it. This is called a service blue print, a schematic of a service from the perspective of the customer (citizen) and the provider (government). For example, like this.

Want to see a much more elaborate version than this sketch? I once tracked for a month everything that I was doing with the government and then mapped out the government’s side of things as well as my own. I made a big schematic drawing of it.

You could add to this the standard steps the government offers for when you disagree. You can appeal the decision, for example, if you think the fine is unjustified, and then even go to court. All standard.

So when then customization? If this happy flow doesn’t work?

No, not yet.

The policy has also come up with exceptions as to why something might not work. There are then additional arrangements for that and you can incorporate them into a standard service. A kind of variation on the happy flow.

For example, with student loans. Suppose you become ill during your studies, physically or mentally. Your studies are not going that good anymore and you get delayed. At the end of your studies, you get into a jam, because you are basically entitled to x number of years of student finance and it runs out, but your studies are not finished. With a letter from your dean or doctor, you can apply for an additional year of student loans. No customization! It is just a regulation that is a side branch of the happy flow.

An example from the CJIB then. You receive a fine, but the letter is still sent to your old address. That’s where your ex lives, you broke up and your ex didn’t forward the fine. Very annoying and now it has accumulated to a much larger amount due to the reminders. You call the CJIB, explain the situation, and the CJIB says ‘if you pay the original amount, it’s fine’. This must be customized, surely.

No, it’s not, this situation happens more often and the work instruction for CJIB employees tells them how to resolve it. (I can well imagine that this was once a custom process and then CJIB included it in the work instruction when it turned out not to be so incidental – hooray for CJIB).

What we can learn from CJIB is that you can adjust services. Based on feedback from citizens through the telephone, the website, social media or in many other ways, you can learn, add interventions in your process and thus make your service better and better. Perfecting your standard. Love it.

You might already notice. These are standard services. Employees do not have to make their own consideration of whether it is lawful and not arbitrary. That consideration has already been done by including it in the standard service – for everyone. Parts of these types of services can even be left to computers by the government so that you, as a citizen, get instant confirmation that it is in order and do not have to wait for an official to look.

But the problem in government is that most services are not created from the user’s perspective.

The happy flow that the government comes up with does not necessarily make people happy. The government invents services that are mostly good for the government itself.

Processes must be as efficient as possible and are outsourced entirely to computers. Changes require a business case first, preferably for savings. KPIs (success metrics) are about whether people can deal with it on their own and most importantly Don’t Call. To help with that, we are setting up points in libraries to make people more digitally proficient (oh the irony).

Organizations carry out regulations that they have as a statutory duty and how this intersects with other regulations of other organizations… well, that’s not their responsibility now, is it? And that someone could arrange something with multiple organizations in one fell swoop, and they won’t have to go from site to site, or that the government proactively thinks along: ‘oh gosh, this will also affect your rent allowance if you apply for this with us’… Wouldn’t that be something?

And so people get into trouble and in the newspapers. Everyone angry, the House of Representatives angry: the social pendulum is swinging toward More Human Size. We get high on stress and exclaim: ‘okay, we’ll solve it with customization.’

We don’t have to if we start with services that are good for people.

How to make good services? That’s for other blogs. But you can read Good services by Lou Downe to get a start (or this summary of it I wrote earlier).

(Un)understood citizens A compassionate future Not part of a category

Three lessons I learned at the National Ombudsman’s office

My last week at the National Ombudsman’s office is entering. A year ago, I started asking all kinds of new questions that I wanted to learn. The main one: what do you see when you look for a while not through the blinders of government but really from the perspective of the citizen? In this blog, three lessons I learned last year.

Blinkers off means seeing more

When you work in government, you unintentionally have blinders on. This is not on purpose; it happens automatically. It is incredibly difficult not to have the frameworks and agreements you know so well as a civil servant in the back of your mind when you hear other people’s stories.

When you take off the blinders, the starting point is not the regulation or its implementation, but the question: what kind of society do we want to be? What kind of perspective do citizens want? In what context does their life take place? And only then: what place does government have in that story, including my little piece of service provision?

One of my questions a year ago was: how do your experiences with government affect the life you lead and the confidence you have in your future? What causes trust to be lost and how can government restore trust?

Among other things, I dove into the world of gas extraction: cracks in walls, a debate about what is safe and a lack of perspective and trust in institutions. I sat with Groningers in the garden telling their stories, got in the car with people giving a tour of their village and joined courses for case workers and social workers in the earthquake area.

Together with the National Ombudsman on a working visit to ‘t Zandt. Photo by Hans Roggen.

It was usually not about specific procedures, sometimes it was, but more often it was about confidence in the future. About children growing up without feeling comfortable at home. About not knowing whether you should remodel your house now, or not. About falling behind on maintenance, maybe wanting to move, but can you still get rid of the house? Your life put on hold by a sluggish government. Communities facing not only the effects of gas production, but also shrinkage, an aging population, social problems and high energy prices. But certainly not all doom and gloom either, life goes on. Babies are born, people get new jobs or relationships, dedicate themselves to the neighborhood and meanwhile we live, yes, I live there too, on one of the most beautiful pieces in the sprawling Netherlands.

When you’re making public services, it’s super hard be guided by that whole context. But I found it liberating to take off the blinders and listen to stories freely. Without blinders, my gaze was more open and I saw more.

I dare not say I now have a ready-made answer on how to restore trust. But I saw how to get rid of it, though.

When I was in Valkenburg in March one of the residents left homeless by the floods said: “Maybe naive, but during the floods Rutte, the King, Grapperhaus came here, and ‘the government jumped into the breach,’ they promised. I believed it and thought ‘we’ll deal with it.’ But now there is fuss about who pays the bill and whether the water damage is due to horizontal or vertical water. Meanwhile, no contractor wants to work here yet.”

That’s how you lose confidence.

Camille points toward The Geul that flooded last year. His house is still uninhabitable and there doesn’t seem to be any progress in changing that anytime soon.

By going there, you hear the real stories. You see the consequences of a decision that leads to new problems you had not anticipated. You learn this in practice and not at your desk. Listening without blinders means questioning your own assumptions. Not always determining the research question in advance, but going in that direction with an open mind.

I practiced it once at DUO. I asked students to write cards that they thought we should know. Back to the office with those post cards, I got an uneasy feeling. What was I supposed to do with it now? Most of it was about stuff that was out of our hands. Which brings me to my second lesson.

From the citizen’s perspective, government is hassle and chaos

At DUO I was part of the system, at the National Ombudsman I was on the sidelines. You immediately have a better overview because you can survey the entire field at a glance. You also immediately see what a tangle of players and rules it is. So whether you really have a good overview, again, I don’t want to say.

Government is fragmented and cut up into all sorts of loose chunks. Each piece has a defined task or assignment. Within those organizations, all sorts of things have also been cut up and delineated. From an organizational perspective, I understand that, because you have to create structures somewhere and break up big jobs so that the work becomes manageable at the level of teams and employees.

But the citizen’s context is then increasingly difficult to fit in, though. Cash flows including organizations’ own funding run along those cut lines and with them, accountability for the success or failure of the mission. That rich context of the living world of citizens gets lost. Because who can take responsibility for that? Or should I say dare?

The Groninger Gasberaad made this overview of all agencies involved in the consequences of gas extraction in 2020. It has since changed.

Last year, I spoke to representatives of different levels of government. With employees of various implementing agencies working together in chains, with administrators and also with a few ministers. Super fun to hear so many different perspectives, but also sad to see how much speech confusion there is between them. And how much distrust there is between the organizations.

For example, between local governments and the state. Difficult problems are passed back and forth like hot potatoes. That is not a sustainable way of working together. How to do that when major social changes call for a collaborative approach? As with the energy transition where citizens are in big trouble with their energy bills and cannot keep up in the energy transition. Or to give perspective to the generation growing up in debt, with no chance of good housing and steady work? When the climate damage will soon really erupt and be physically felt by most people?

Then we need a government that works well together, listens well and is open to feedback from citizens and each other.

I am really shocked by this.

The government is arguing with itself and you are still living in your garage. A resident from Meerssen tells how he got into a jam with the Wts (Damage Compensation Act) after the floods last year.

I didn’t realize it much myself as a government employee. I told a friend of mine who works at the municipality in Groningen the other day. She said once that she could tell from my blogs that I worked at the National level of government. Her response: ‘Gosh, you sure are late to the party’. She and her colleagues had long since figured that out. So that was my blind spot!

I’d rather not be on the sidelines

This lesson I learned about myself. I wanted to take the blinders off and learn more about the citizen’s perspective, but then I lacked insight into the dilemmas of government itself. After making recommendations from research, I wanted to get started. But then again, that wasn’t my job this time. That is not what the Ombudsman is about; that is what the government itself is about. Rightfully so, but too bad for me.

I want to work on those “wicked problems” myself. Wicked problems are problems that are networked, whose context is constantly changing and that involve a variety of competing interests. We can only address these if we start both from the citizen’s perspective and then work from a strong public partnership. We need both.

Screenshot from a presentation on The Energy Bill. This is the story of Ellen who contacted us. I photographed her at home and highlighted in her story what “her energy transition” looks like.

In recent weeks, for example, I worked with colleagues on a story about the citizen perspective in the energy transition (not yet online). For a workable narrative, that includes the story of the government and not just the citizen. After all, it’s about the interaction between the two.

It’s about how to design schemes from broad societal questions and feedback, make them fit together, how to align policies accordingly, and thus design cyclically with citizens. Basically how we design government together.

I like that the most anyway.

(Un)understood citizens How do you do research? Visual working

The cash flow maze

Almost a year after the floods in Limburg-South, how is the damage compensation going? Have people already returned to their homes and “is everything back to normal”? Or not? In early March, I went with a colleague for three days to Valkenburg aan de Geul, Gulpen-Wittem and Meerssen to see for myself the aftermath of the floods. I took my camera with me.

In this blog, you can read about how we approached this visit, about my musings on these types of events in the future and what effect they have on citizens’ relationship with government.

The trigger

In January, Reinier van Zutphen, the National Ombudsman together with Jan, a colleague, paid a regional visit in Limburg as they often do. Among others, Reinier spoke with the mayor of Valkenburg, Daan Prevoo. He told him that with that aftermath, things did not go well at all. The following week, Jan asked if I wanted to go with him to Limburg on short notice for a bit longer to see exactly what was going on. I went along because I did research on the effects of gas extraction last year and we saw some overlap at first glance.

From Monday to Wednesday, we were guests of the three municipalities most affected during last year’s floods: Valkenburg aan de Geul, Gulpen-Wittem and Meerssen. Staff who are working a lot with the aftermath of the floods had created a program for us.

But first: what happened last year?

During the week of July 14, it rained tremendously in Belgium and Germany. This led to floods that then flowed into South Limburg. I found this clip from the youth news that shows well what residents had to deal with:

On July 16, after a crisis council, the cabinet formally declared the flood in South Limburg a national disaster. On BNR that day: “This means that the cabinet will put into effect the Damage Compensation Act. That way, victims will quickly get clarity on whether their damage will be compensated by the government, if their insurance does not cover it.”

But so it’s not going well. We went out for three days with employees of the three Limburg municipalities to get a picture of this ourselves.

Beforehand, Jan and I looked for all kinds of things. I visualized this on a timeline. Approximately what has happened and what bottlenecks do we already see based on what we find online?

Timeline with initial assumptions of the problems – click for larger

We used this timeline as a conversation starter on Monday. Our questions in this regard were:

  • Who are the key parties in the aftermath and how do they relate to each other? How do the most affected areas differ?
  • What are causes and effects that have happened in recent months? Are there chain reactions?
  • What are money flows and who has access to what?
  • What bottlenecks are there and do they have relationships with each other?
  • What do residents and business owners notice about this? How do consequences impact them and those around them?

On large flip charts we mapped out the answers. By the end of the afternoon, my head was full of all the money flows and dead ends in the arrangements. How do we make sense of this?

Real stories from real people

The following days we visited residents and business owners. I had my camera with me to immediately capture what we encountered.

For example, with a man my age in Valkenburg who will probably be living in a cottage with his girlfriend and baby until next year. He is caught between the insurer and the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO), no one wants to get burned on the likely problems with his foundation. He is now receiving an allowance from a private fund to find out what the problem is so that things can move forward again.

Man points to the Geul behind his house and explains how in 7 minutes the water forcefully rushed into the house and ripped out the facade.

At a couple in Gulpen-Wittem who are still doing a lot of work in their home. After last June’s rising water, they again placed sandbags at the doors, the now sweetly babbling brook is flowing directly behind their home. They would like organizations to help them how to proactively protect their homes from future high water but there are no arrangements for that. They are for damage afterwards though.

Husband leans against the garden table as he talks about the interventions he wants to do around the house. The sandbags are still up against the house.

A gentleman in Meerssen who still lives in the garage because the house has not yet been renovated. He is left with a gap between damages and compensation of 80,000 euros that he has nowhere to invoice.

Man shows how he is temporarily living in the garage because the house is not yet habitable again after the floods last year.

All indicated that they had different expectations, perhaps naively, when it was said last year that the floods were a disaster and that the government was going to help them. A year later, that turns out not to be so simple.

How do we move forward?

I see two routes in front of me.

In the short term, I think we need to make the maze understandable. The maze of money flows and schemes that are there for residents and business owners but have dead ends where citizens get stuck. The stories we encountered are examples of this, these people are at the end of such a dead end and cannot go on.

How can the government design such a maze? Probably with good intentions, I know few rogues in government. But still: the government promises something, which is positive, only to design squishy bureaucracy. Why are we doing this? And how come it turned out this way? What can the National Ombudsman do in this regard?

Street in Meerssen where there is still a lot of tinkering and bulky trash and building materials on the street.

In the long run, I think it would be interesting to delve into future events related to this kind of climate conflicts. The people we spoke to, both resident and mayor, are all concerned with the next time this will happen. Because there is no question in their minds that this is not an incident. Something needs to be done in the Geul Valley.

Who is in charge? In part, if still possible, to prevent such major floods from happening again, to warn when they happen and to deal with the consequences quickly and appropriately?

In the hedge along the Geul, you can still see the washed-up grass hanging which was carried away with the flood last year.

Last year, I read many books about climate change and what lies ahead. What should citizens expect from government in this type of climate conflict? And what does this mean for how government designs itself?

This is still a new area for me. So I would love to hear who I can talk to further about that and what to read or listen to about it. Let me know.

(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.

(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 Uğur, 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.