(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).