It’s always exciting to start something new. Even more exciting to write a first blog about it. So here it is.
In the fall I started a new major study that will keep me entertained for years to come. I will do this research in the open, I hope we will do this together.
This month I will be sharing a few blogs about this big plan, how I got here, how you can get involved, and more. You can also sign up for my newsletter. This way you don’t miss anything and you don’t have to check this blog or Linkedin yourself to see if there’s something new.
In this first blog I will tell you what I want to research in the coming years.
A month of spaghetti
It’s been a while, but in November 2020 I kept track of what I experienced with the Dutch government for a month. On a timeline you could see which things I did at government counters, whether these counters were automated or manned and which implementing organizations and policy departments were involved. I also looked at what legislation and social value was above it.
It turned out to be a big spaghetti and I wrote this blog about it. Later, together with colleague Maureen Hermeling, I did this exercise with an employee of the Money Affairs desk of the Municipality of The Hague with one of their cases.
I learned a couple things:
For the government, laws and services are always bulk. It has these kinds of timelines with all citizens at the same time, but for the citizen it is always tailor-made and personal. It’s my life, my bank account, my house.
Stress adds up and citizens easily lose the overview, if they already have it. It was a pain in the ass to make this map anyway. Organizations do not take into account each other’s services and the burden this brings to citizens.
There is no joint responsibility with the government. Everything comes together with the citizen, but the government is compartmentalised. Everyone has their own counter. Sometimes even per department, mind you! Each has its own processes, organizational structures and its own funding stream.
On this board you can zoom in on the timeline and view it (in Dutch).
Which perspective do we choose?
In this INNovember 2022,Jasper van Kuijk talks about the four perspectives from which you work as a designer (based on the three lenses of IDEO).
‘Start with the human lens’, of course, but real innovation only takes place when you look from all four lenses.
Collective values are coordinated in a political process and elaborated in laws and policy. When we bring this legislation to the public at the government, we usually first make a business case and then choose the most efficient technical implementation. The usability (the lens ‘human’) is often tested at the end, if we are lucky.
When I place these lenses on my timeline you see them coming back in different layers. In this presentation at CSSDay 2022 I elaborated this with the help of a case from the gas extraction in the Netherlands.
In my previous studies (such as The Compassionate Civil Servant) I came to the conclusion that the government has designed itself as a relay race from law to counter. In doing so, it easily forgets the social purpose (the yellow layer) and finds it difficult to take into account the living environment of citizens (the blue layer).
The green and pink layers become a world in itself, a system world that becomes leading for what and how the relationship between government and citizens is.
In recent years, there has been an increasing call for government policy and services that does take into account the perspective of citizens, how legislation works out for them in their lifeworld (human lens) and whether this will lead to the society we envisioned ( social lens).
At the same time, implementing organizations experience that this is a problem. They are not designed to take this into account. They are driven (and financed) from silos and have to deal with sometimes volatile political wishes and technical debt from the past.
How can this be done? That is what I want to find out in the coming years.
Together with TU Delft and the government’s implementing organizations, I will work on this issue step by step in practice. That means together with you.
How we’re going to do that, I don’t know exactly yet. But it is certain that I want to do it openly and from practice. From now on you can follow every step on this blog and find ways how you can participate, yourself and/or with your organization.
The easiest way to follow this adventure is through my newsletter (Dutch). Here I share updates, summaries, jokes, questions to you every month and I will make sure you don’t miss anything. I will write the first at the end of this month. Subscribe here.
In the next blog I will share my journey so far. A look behind the scenes at how (and with whom) I developed this idea last year.
I increasingly use diagrams, drawings and infographics when I interview someone. Since corona, I often interview digitally. At first I found this very inconvenient and impersonal, but I also discovered the benefits. Precisely because it is digital you can very easily draw together and organize information schematically.
In this blog some examples of how I approach visual interviewing and some tips for getting started yourself. I think it would be fun to organize a workshop or meet-up about this sometime, so I’d love to hear if there’s enthusiasm for that.
“I can’t draw at all” is the first sentence that rolls out of many people when I introduce this method. That changes when we get down to business and the interviewee loosens up and finds it easier and easier to tell and participate. And at the end, “now it’s much clearer for myself, too.”
I call it visual interviewing, drawing together, schematic conversation, picture talking… Think of a nice name. It means that as we talk, we directly visualize how things fit together. This can be done, for example, by making a mind map together, a timeline or some other useful arrangement. During the conversation, you put all the information directly in the right place, which helps both of you get to the point and immediately see if the story is complete.
And yes, you may also just use text while drawing.
A few examples
Janet Ramesar and I created a timeline together. That one went back ten years to the present. On the timeline, we posted her experiences with child care subsidies. You could see it getting more and more complicated over time. By lining it up like that, you saw cause and effect very clearly. It gave us a foothold to broadly capture the story in a short period of time. We created the entire timeline in a 1-hour zoom session. Janet told, I shared my screen and posted what she told directly on the timeline. If I misplaced it, she corrected me: ‘no, that should be first. That one should be more to the right’. It gave us both something to hold on to.
I later used the timeline format myself when I charted a month out of my relationship with the government. And I applied it in a project for Werk aan Uitvoering where, together with Maureen Hermeling, I interviewed someone from Loket Geldzaken of the Municipality of The Hague (on my blog I called him Puzzler Patrick). The three of us thus mapped out complex case histories involving debt.
At the Ombudsman, during a series of interviews with colleagues, I used not a timeline but a drawing of the organization. The key question was “how should we organize our own activities to have a greater impact on the government?” In each interview, we drew together a new picture of our ideal organization. While making that drawing, I kept asking why-questions. What I learned from those conversations I described in the blog about a professional listening standard. This is the basic drawing I used as a start for the conversations (i.e., before everyone started shuffling around with it and making a new drawing):
At the beginning of the corona crisis, I got to work for a while with the team that made the corona apps at the Ministry of Health. From Jasper, my husband I had just received an Ipad at that time. I took it along on my visits to the local health organizations (GGD) and outlined with the staff the source and contact tracing and the bottlenecks they experienced. For example, we made these kinds of sketches:
Last example, also with the Ombudsman. In a short brainstorm about signals and complaints as input for research topics, we drew them so you could immediately see the extent of the signals and the overlap with the rest of the topics. This was a first sketch that we could develop later.
Why it works
Drawing together just works nicely. Even in on-site conversations, it’s easy to grab a flipchart: “Shall I draw it out?” and the confusion of speech disappears like snow in the sun.
Digitally, it can be done just as easily. You share your screen, you draw how you envision it, and the other person can immediately respond, “no, you have it all wrong, it should be just like this.”
Creating together means organizing and structuring the story together. It is immediately tangible. You can see it before you. You catch the words in focus before they slip away.
The input is the output. You have the basis for the result and documentation ready immediately after the interview. After talking with Janet, I only needed an extra hour or so myself to make everything neat and write out the keywords. After a check from her, it was finished.
Talking digitally is much less impersonal this way. You are working together. You don’t necessarily have to see each other at all, because you share your story equally and are creative together. That activates even though you are both sitting behind a remote screen. And as an added bonus, you won’t have to type out another stack of post-its or flip charts after the event.
This is what you need
a digital drawing tool. I use Miro, but you can also, for example, connect your Ipad to your laptop, draw along and share your screen. Or use another digital tool, there are plenty of them.
a basic architecture. Think about how you will set it up in advance. Are you creating a timeline? A schematic of the organization? A mind map of questions and answers? Or something else? In Miro, you have handy ready-made templates that you can use.
Skills to sketch visualization. It doesn’t have to be perfect right away. Thinking out loud “hmm how shall I portray this” is fine. The other person then also helps, and you give the other person a chance to make together. In a master class taught by Stefanie Posavec (known for Dear Data), I learned the basic techniques for working visually. I wrote this blog about it and later gave this workshop about it at DUO.
program to video call and share your screen
For advanced visual interviewers:
also give the other person editing rights in your program. Then take time for a brief intro and explain how the drawing program works. I set aside at least 10 minutes for this and do some practice together. Sometimes it is difficult and it might work easier if I draw and ask questions myself. The other person then thinks with me and gives me drawing instructions. That’s why I call it visual interviewing, because you help the other person tell their story in pictures or diagrams.
Enthusiastic to also draw together with your colleagues or the person you are interviewing? I hope this is of some use to you. It is fun to see how you tackle it, so please share your results with me (and others!) too.
With increasing talk of algorithm supervision, it is important to know how a third-party study of algorithms can be conducted in government. Preferably in such a way that day-to-day implementation processes are not disrupted but according to the principle that government shows itself.
Since January, I have been working with a very nice group to design a work method for this. We focus mainly on the fixed, ‘dumb’ algorithms and not yet on self-learning algorithms. In this blog, a behind-the-scenes look at our approach, initial observations and two questions for you.
I can just see it
When I had just finished the study The compassionate civil servant, I was sitting with Marlies van Eck on a terrace in Utrecht toasting. She mentioned that she had a follow-up idea to her dissertation (on legal protection in automated chain decisions). Her main conclusion was that, as a lawyer, she could not say whether citizens were sufficiently protected because she could not see the algorithms. The government was a black box, so how can you test whether the decisions it makes are right?
Over my beer I said “but, how weird, because at the Executive Agency of Education, where I worked, I can just see them’. Of course, I immediately began to doubt myself when I said that, but I looked up the photo interview of Cees-Jan talking about decision rules from which the code is then derived. And I mentioned that we were also working to derive the calculation tools on duo.nl from these decision rules so that, as a student, you can simulate how the computer will decide in the future how to pay off your student debt.
Opening and viewing
I am reminded of our conversation frequently because “being able to see the algorithm” is central to this research.
Marleen Stikker writes in her book The Internet is Broken that you only really own something when you can open it up to fix or change it. If you can’t, as with most contemporary technology, the device owns you. Can we open up government’s computers and see how they decide and possibly change that if necessary?
This area is still relatively unknown. The Dutch Tax Service has developed a method for making algorithms testable and explainable. The State Audit Office and accounting firms are preparing for this new task. The General Audit Office has developed a review framework. Recently, the State Council issued a report on automated law enforcement, among other things.
But what is suitable for a financial expert may not work for a researcher who wants to do a legal check. It is also tedious for an implementing organization when different disciplines and organizations consider the use of algorithms at different times and burden the implementation with questions. Both for researchers, and for implementing organizations, a more integrated approach is important.
Say no more. So with a group that I spontaneously get imposter syndrome from, we started in January to experimentally design a method for this. The group: Marlies van Eck, Steven Gort, Abram Klop, Robert van Doesburg, Mariette Lokin, Carlijn Oldeman, Giulia Bössenecker and me. Colleagues from the Executive Agency of Education and the Social Secutiry Bank are cooperating and offering us their automated decisions as trial material to design the method on.
What we want to achieve
Allright. We want to develop a working method for conducting third-party research on a government organization’s use of algorithms. To this end, we have formulated a thought scheme:
We study how the use of algorithms can be examined simultaneously legally, financially and model-wise[topic].
because we want to know which discipline would like to see which research questions answered[rationale].
so that we understand the least burdensome approach to a multidisciplinary and comprehensive assessment[significance].
To keep the research sufficiently concrete but also manageable, we propose that the working method should meet the following four objectives:
the working method allows a lawyer to make a judgment on the legality and propriety of the system,
the working method allows a data scientist/ information scientist to make a judgment about the quality of the system,
the working method enables an accountant or internal controller to make a judgment about …[to be completed, see also help question at the end of this blog],
the working method is suitable for repeated use in various public organizations.
Designing the method
In a series of on-site making days, we will work with a government organization. Lucky for me: the first 2 making days are at the Executive Agency of Education in Groningen where I live.
To arrive at a working method that can stand on its own within a few months, we take an embedded and iterative approach. But we must remember to design ourselves out of the method as well, and thus critically examine our bias. We learn by doing: we dive into an algorithm and record our process. Then we reflect on our process and make it explicit. What comes out of this is potentially the method we want to develop.
This is how we shape the creation process:
Together with the Executive Agency of Education, we chose a few automated decisions that are part of the big decision whether or not a student will receive a student loan: the nationality test, the age test and the partner test. Beforehand, we were given the sets of decision rules of these three tests to study firmly.
We decided to look from three perspectives or levels of abstraction. Different questions are important for each perspective.
Perspective 1 is the algorithm itself. How does the decision come about?
What are the decision rules dealing with the nationality test?
What sections of the law are the decision rules based on?
How are the decision rules programmed?
How are they included in the work instruction?
What data is needed and what are sources?
How is the decision explained to the student (user) in personal and general communication?
What interaction does a student (user) have with the algorithm and how does this influence the decision?
Perspective 2 is the creators of the algorithm. How does the algorithm come about?
Who (what roles and also individuals) are involved in the creation of the algorithm?
What considerations were made in the creation of the decision rules?
On what basis do these individuals make these trade-offs? What personal bias is there?
Is there documentation of this creation, and if so, what is recorded here and for what purpose?
What is implicit and difficult to make explicit here? In other words, what do we not know (yet) or cannot know (anymore)? How does this come about?
Perspective 3 is ourselves, the supervisors so to speak. How does the method come about?
How did we proceed? What questions did we ask? What worked well and what didn’t?
Which questions belong to which discipline (lawyer, accountant and information scientist)? Is there any overlap? Were all disciplines able to get their answers? How do they reinforce each other?
What knowledge and expertise do we have that allows us to ask these questions?
Can we reproduce our process next time? What would be different?
‘How crazy it is here’
The first day of making was wonderfully chaotic. We were flying in all directions, asking all kinds of questions, and Jean and Cees-Jan from the Executive Agency of Education were infinitely patient to answer all questions. Sometimes we ended up in heated discussion about the way the organization was organized, only to conclude after an hour that that shouldn’t matter at all for the method. Or as Steven so aptly noted, “I couldn’t care less how it is put together.” :’)
After this day of making, Marlies wrote a first blog with her observations and I made a video for the scientific guidance committee and the sounding board group.
The second day of making went a lot more structured. In preparation, I visualized on a digital board all the steps from law to decision. I asked Cees-Jan if he could fill in everything from another decision (the partner test). This was not so simple because the information and docs had to come from all sorts of nooks and crannies of the organization.
I printed what I got (or left a step open) and put the steps on the floor. Underneath I put 3 long sheets of paper for the questions the lawyer, accountant or developer could ask. Perspective 1 and 3 are below each other. We took all afternoon to fill them out and see if we could get answers directly from Cees-Jan and colleagues (perspective 2).
An impression of what that looked like:
In two weeks we will have make day 3 at the Social Security Bank. That will be uncharted territory for me, fun! We are going to look at the age and partner test in the state pension.
In preparation, I digitized the large board we made on the ground at the Executive Agency of Education. It became a version with questions and a blank version for the Social Security Bank colleagues to fill in themselves. We are going to test this prototype and see if this is already a tool for self-assessment to show as an organization how your algorithm comes about and makes a decision.
Through this miro board, you can better zoom in on the prototype. You can also post comments here, and feedback is welcome!
You can see that the accountant’s perspective has no questions yet. Here we are still searching. Auditors are very busy around February and March because of wrapping up the previous year. So we haven’t been able to include much input from that side. Do you know more about this or know someone who can help, let me know.
And of course: feedback in general. In this blog, I describe our making process and show the prototype. I’m curious what you think of this and how it would work in your organization. After design day 3, we would like to update our prototype and share it with organizations to use without us for self-assessment. So we want to learn from your findings in turn.
If you would like to help with this, please send me a message. You can do so through maike @ klipklaar.nl or the other known ways. Thanks!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
For some time I have wanted to write about documenting research. Whew, you’re thinking now, never mind, that’s not a sexy topic. Important though, so in this blog I show very specifically how to properly capture research results. I work for the public service as a civil servant, so I might as well give away my secrets 🙂
Earlier I wrote about why good documentation is important. If you want to work openly, getting your documentation right is a must. At the Executive Agency of Education, where I work, it comes up every year in our good research intentions. And it’s important if you want to make decisions as an organization not on gut feelings, but based on an understanding of your user.
What is good documentation?
The same rules apply to recording your research as to any information. It should be:
accessible: anyone in your organization can access it (and if you work openly, anyone outside)
findable: the insights are searchable and the information reaches the right people
understandable: enough context for every reader, even if you are new to the team
actionable: clear conclusions and recommendations that you can deploy and they are well substantiated
Most research at organizations goes hand in hand with development or policy teams who then work on it. That means working in short iterations. The easiest way is to document each step directly. Your research file will naturally grow with you. I do that in 4 steps:
I begin with the research question. This is also usually the reason for the research.
I write and show how I handled it. What is the method, who were involved?
What did I learn? Based on what?
How do I proceed?
It works best when all the research is together and not scattered among departmental disks. Different teams sometimes work for the same user. Standing all together, they can easily use each other’s insights. And when something contradicts a previous study, you can see that. This is how you learn as an organization (without endless meetings, hehe!). I wrote this blog about it earlier: Everything we know about the customer, we all know.
From audio to drafts to blog to essay
An example. For the portrait series The Compassionate Civil Servant, I also tackled it this way. I began with an interview. I recorded that in audio and photographs. Later I listened back to everything and sometimes wrote 10 A4 sheets of paper. I also used Happyscribe for this on occasion, but writing on paper works nicer for me. In my draft, I marked the main points I learned. I looked for any additional context to that (desk research). I summarized everything in a blog with recommendations for myself on how to proceed in the research. After 17 interviews, I summarized all the insights in essays on The Compassionate Civil Servant.
When I document a research moment, I not only tell what I discovered, I show it. I provide examples and substantiate conclusions with quotes, in text or audio, and visuals.
You should not believe it because I write something, but for the evidence that comes with it.
From Henk I no longer have my drafts, but from Johan I still do. Especially for you here they are on the blog.
Another example: CoronaMelder
Over the summer, I walked along with staff from the Public Health Service in their work to fight the coronavirus. I was not allowed to make recordings, so I typed along live with every conversation. On my laptop, I made folders with a document per visit, or sometimes per person I spoke to.
After the visit, I went through that again. First to correct all the typos of fast typing. Then to discover patterns that I underlined. Different subjects I gave their own color. For each topic, I worked it into an insight. We shared those insights, along with the context of the research and the observations on which it was based, on Github.
What themes were the interviews about? What did I see while walking along? How did employees work with all the systems and with each other? Did something come back regularly, how?
When listening in with a source and contact tracer, for example, it looked like this. Green highlighted is about how the Covid measures are told, orange how people respond to them, yellow how contacts are mapped and blue is about the systems used. We found green and orange information especially important when designing the notification CoronaMelder sends via your phone. For comparison, here is the documented research from that day.
It’s not just about what people say, but what you see, what people do and what happens around you during a research moment. In one of my first visits, several employees told me that they have to work differently all the time. “At every press conference another change is announced and we have to do our work differently.” In the corridors I saw flip charts always showing the new approach, the old sheets lying on the floor in the corner. This follow-along day then led to this insight“The process changes every week.
In all this documentation, you can see exactly how I go from“what did I see” to“what do I know now” to“next step. At CoronaMelder, all research and insights are published on Github, and searchable in Sticktail (the program the researchers work in). That way, the whole research file is together and our wisdom as a team and as an organization grows “naturally” as we do more research.
What to record and what not to record
Of course, there are limits to what information you keep, how you do it and for how long. Consider the following
information about individuals. Of course you ask permission for the research, but you usually don’t have to tell in your documentation exactly who it’s about. Sometimes video footage is fine, do ask extra permission for this if you want to share it. (I usually send it too: ‘look, this is how I used it in the report’).
information that is irrelevant or outdated.
information that should not be shared. This is especially important if you work in the open. Where is the cut and what should not “go out”? Consult on this and discuss who determines this and on what terms.
And make sure your information is easy to find. I use categories and tags on this blog. At the Executive Agency of Education, like at CoronaMelder, we work with Sticktail which also makes tag-based searching in all your research easy. Give documents and folders good names that everyone can understand (not just you). That way you never lose track.
Documenting will never be completely sexy, but hopefully this will get you a long way. Good luck!
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