Not part of a category How do you do research? Promoklip

Open action research

This month I write about my new research on government services that are good for people. I wrote the big plan and the journey so far. In this blog you can read about the approach and an initial planning for the coming years.

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Choosing the approach

A number of personal considerations quickly helped me decide how to approach this research. For several years now I have enjoyed working across government, from the perspective of citizens who have to deal with the entire government. During my master’s, I really enjoyed the critical sparring with an external institute. I therefore contacted TUDelft to find such a construction again. In the form of a PhD research I was able to find both an excuse to work government-wide and to collaborate with a university.

But… I am not concerned with ‘just’ producing new knowledge. No, I want us to learn how to work from a human perspective in practice at the government. And of course I have developed my own design and research skills in a certain direction in recent years, which you have been able to read on this blog since 2017.

An approach that fits well with all of this is action research. To me that is open action research because I blog about every step. Not only the result is open, but the process while we are working. So you have every chance to adjust the process!

Combining practice and theory

Action research is not your average scientific research. It is a much more practical approach, which is why I will not be working at the university in the coming years, but at the government’s implementing organizations itself. To research from the inside in practice together with colleagues.

Research that starts from the problems generated by organizational contexts and focuses on change requires a radical reappraisal of the relationship between knowledge and action, and of the related image of the ‘academic researcher in an armchair’.

Van Marrewijk, A., Veenswijk, M., & Clegg, S. (2010) ‘The organizing reflexivity in designed change: The ethnoventionist approach’, Journal of Organizational Change Management, 23(3): 212‹29

Action research has a number of properties that suit me and the issue well. Action research is:

  • in the situation: it requires direct involvement with real and complex problems in the natural context
  • relationship-based: we learn through relationships with stakeholders who all have different perspectives and contribute in their own ways to understanding and solving problems
  • focused on change: together we look for ways to initiate, promote and manage change
  • reflexive: we continuously (in action) critically consider our own practice; I as a researcher and together with all participants. We learn together and an open and explicit learning process is created.

From: Giuseppe Scaratti, Mara Gorli, Laura Galuppo and Silvio Ripamonti. Action research: knowing and changing (in) organizational contexts. In: The SAGE handbook of qualitative business and management research methods: history and traditions, 2019.

Reading tips

In the near future I will learn more about this way of doing research. During my master’s I learned a lot of practical skills and now I’m also immersing myself in the methodological background. In addition to the article from the previous section, the following books are very helpful to me:

  • Introduction to action research, social research for social change by Davydd Greenwood en Morten Levin. This book provides a good overview of the background of action research and a number of examples of different trends and approaches.
  • The reflective practitioner by David Schön. I already read this while making the photo interviews from The compassionate civil servant. Very good book about reflecting while you are in the middle of it all, about reflection-in-action.
  • Doing action research in your own organization by David Coghlan. I’m reading this one at the moment. Much corresponds to the approach I also used with The compassionate civil servant, but it is much more extensive and explains action research in a more fundamental way.

Role of this blog

If you’ve been following my blog for some time, you might find it super logical that I’m going to write about this research. That’s how it feels to me too. But in the near future this blog (and the newsletter) will have an important function.

I once started writing as my own archive, for myself and the handful of colleagues who might also find it useful. Later it became a place to document my research results and after that a place to participate in the social discourse about the human dimension in government.

Since October I speak to my supervisors Maaike Kleinsmann and Jasper van Kuijk every month. They noticed that I often quickly determine how something should be interpreted when it comes to government. “Yes, that’s just how the government works,” I say. I have been a civil servant for 10 years and, through this blog, I hear so many stories from you about how your organization is doing, that many things are so self-evident to me. That’s all tacit knowledge that I myself sometimes don’t even know I know.

By writing I make my own thoughts and choices explicit. And by sharing you can react to it and add knowledge and new questions. This is how we reflect together in action.

Then the schedule

This is a long-term project. It will certainly take several years. Overall, I look at it something like this:

Year 1, we are in the middle of this, is a year of preparation. Important is:

  • setting up the project and connecting with you and other stakeholders
  • dive into the literature and build a foundation for the years to come
  • make a concrete research plan for the following years, including agreements with organizations, make a data management plan, pass the ethics committee, and probably more that I can’t yet oversee
  • working on my own skills, because it’s quite a different story doing PhD research

Year 2 and 3 I will work in practice together with public service organizations. For example, I might come to work in your organization and together we create a service from A to Z from the perspective of the citizen. Together we reflect and learn. In the coming year I will develop this further and I will also share which criteria such a case preferably meets.

Year 4 consists of finishing. Insights become shareable and beautiful end products are produced. This will be very practical and applicable for everyone who helped and theoretically in the form of a dissertation.

In the next blog, which will be online soon, I will share more about the first year, especially about diving into literature.

Not part of a category The compassionate civil servant

How to reflect

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

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

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

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

Methods and experiments I designed

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

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

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

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

Gabe: “making the implicit explicit.

My inspiration and influences from the work of others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is reflection allowed to have consequences?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you do research? Visual working

Documenting your user research well

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:

  1. I begin with the research question. This is also usually the reason for the research.
  2. I write and show how I handled it. What is the method, who were involved?
  3. What did I learn? Based on what?
  4. 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.

From raw data to wisdom

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.

In my interview with Henk as a compassionate civil servant, this process looked like this (from the “behind-the-scenes” video made by Aljan Scholtens):

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!