Executor and service provider

Are government organizations such as the Executive Agency of Education an executor or a service provider? In this blog, I argue that we are both. And that we must learn to connect those two roles.

Last week the directorate at the Executive Agency of Education (DUO) where I work, for those in the know the Directorate of Education Followers, organized an event for employees to explore these kinds of questions. It was a super fun program and I got to talk about my research. In this blog, I share the short speech I gave during the morning program. And of course I was on a stage during this speech so you have to imagine while reading that I was also walking left and right across that stage during the speech.

Imagine a line.

We start here on the left side. This is the side of the collective. On the far right, there on the other side, is the individual.

What the collective finds valuable is not always the same as what an individual finds valuable. There is tension between them.

The side of the collective

Here on the left is where the conversation among politicians takes place. Political parties, together with the cabinet, legislate how we envision society. We just voted again, then we all had a say in how we are represented as a collective. Here it is conceived that we want to keep education accessible. But that it should also not be too expensive. At the time, the majority of the House of Representatives thought the loan system for student finance was a good idea. And last year, the majority of the House of Representatives felt that the basic scholarship should be brought back after all.

Those adjustments are translated into laws and into policies, by ministries. For example, at our ministry, of Education. And those laws and those policies must then be brought to the citizens.

We do that. DUO.

If you look at it that way, it is simple to say: we execute laws. We are an executor.

The side of the individual

Let’s go to that other side. The right side. This is the side of the individual. For example, a student. Who comes from a particular home, with parents, brothers and sisters. Has a certain background, culture, atmosphere at home, at school, a certain upbringing. She chooses a study. Art Academy in Utrecht, or sports at Alphacollege, here in Groningen. Perhaps she is studying law in Leiden.

In any case, what we know for almost certain is that she is applying for student finance. On, logging in with DigiD, she wants the supplementary grant as well. After a year also the move-out scholarship, because she is moving out of the house.

We actually think of these types of students as citizen service numbers. They go smoothly through our systems. They arrange their own student finance, their loan, change their travel entitlement. We rarely speak to them, maybe if they call once. But they only do that when the shit hits the fan. And sometimes not even then.

I have been your colleague for 10 years. In recent years, I worked as a user researcher, investigating how students perceive us. A few years ago, I made a photo series of colleagues. I explored how we make our choices and how to be a compasstionate civil servant in the process. Now for a year I have been doing scientific research together with Delft University of Technology on how to make government services that are good for (the) people.

The value of student finance

Scientific research says about organizations like DUO that we are a service organization. A service provider.

Student finance is a service. Something that allows a student to create value. What is that value anyway? I would say to develop yourself as a person. Leaving home. Travel. Discovering life and discovering your place in it. Education is super important in this. That’s the goal. And that is our mission: to enable this development.

But scientific research also says that such a service organization must then organize itself from the outside in. So all the way around it should be: focused on the user, on the student on that right side. Continually listening and asking: how valuable does the student find our services? What can we improve?

The organization must then be set up with clear accountability over these experiences. Customer experiences then are not a catch-all or nice-to-haves. No golden taps but they are the starting point. Actually even before policy, and even before ICT changes. Indeed, those policies and ICT changes stem from increasing “customer value.

Government organizations have two outsides

But you can’t quite compare government to an average service organization. Because we have that flow from the left too, remember. That is also an outside. And that outside flows very strongly in our organization. That’s how we’re actually set up now, focused on that left outside to execute legislation. And rightly so, because the collective is also the citizen.

You probably recognize those flows. We are all in the middle of it. You might be a little closer to the collective stream. Or you might, on the contrary, experience more that individual side. It depends on where you are in the organization.

But the tension between that collective, what the law requires, and the individual, how it works out for that one student… We all feel that tension.

That is the big task for the coming time.

How can we translate what the collective finds valuable, in our democracy, into individual experiences that students also find valuable?

How should we deal with that tension? It poses difficult questions:

  • What does this mean for how we offer the student finance? Should applying for student loans from DUO be easy or difficult? Super accessible, because there should be no barriers to arranging anything with the government, or difficult, because the loan results in student debt and thus an unlucky generation?
  • How are we supposed to check if someone is misusing the student finance? For example, with the move-out scholarship? We verify on misuse in the interest of the collective. But can this verifying process also be a valuable experience for the individual, or are we really just harming them with the way we do it?
  • How should we measure for customer satisfaction? For that, is wait time at the customer contact center really the most important KPI or should we have more qualitative measurements?
  • Do we actually have a really good overview of the entire student experience? And does that flow get enough space in our organzation at all?
  • And if you see something as a staff member that is not going well with a student, or a group of students, can you go against the flow?
  • Do you dare?

Needed: Compassionate civil servants

In my photo series, I interviewed colleagues about how they are as a compassionate civil servant. And also, why sometimes they can’t be one. You can view the photos and stories at

I want to highlight this one from Mirjam. She was an account manager when I photographed her. She’s actually pretty close to that collective side in her work.

Mirjam, account manager at DUO in the photo series The compassionate civil servant
Portrait of Mirjam from the photo series The compassionate civil servant

Mirjam says, “DUO needs to be a connector.” At the ministry, at the collective side, stand for the student. As a kind of ambassador. This is possible only if that flow of the individual flows strongly in the organization.

“And at the student standing firm for policy.” So showing that collective flow here on the right.

Then you might think, pff, that will be chaos. We just have to embrace that chaos. And helping each other with that.

For that, we need to learn new things.

It starts with seeing both streams as equal. And to have our role in focus. Executor and also service provider. And especially connector of those two roles.

Want to know more?

On this blog, I think out loud how we can make government services that are good for people. I am researching this together with Delft University of Technology and public service organizations such as DUO.

  • Student finance is a service, and its value is in the classroom. In this blog, I explain what this means for a different way of working in government.
  • That government is not a typical service organization, but has two exteriors, I explain in the blog Trusting the process is not enough.
  • If you want to follow my research, subscribe to my newsletter.
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 šŸ™‚

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.