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Reframing leads to new solutions?

When you have been dealing with tough issues for a long time, it is sometimes difficult to find a breakthrough. It can seem like a problem just can’t be solved. These types of “wicked problems” are complex and constantly evolving. There are all sorts of parties involved that often have competing interests.

In government, we have enough of this kind of tough problems. In my research into how we can make government services that are good for people, I come across them regularly. I am currently researching how the government designs services for people in debt.

In my research, I look particularly at government organisations themselves. How do they learn and develop their own skills to better serve citizens? If you want to follow this research, subscribe to my monthly newsletter.

Kees Dorst, a professor in Sydney, wrote the first design book I read 8 years ago as a junior designer in government: Frame Innovation. He describes a number of steps you can take to see new solution directions for tough issues. You do this by thinking differently: by reframing the problem.

In this blog, you will read about how I am using this method with team members I am working with this year. The topic: how does the government seizure someone’s wages when they fail to pay a debt? This month we organized a collaboration day attended by about 40 people. We are still in the middle of the project, so this blog is a reflection on the approach in between. What do I learn about applying this design method in the government context?

The wicked problem

Many people who owe a debt to a government organization fail to pay it. A person can have all kinds of reasons for that. In the process of repayment, or the collection process as it is called on the government side, there are all kinds of steps. One of those steps is for the government to eventually seize your income. That is a major intervention.

To protect citizens, the rule is that such a seizure must never cause you to fall below the subsistence level. Yet it happens. Indeed, the government is legion; different government organizations do not know from each other if and who has already seized. So it may happen that you do get pushed below the subsistence level because the government is competing with itself to collect a debt.

On large boards, all participants wrote or drew the insights from their organization(s).

Solving this problem is proving to be very tough. There are all kinds of different parties involved that have different structures and interests. That’s partly how it was once set up and partly how it grew. Then there are all sorts of other rules that make it difficult to solve this problem, for example the rules about sharing citizens’ data between organizations. And the problem is also constantly changing. In recent years, we as a society have begun to think differently about debt. From “people don’t want to pay” to “people can’t always pay.

How do you look differently?

To understand and address such problems, Kees Dorst devised a series of steps he calls the reframing method.

Steps to arrive at new solution directions for tough problems.

As a team, in the weeks leading up to the collaboration day, we put together as much as we could of what has been done so far to address this issue. To fully understand the problem, we tried to adress everything that makes it so difficult. Often then all sorts of paradoxes come along. Things that at first glance are a contradiction that makes something fail, but don’t have to contradict at all. We also studied the parties involved. What makes them so different, and where is overlap?

On the collaboration day, we set to work naming key themes and seeing if we could come up with some new frames. How might we look at the issue differently?

During the collaboration day, we used this outline of the steps. This stage is the most abstract moment in the process.

Coming up with a new frame like this is always quite a challenge. Once you get it, you think “yeah, makes sense. But just try to think of it. To do this, you must first understand the problem well and examine it from different angles. A good frame helps you to then be able to formulate a good design question. In turn, you can think of solution directions that you can work out.

An example. A paradox in solving this issue is that the people affected are not involved. We assume that they have so little doing power, after all, they can’t pay off their debts either, that they can’t participate in the solution either. Thus we exclude them of the process unfairly. A new insight is that for a good solution, we desperately need the lived experiences of this group. We need to understand much better how things that are conceived work out in practice.

A good frame then is: the experience expertise of people with debt is the key to understanding the issue. A design question that fits with this then is: how can we position these people so that they can contribute their expertise?

Structure of the day

The collaboration day began with a rolling start. Throughout the room we had placed large signs on which the first steps of the method were visualized. Participants could add to them their own expertise. That content was the material we worked on for the rest of the day.

In the morning, each group engaged in a partial perspective. Are you looking through the perspective of the user, society, organization or technology? If you only look through that lens, what do you see? What makes it difficult and what opportunities do you see?

In the afternoon, we continued with those possibilities and came up with ideas to go with them. Again, we worked out those ideas in groups using a work canvas. This is what we will continue to do as a team in the coming weeks.

What can I learn from this for my research?

One of the participants came up with a wonderful quote. “We look through a straw, but with the citizen everything comes together.” Because government organizations are divided into all sorts of separate functions and teams, there are partitions between everything. There are few people who really have an overview of how things work and what the consequences are in practice. That is also what makes such an issue so complex. Where do you put the cut? Do you need to make the issue bigger? So big that it can’t be handled? But then again, many more people need to be involved, because each sub-issue has its own policy staff and product owners. At the same time, we have the luxury of cutting it up; someone in debt does not.

This paradox is not new to me. In previous studies, even before my doctoral research, I also encountered this often. I previously wrote an essay about it“Is there anyone with oversight?

With the group, we discussed all the insights from multiple perspectives.

On top of that, the pressure not to make mistakes is great in government. Failure is not an option because the consequences are dire. For individual citizens, and a social, political reckoning also follows. Yet we regularly fail precisely because we don’t get a shot at this kind of tough problems. This paradox leads to risk avoidance. Experimentation sometimes seems like a dirty word.

In government, you have to think big, but act small. This is a different approach than how government usually operates. The reframing method, and really any design method embraces precisely making, trying out and testing to practice with real people, and doing so as early and as often as possible.

How can you shape this in government? That is what we are going to work on in a small way, in this topic, in the coming time. And on a larger scale, what does this mean for applying design methods in government? Fortunately, I have a few more years to figure that out.

Want to read more?

  • Dorst, K. (2015). Frame innovation: Create new thinking by design. MIT press.
  • Schaminée, A. (2018). Designing with-in public organizations: Building bridges between public sector innovators and designers. Bis Publishers.
  • I summarized the first results from my own research on design in government in this blog: Trusting the process is not enough.

Mapping the field of design in government

Design in government is gaining momentum in the Netherlands. At implementing organizations, there are more and more design teams and at ministries, service and policy designers are increasingly being hired; the Ministry of Justice and Safety has even started a Makers Collective. External agencies have been setting up design projects with and in public organizations for decades, and the Ministry of Education will soon launch a multi-year program to involve designers in social challenges. Finally, let’s not forget how hot “design thinking” is becoming among managers.

Design in government is hot. But what is what really?

What role do designers have in government? Where in the process do you need what type of design? What does the context of government look like and how does a design approach fit into it? In this blog, a start to form my point of view. To give some insight into what the area looks like, a map to help us have a conversation and explain when we make what contribution. But also maybe as a bit of a provocation, because nothing is more fun than discussing design with designers, ha!

Evolution of the map

The map I see before me does not come out of the blue. In the archives of my blog are all kinds of building blocks and thinking steps I made over the years that led to this map. I’ll explain.

I started an experiment in 2018 in Rotterdam with a yellow rope. I stood on one side, as the government, and asked passersby how they wanted to be connected to me. A simple relationship between two parties.

Me as a public servant seeking connection with citizens.

I built this into a multi-party role-play. I asked students to take position with their classmates, teacher and staff of the Executive Agency of Education (DUO): what role do they themselves, their friends, parents, school, DUO and politics have in the way they deal with student loans. The relationship was no longer a simple dyad.

DUO employees who participated in the experiments all took different positions. That confused me, which made me want to know what role empathy for citizens had for them, in the path from law to counter. I started with this blog and photo-interviewed colleagues to map out the steps. The result: the law-to-counter relay on I placed the relay in the context of the democratic cycle.

The law-to-counter relay at the Executive Agency of Education

I elaborated further by surveying a month of my own relationship and figuring out how the side of the government was organized, including the making of policies, laws and the collective values underneath. I began my doctoral research with this timeline in this blog.

On that timeline, I often got feedback that the bottom and the top were also connected. And that I missed the whole civil society. When I worked at the National Ombudsman, I learned more about the part where citizens have a say and (want to) influence how we organize society from the view point of their lifeworld. For example, by looking into participation in Groningen for the reinforcement of houses.

The maps and experiments weren’t quite it yet.

So I made a new map

Over the past few weeks, I talked to several people about it including Prof. Mark Bovens of Utrecht University’s Faculty of Public Administration to check if I was on the right path. With the feedback, I adjusted the map.

The map consists of two axes. The horizontal axis has the collective on the left and the individual on the right. The vertical axis has above the system world versus below the lifeworld.

This gives us 4 quadrants, and I’ll go through them with you one by one.

System world / collective

Parlement, together with the Cabinet, devises how society should be. Collective values are enshrined in laws and translated into interventions to realize the collective values (enshrined in policies).

A drawing of the quadrant collective / system world

System world / Individual

Those interventions are implemented and embedded in existing processes and services, by government executive organizations and/or private service providers. For example: the student finance is transferred, the hybrid heat pump installed, as well as the trains that are running. Much of this goes automated or is supported by digital processes, hence the softly buzzing data center.

A drawing of the quadrant system world/ individual

Living world / Individual

Such a service does not stand alone but happens in context. I am applying for a grant for a heat pump for my house where I live with Jasper on a street with neighbors. I have family, friends, I am in a certain stage of life. This all affects the interaction and what else I need, in this case, to make my home more sustainable.

A drawing of the quadrant individual/living world

Living world / collective

Individuals unite. In a sports club or neighborhood association to make your neighborhood finer. People seek each other out around an issue and work together to influence and have a say in how we live together as a collective. Civil society, as well as political parties that run for election to represent the people in democracy.

A drawing of the quadrant lifeworld/ collective

Those are the four quadrants.

The whole map looks like this. Pay particular attention to when it moves from one quadrant to another. Interesting things usually happen there.

Then the design field

Although designers have a shared way of working and mindset, we do not all work on the same things and our approaches are often different. Where you are on the map, the issues are different, your design outcome is different, and so your role and approach may be too.

I sketch my own position on the map…

My own design practice plotted on the map

You see: I spent most of my time in the system-world/individual quadrant.

I first was as a user researcher on the overlap between system world and lifeworld, with the individual. I observed as students used Later, on the project The Compassionate Civil Servant, I walked deep into the caverns of the system world. And at the Legitimate I dove into that buzzing computer.

Richard Buchanan (1992) in his “four orders of design” describes the difference between, for example, user interface design and service design. The latter is much more holistic. So now, with my current research on government services, I am going to zoom out and want to touch more of the other quadrants as well.

And then the provocate bit: maybe you can plot other design disciplines this way as well.

A map of design disciplines in government

Social design on the lower left, policy design of course at the policy side, with an additional zoom in for legal design. On the right, of course, UI design. And that doesn’t even include all kinds of other types .. content design, design thinking, systems design, graphic design, organization design, product design … what else do you have?

Are you a designer, in government? How do you plot yourself? And why? I’d love to hear about it so we can learn together what design in government can look like and what you have to deal with in what place.

References and reading tips

The four orders of design come from Buchanan, Richard. “Wicked problems in design thinking.” Design issues 8.2 (1992): 5-21.

A fine book for understanding the roles of all the players in this cycle is Willink, Tjeenk. “Herman, Thinking Bigger, Doing Smaller.” (2018). Publisher Prometheus, Amsterdam

The poetic “softly buzzing data center” comes from Zouridis, Stavros. “Digital discipline: on ICT, organization, legislation and the automation of dispositions.” (2000).

This page lists all the books and articles I use in my research.