A day with a court bailiff

A few years ago, someone close to me called “what should you do if a bailiff comes by?” I didn’t know that at the time. Only on the third page while stress-googling I came upon a link to the Ombudsman with what you can do and ask. And what to actually expect.

This week I accompanied Hans van Dijk, court bailiff at GGN Zwolle for a day and saw the other side. The CJIB arranged this for me in my neighborhood. In this blog what I experienced and learned.

Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

I did not take pictures during the day. For this blog, I use photos of random doors from photo site Unsplash with the search prompt door AND dutch.

What the day looked like

A quarter to 9 I stood along the highway, first some coffee. What exactly are we going to do today? Hans showed a bin full of colored folders in the car. In each folder a letter or official document that we we’re going to personally drop by someone’s house. Sometimes it was an announcement and sometimes it was to seize someone’s property or salary. On top was an iPad with an app opened with more background information about the file behind the letter. For example with communication between the debtor and GGN, and whether more claims were also known.

We went driving, crisscrossing the city. Between visits, I was explained what the different types of letters mean and what Hans experiences as a judicial officer. I told about my research and we thought about how government services could be better for the people we visited.

Photo by Quaid Lagan on Unsplash

On one of the first addresses we gave someone a huge scare. The partner was not at home. That’s what the letter was actually for. The debt was huge. “I don’t know anything about that, how is this possible?” Leaving the letter, we had contact later in the day via a call. “Come up with a good proposal on how you could pay this off. Think about it for a while.” And also, “Do you have help to deal with this?” “No, I’m actually trying to piece it back together myself.”

“We don’t talk about money in the Netherlands,” the conversation between us in the car continued. “Also the other way around, if you ask someone ‘how much do you make?’ we always say ‘not enough’ and make a joke.”

We drove down a street: “This is where I’ve passed by every house a few times.” We got out and walked to the address on the letter. A traffic fine that had now risen to 3x the amount. “For these kids, it’s normal for the bailiff to come by. They grow up with this, it’s hard to do it differently themselves then later.”

What does seizure and settling means

In a short time, I learned a new jargon. When a claim reaches the bailiff, it has already come a long way.

For example, a claim for not paying your health insurance. Suppose you skip one or more months. There can be all sorts of reasons for this. Then first the insurer will send you a reminder or demand letter. When you fall 6 months behind, a signal goes to CAK and you become a so-called “defaulter. This also moves the debt from a private insurer to the government. At CAK, your health care premium goes up. You can make an arrangement here that you pay off the debt and go back to your own health insurance company and pay the normal premium again.

If you don’t, CAK will check if your employer can pay the premium directly to them. If all that fails, they transfer the claim to the CJIB. This is the government collection agency and they will send you letters again to try to collect the debt. Up to this point, it’s all called “the amicable phase.

Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

If CJIB is also unsuccessful, the claim goes to a court bailiff. Who first brings a letter to announce that a restraining order is coming. Two days later, the bailiff may come by with the restraining order. This is called “signifying. After 2 days of still not paying, the bailiff may seize things you don’t need.

You can still “settle” then. That involves agreeing on a way to pay. The bailiff then looks at the amount of debt and the latest repayment date. But they also look at your situation. Do you manage to repay sooner so you can get rid of it sooner? This is also in the creditor’s interest. If all that is not a tenable situation, because other claims are also coming your way, they will work with you to see what is possible. Sometimes they even advises the creditor to waive the (entire) claim.

If the bailiff is unable to reach a settlement or an agreement cannot be made, they can also seize your income from your employer. This is called “third party seizure. When multiple creditors want to do this, the bailiff who seized first takes coordination for how the money is divided between them.

These double seizures are quite complicated. In an earlier blog, I wrote about how stakeholders want to improve the existing situation and how a human-centered design approach can help with this.

For a couple of years now, the bailiff has been making a home visit for public debt first to announce the situation and engage in conversation. Sometimes you can then come to a solution immediately. If this does not happen, the process of service, injunction, seizure and third-party seizure still follows.

A train or river?

When I write it down like this, it seems like a process with a beginning and an end. A kind of train with stations where you could basically get off at any time. As long as you take action and open the door. At any time, in theory, you can pay the whole amount or through an arrangement.

Photo by Margaret Polinder on Unsplash

As we drove from address to address, I realized it was not a train at all. Most of the addresses were repeat visits. “Last year I had to impound his car,” he said. “A few months ago I was here too, but then with the mother.” “He just paid all the debts, but this is another seizure. And I see there’s another claim coming as well, hm, that really should have gone along with this.”

For most people, debt seemed more like a river that just keeps flowing.

Someone opened the door, took the letter: “Yes, all right, I’ll give it to the mcb.” Municipal credit bank. When I met with someone who worked there in my city last week, they said: “We try to help mainly with early warning and coaching, so that people can get a grip on their situation themselves.”

Photo by Ilnur Kalimullin on Unsplash.

The questions I take with me

What services can the government (re)design to reduce or even contain this river? Over lunch, we discussed how, on the one hand, some people have completely lost control of their finances. What do they need?

Some debts felt so meaningless to me, too. A fine with surcharges of which you could have already insured your car three times. Or being months behind in paying off your student debt when you can also use wildcards. You just have to know and be able to arrange it. How can you design for this in your services?

And on the other hand, a complete one-sided focus on individuals is also unjustified. Traffic fines are intended as an incentive for traffic safety. Paying off your student debt is an obligation to society. Paying for your health insurance makes sure we all have access to care. It seems so contradictory at times. I wrote earlier about looking both ways when it comes to government services.

Photo by Antonina Bukowska on Unsplash

A colleague at CJIB said in their interview, “It doesn’t have to be opposite. It seems like a contradiction, but it’s not. In an enforcement task, you can also be service-oriented. Someone has a right to that.”

If they are not opposites but can complement each other, what does that look like? So what kind of services do you make? Do services earlier in the process, such as an app with debt oversight, help make a dam in the river? Can the government set boundaries in a way that also helps you, the debtor, to hold on to control?

And what does your team and your organization need to do this? That is ultimately my research question. Subscribe to my newsletter to get answers to that in the near future.

Continue reading?


Trusting the process is not enough

A well-known saying among designers is trust the process. Indeed, since I started working in government 10 years ago, as a designer of (digital) government services for citizens, I have often heard and said that you have to trust the process. In this blog, I tell you why that’s not enough when it comes to government services.

This blog is a summary of my first scientific article “More than the process: exploring themes in Dutch public service practice through embedded research. This article was published at IASDR2023 and you can download it here. Want to follow my research on government services that are good for people? Then subscribe to my newsletter (in Dutch).

About government services

In many Western democratic countries, the state’s job is to provide health care, education, safety and social security. We do this by translating laws and policies into public services. The classic image of a government service is an official with a stamp behind a counter, but today services are increasingly digitized. This has significantly changed the government as an organization and the interaction with government (Bovens & Zouridis, 2002).

Public service organizations are in in the lead of connecting government (and its laws and policies) with citizens (with their own needs). A public service organization can be 100% government or even completely commercial, or something in between. My research focuses on service organizations that are truly government: government service organizations.

I do my research in the Netherlands. Here we use the word “the implementation” to refer to these organizations, but for a few years now there has been a change. After years of austerity and a few service scandals, the call for more human touch is sounding loudly. This leads to all kinds of change programs to government service organizations within these organizations.

A proven way for delivering human-centered (public) services is to design them human-centered. With the rise of digital services, human-centered design practices have emerged in many government organizations worldwide. But applying this new competence is not without struggle. So write, for example, Bason (2010), Clarke (2020), Downe (2020) and Greenway & Terrett (2018).

What is human-centered design?

Human-centered design is a field that goes back decades. There are now even ISO standards for service excellence (ISO, 2021) and how to design it (ISO, 2019). An important part of this is the service user’s experience. To what extent can users use the service effectively, efficiently and satisfactorily?

There are all kinds of design models for making good services. The common denominator: a combination of divergent and convergent thinking, an iterative way of working and involving users in the design process.

Seven years of blogging in the mix

In 2017, I wrote my first blog about my work to create human-centered services in government. In the archive you will now find a long list of blogs.

Together with my promoters Maaike Kleinsmann and Jasper van Kuijk, I took a close look at all these blogs. We wondered what we can learn from all these practical experiences. What dynamics do we see that affect how government services are made?

Our research design looked like this schematically:

Schematic research design

We divided all the blogs into four projects that followed each other (in part). I will go through them one by one.

Project 1: setting up a UX research practice at DUO

I wrote the first blog about my work at the Executive Agency of Education (DUO) in 2017, and when I left the team in 2021, I created a summary of all 98 blogs up to that point: the structure of research.

I noticed that the impact of user research remained low. In fact, the process was often finished by the time the user research was done, the website was pretty much done, the system could not be changed, and policy always took precedence.

User research did not fit the way development teams worked. There was no overarching direction on user feedback and no tools such as customer journeys to give development teams guidance. To change this bottom-up was a considerable undertaking, and it was not a priority to better structure the governance of this.

You can see the position of the UX research team in the context of the organization in this drawing:

Schematic representation of the organization’s structure and positioning of the UX research team.

Delivering services that meet user needs required taking users’ perspectives into account much earlier in the process, I noticed. Thus was born the next project.

Project 2: The compassionate civil servant

This was the research project for my master’s degree on the role of empathy for citizens among digital government creators, also at DUO. I previously shared the results of this research on and you can read the work in progress in detail in the archives of this blog (2018 – 2020).

I used photography to reflect with colleagues. This is how it went:

I had four key insights:

  1. Participants do not know where citizen responsibility ends and government responsibility begins. As a result, they encounter dilemmas they do not know how to deal with. For example, should a loan for young students be very accessible online or contain hurdles?
  2. Participants do not experience space for their own humanity. They should be neutral and simply implement the law, but go through all sorts of things that impact them: reorganizations, political changes, unclear communication and their own insecurity. Reflective conversations lag behind as a result.
  3. Participants do not have an overview of how citizens experience the service and therefore do not know their part in it. Processes and responsibilities are divided. Each one does his piece and passes the relay baton to the next without knowing exactly how it will proceed.
  4. Participants do not have the skills or feel the freedom to act on feedback from citizens. As a civil servant, you work for the minister and it quickly becomes political, they think. The hierarchy goes from top to bottom: the ministry together with parliament makes the law; the execution executes.

These four insights come into play at different points in the law-to-counter relay, as you can see in this drawing:

Schematic overview of where the four insights impact the law-to-counter relay.

Project 3: the CoronaMelder app

For the app, I did part of the user research at the Ministry of Health. You can read back all the blogs via the tag coronamelder.

I chose the corona app as a counter example of how it can be done. The design and development team came together in a special way, using the Covid crisis conditions to engage users at each iteration. This successful way of working was confirmed by the Dutch ICT Review Advisory Board (2022), among others.

But success shines less when you look at the app not in isolation, but as an interaction point in the entire service, namely source and contact investigation. Responsibilities to combat the coronavirus were divided between the ministry and regional health organizations (RHOs). The dynamics between these organizations led to a less effective app, and this in turn impacted the overall service.

So even though there is a lot of design freedom and users are well involved from the beginning, that does not necessarily make for a successful service. We need more. Apps and services are part of a larger eco-system, as this drawing shows:

Schematic representation of the relationship between the ministry, the 26 RHOs, the user and the design team.

Project 4: A month from my own relationship with the government

I explored that larger eco-system by keeping track of my own interactions with the government on a large map for a month and mapped the government’s side of it as well. This project was the starting point for my doctoral research. You can go through the map yourself on this Miro board.

Fairly simplified schematic representation of my own relationship with government.

I learned that laws and services for government are always bulk and collective in nature. For citizens, it is always personal. The total of the interaction adds up, as does stress, and citizens soon lose track. After all, you must be a total nerd to want/be able to make such a map :).

The lack of oversight makes it difficult for citizens to manage their relationship with government (Keizer, et al, 2019). Government service organizations do not take this into account because each organization has its own processes, structures and financial flows. There is no overarching responsibility of the entire relationship with the citizen.

The specific dynamics of government services

What can we learn from these government service projects?

  1. There is tension between collective and individual values. What constitutes public value is defined and discussed by political parties, in public debate and in parliament. Project 2 and 4 show that it is left to the government service organization to translate that collective value into individual experiences, without having the skills or guidelines to do so.
  2. Government services should be inclusive for all. Not every citizen has the same ability to manage their relationship with government. Commercial organizations also want to be inclusive, but the government has a monopoly. If you don’t manage as a citizen, you have nowhere else to go. Designing for inclusion means involving a wide variety of users in the design process, but as project 1 shows, this is not standard practice. Fortunately, Project 3 shows how this can be done.
  3. A top-down, hierarchical culture hinders focus on the user. Government organizations operate in a political context (with political reckoning). Read: you work for the minister and less for citizens. Project 1 shows that UX insights were only allowed at the operational level and did not influence strategic decisions of the organization. These dynamics are further explained in project 2. Project 3 shows, because of the team composition and nature of the Covid crisis, that this political culture played a smaller role.
  4. User feedback competes with policy implementation and ICT changes. Changes around policy and ICT are invariably prioritized higher than citizens’ experience with service delivery. In project 1, you see little room for user feedback in the way the organization works. This is further encouraged by the focus on the legal aspect of policy, as shown in Project 2. Project 3 shows precisely that with the right capabilities and priorities, user feedback can play an essential role in how a team works.
  5. Government service providers are part of a larger services eco-system. Organizations are part of an interplay of policy departments and other service providers, some of which have even been privatized. In project 4, you see how each organization makes its own translation of the law (or parts of it) into services and takes no responsibility for the impact of it all on citizens. The culture behind this is explained in Project 2. In Project 3, you can see this in the dynamics between the ministry and the RHOs.

Two outsides

Comparing the outcomes of the projects with the literature on human centered service design, I certainly see opportunities for more human touch in government service delivery. But this is easier said than done.

The theory about (making) good service is unruly in the practice of government organizations. For example, the political hierarchy contradicts with the first principle of service excellence (ISO; 2021): “manage the organization from the outside in.”

One would then say that we need a 180-degree turnaround in government, but that does not do justice to the democratic nature of government organizations. The challenge for government service organizations, then, is both to manage the organization from the outside in and to be accountable within the democratic context as well, and thus to listen to two outsides. This is what it looks like:

Schematic representation of the service eco-system within which government organizations operate, including the two outsides.


If we want to create truly human-centered government services, we must embrace human-centered design at the strategic level in organizations (Project 1). An organizational culture that enables this is essential for this (Project 2). But even if the organization has the required capabilities (project 3), this does not mean that the entire service is good for people, since government organizations are part of a service eco-system (project 4).

To make service standards and design processes applicable to the context of government service delivery, we need to adapt them to deal with the specific dynamics of government organizations.

When we do this, it will hopefully enable government service organizations to help citizens achieve their goals in life, even if they need different services from different organizations. Government as a whole must work beyond silos, and begin orchestrating the experience of government services for citizens.

What’s next?

Further developing these standards and design processes is, of course, a nice task for me in my doctoral research.

The first thing I want to do in the coming period is to define some concepts further. I use the term government service organization, but the specifics of this can be explored in more depth. I am going to look at it from different perspectives: from the public administration field, the service literature and from the design field. I envision it as a scale that you can start defining from different dimensions:

This fall I am working on this conceptual framework. Then I will create a research design to research in practice how Dutch national government service organizations learn to improve their services.

If you want to know more about this, read on in these blogs about:


Bason, C. (2010). Leading public sector innovation (Vol. 10). Bristol: Policy Press.

Bovens, M., & Zouridis, S. (2002). From street-level to system-level bureaucracies: how information and communication technology is transforming administrative discretion and constitutional control. Public administration review, 62(2), 174-184.

Clarke, A. (2020). Digital government units: what are they, and what do they mean for digital era public management renewal? International Public Management Journal, 23(3), 358-379.

Downe, L. (2020). Good Services: How to design services that work. BIS Publishers.

Greenway, A., Terrett, B., Bracken, M., & Loosemore, T. (2018). Digital transformation at scale: Why the strategy is delivery: Why the strategy is delivery, London Publishing Partnership.

Keizer, A. G., Tiemeijer, W., & Bovens, M. (2019). Why knowing what to do is not enough: A realistic perspective on self-reliance (p. 157). Springer Nature.

ISO. (2019). ISO 9421-210 – Ergonomics of human-system interaction – Part 210: Human-centred design for interactive systems. Geneva, Switzerland, International Organization for Standardization.

ISO. (2021). ISO 23592 – Service excellence – Principles and model. Geneva, Switzerland, International Organization for Standardization.

ISO. (2021). ISO 24082 – Service excellence – Designing excellent service to achieve outstanding customer experience. Geneva, Switzerland, International Organization for Standardization.

Adviescollege ICT-toetsing (2022). Evaluatie Ontwikkelproces CoronaMelder. Den Haag, Adviescollege ICT-toetsing.

All 43 references I used in the article can be found here.