Behind the scenes retrospective blog 2023

Around the turn of the year, I usually write a review of the past year. And this year, of course, it is about my doctoral research.

The 2022 retrospective blog was about how I set up my research on government services that are good for (the) people. Since this year, I have been sharing an update every month with a nice group of readers on how things are going behind the scenes. That actually makes writing this blog more difficult, because I have so much material now. Death by data is what they call it at the university. All right, let’s get to work!

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On a beer mat

Every doctoral research project begins with an exploration of what we already know, to build on that. In the spring, I devised a strategy for this with my supervisors. The best strategy should fit on a beer mat, but a napkin will do as well.

Year 1 research strategy on a napkin from the cafeteria
The research strategy on a napkin

The plan is to do a theoretical exploration as well as a practical exploration. That last one is bonus. I already have a lot of practical experience which happens to be neatly documented on this blog. A shame to do nothing with that. These two explorations reinforce each other and together form the basis for further research.

In March, we saw that there was a very interesting conference in the fall that my practical experiences fit perfectly with. Only the deadline was already in April! It may be that I learned how to write a scientific paper in four weeks then, and I actually still need to recover a bit from it. But it worked and the article was also accepted. In October I presented it in Milan and, of course, I wrote a nice little blog for you about the results: trusting the process is not enough. ✅

Then the theory

I did/do need more than four weeks for that. And this is an understatement. Wow, how hard I find this. Fortunately, I really like reading and writing, but it’s really different from what I’m used to.

In May, I took a course in Philosophy of Science for PhD students. I learned things that my sister was already learning during her undergraduate degree in college, but with a backhround of an applied college student, it was new to me. The question “what is knowledge?” was central, and the course helped me immensely to read texts more critically and to better substantiate my own arguments.

I wrote several blogs about these first steps in science:

Over the summer, my promotor Maaike Kleinsmann and I spent three days visiting Karlstad University, where Jasper van Kuijk, co-supervisor lives and works. Here we decided to adjust our strategy for theoretical exploration. We cut it into two parts.

Part 1: because my research is actually in three fields, the literature I want to use is also scattered (and a lot!). We are first going to make some good working definitions and properly conceptualize the phenomenon we are studying, government services, from those disciplines. I use this research framework:

Research Framework
From three disciplines, I zoom in on “my” phenomenon.

Part 2: then from that inner circle we are going to do a good search for everything that has been explored before me. I’m going to look at different sources:

  • case study research on improving government services,
  • research about the practices of officials who create and deliver government services, and
  • so-called “practitioner self-reports,” you know, those idiots from practice who keep a blog about their work ;). But also organizations that once shared a blog, a case study in their annual report, etc. They are not scientific sources (yet), we call it gray literature, but there is valuable info in them that I would like to have included.

To collect all this, I am going to collaborate with master students. And with you of course, you’ll later hear how. But wait, this is 2024 already, I’m doing a retrospective.

An official GO

In October, I had the 12-month meeting, as we call it in Delft. After the first year, you will present the progress of the first year and show the potential of your research to a committee of the university and an external expert.

It was a super fun conversation, with critical questions about the project and at the end a unanimous recommendation to move forward ✅.

In November and December, I worked on the conceptual framework on government services, and gave a series of presentations at my employer: the Executive Agency of Education (DUO). In fact, I was facilitatied to do this research last year by DUO, and I thought that was really special 🧡.

As an advisor, I thought about how DUO can grow from implementer to service organization. I helped with a number of concrete projects such as how we can set up checks of the move-out scholarship differently. And I ended the year with a workshop on my research for the board and tactical management. I also gave a super short summary at our employee event that you can read back here: Executor and Service Provider.

Working openly

Then I would like to say something about “working in the open” in this study. If you have been reading my blog for some time, you know that I share a lot. I find that super fun and it also helps me think.

I noticed last year that the time lines in science are much longer than in practice. Often I was pondering what to write next, because yes, you spend weeks and months on the same thing. Also, you don’t want to give away too many of your insights on your blog if they still need to be in a scholarly article. But I also don’t want to be a gatekeeper of interesting insights, because that’s exactly what we need in government.

I find it a tricky area of tension at times but I have built it up like this now:

  • This blog for short thoughts and to elaborate on something a bit more so that I can ask for feedback from you on it. And of course it will be on the blog as soon as I can share something that is finished.
  • The newsletter, where I can ask you questions even more easily, share loose snippets and communicate about the progress.
  • My second brain in Notion, parts of which are public and which I share through my newsletter. And parts of which are also nicely not public because it’s not finished yet, I’m free to think there and because occasionally what it says is also just crap.

I find working openly more difficult than when I started blogging. That’s because this is the most difficult project I’ve done so far and I am therefore insecure to share intermediate steps that could also fail. And because there are many more people reading along. Sometimes I miss the time when I was still messing around in a corner of the Internet without anyone noticing and caring.

But by working openly, I also learn a lot from you. Last year, more than ever, I received feedback from you on how certain things are going in your organizations, questions that are prevalent and insights from the field as well as from other scholars (hello, new audience). This is very useful for my research, so I will continue this approach in 2024 ✅.

How it continues, well, you’ll have to follow my newsletter for that or wait patiently for another blog to come online.

Have a good 2024!


The journey so far

Last week I shared my new big plan: working with government colleagues to figure out how to create and deliver services that are good for people. What does this mean for how the government as an organization is or should be?

In this blog I tell about the journey so far. It started exactly one year ago, in January 2022 and took many cups of coffee, video calls, thinking, reading and pondering. Many of you have already helped. I like to make this journey transparent, for accountability and for your interest. Who knows, if one of you has research plans of your own, I have some tips for you below.

I blog about this research: about the content, the approach and the process ‘behind the scenes’. Every month I summarize everything in my newsletter. Subscribe and don’t miss a thing.

A vague idea

I had had a vague idea for some time to continue with the topics fromThe compassionate civil servant, a study that I completed in 2020. I wanted to find out how we as digital government can have an understanding connection with citizens. It resulted in a portrait series of colleagues who talked about how difficult it is to make good services for citizens – very interesting – but I didn’t yet have an answer to that big question, I thought.

I learned a lot about myself in those two years. I like to study. I like doing something difficult and having a big goal. I want freedom and space to work creatively and connectively. And I had the dream to, one day, continue studying, maybe even get a PhD?

In the winter of 2020/2021 I noticed more and more that the job I did then didn’t suit me. I walked with my soul under my arm, because what was I supposed to do?

I actually called Jasper van Kuijk for something else, but suddenly I blurted it out. “By the way, I’ve had a vague idea for a fun study for a while.” I told him about it. And Jasper said: “But you have to come and do this with us, in Delft!”

At the beginning of January, a year ago, we agreed to spend an entire morning discussing the vague idea and seeing if there was anything in it. And it turned out: there was. ✅

Industrial design at TUDelft

At that time I had already looked here and there at other faculties in the Netherlands, usually at Public Administration. But when Jasper told about Delft, it felt very familiar.

Combining service design (my field) and public administration (my context) often means speaking two different languages. I noticed later in conversations that I had to use different words with other conversation partners. That a pitch in administrative language fell dead with fellow designers and vice versa: that a pitch with too much design-mumbo-jumbo did not appeal to a director.

I decided to organize the academic accountability of the research in Delft, where the language is familiar to me. Because I don’t want to find out what user-oriented services are – a world is already known about that – I want to know how we can do this in the government.

Jasper van Kuijk is my supervisor from Delft. He is an assistant professor and researches how organizations deal with user-oriented design and innovation in practice. Since this summer he is also affiliated with the University of Karlstad in Sweden. ✅

Together we looked for a professor who fits the issue and we almost immediately ended up with Maaike Kleinsmann. She is professor of Design for digital transformation in organizations, and my promotor. She is also head of the Design, Organization and Strategy (DOS) department, the department where I have been working since October 1. ✅

How to get a PhD?

I read books about getting a PhD, these helped me the most:

  • Handboek buitenpromoveren by Floor Basten and Kerstin van Tichelen, with all the practical steps you need to take before, during and after your PhD.
  • Promoveren als bijbaan by Meike Bokhorst and others with all honest stories about what it’s like to get a PhD. (Horrible, you’ll love it!)
  • The craft of research by Wayne Booth and others about doing scientific research.

In February I wrote a first draft (Dutch) of the vague idea. Warning: it was still very vague. I sent it around to some people for feedback. I got that, and how! ✅

In April I decided to stop early with my job the Ombudsman. From May until the summer I gave myself the chance to realize the plan with the aim of starting sometime in 2022. Sink or swim, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll look for another nice job.

Gallons of coffee and hours of pitching

When you come up with an idea for a PhD yourself, and don’t apply for a PhD in the traditional way, you have to arrange everything yourself. I needed a few things:

  • validation of my idea in my domain: what did directors of organizations think about the research idea?
  • participants, a research context, places where I can collect data
  • a sponsor, because you also have to pay for it yourself

One of the first conversations was with a director of the Central Judicial Collection Agency who discussed the plan thorougly with me and gave me a lot of tips. She arranged for me to give a pitch at the Social Security Bank. I combined this with an afternoon of discussions at Novum, their innovation lab. Later, my sister, who recently started working at the Employees Insurance Agency, arranged for me to give a pitch there as well. There I also got a look behind the scenes of their new service plans. And of course I spoke to my own directors at the Executive Agency of Education, who offered to facilitate the first year 🧡✅.

I spoke to many more nice colleagues in the government. With all the feedback I kept adjusting the draft until so much had to be changed and I wrote a second draft (also Dutch). Last week I summarized this in this blog.

Pitch to a group of designers at IxDNL in Utrecht

In addition to the draft, I made a cost overview, a schedule and a global plan. When pitching, I also asked directors to consider participating in the research at a later time. (In future blogs I will share more about how you can collaborate.)

I officially started October 1. ✅

Ready set go

The first three months were pretty chaotic. I got to know TUDelft, had a team outing (curling with scientists!) and started with the first monthly fun conversations with Maaike and Jasper, after which I really didn’t think every time ‘holy shit, what have I begun?’.

I did a first course in Qualitative Research Methods for PhD candidates at Erasmus University in preparation for my own research approach. I made a plan for the first year of doing research. And I got to know my new team at the Executive Agency of Education that I’m joining this year.

But that’s what the next blogs are about, which will be online soon.