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.