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Full circle research

Yesterday, more than 100 researchers working in the Dutch government met in Utrecht. The government-wide research community held its first real-life event, and the organization had to ask participants to attend with just 5 persons per government organization. If you had told me this 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you. So many researchers already work in government. Super.

In this blog, I share my presentation: about the context in which we work and why researchers are necessary for good service delivery. We look back at how far we’ve come, and also ahead: what will it take to let the lifeworld of citizens guide the delivery of government services? I call that doing full circle research.

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The circle of democracy and service delivery

In my research, I use a division between the system world and the living world, with both a collective and an individual side. This creates 4 quadrants. On the collective side, Cabinet, together with representatives of the people, shape their vision of society. This vision is then translated into laws, policies and services for individuals. Only after interaction between citizens and government does this become a reality in the context of the people themselves, or in the living world. And also in the living world, individuals group together and try to implement their ideas about society, thus coming full circle.

Drawing the circle of democracy and service delivery
Drawing the circle of democracy and service.

Of this circle, people experience mostly the individual side. “People don’t experience policies, they experience services,” says researcher Sabine Junginger (2016). That means the job of public service providers is to translate collective value into individual experiences that are also valuable.

Want to know more about this collective and individual side? Then read the blog Executive and service provider.

That’s not easy. The practice of the system world now is often a big waterfall. It goes clockwise in a circle, from policy to service and pours out over citizens and society. If you disagree, you can show it in your voting record.

It may be different if we collect citizens’ experiences and introduce them, counterclockwise, into the system world. Those experiences can shape how we offer services and how we design services at all. For the policies enacted for it, and yes, perhaps also for the legislation and associated ideas about interventions in society and the effect it will have.

We have to turn it completely around. And we can, because that’s exactly our job as government researchers.

We extract experiences from the lifeworld. We have several methods and techniques to do this properly. Moreover, we are able to share these stories within our organizations in a way that motivates colleagues to take action.

We have shown that over the past 10 years.

How it began

In most organizations, it started with usability testing of websites and other screens. At least for me, too. I started working at the Executive Agency of Education in 2013. One of the first things I learned was how to set up and run a usability test. I visited schools with my laptop under my arm. In the office, I showed videos to colleagues and talked about how students or school employees experienced our digital services.

Look, so cute: my first steps in the research world.

In 2017, I started my blog. I shared what I was learning and what we were trying out. You also started sending me your experiences.

I saw that we were growing as researchers. We went from testing screens to exploring how to improve all interaction moments with government. We learned new research methods and devised more creative ways to share the insights within our organizations. We took a more holistic approach and also tried to get to know the person behind the user.

We worked smarter. In order to scale up, we started to bundle and archive our insights. We started to get better organized and research positions for that logistics side came up.

And then some of us started getting occasional phone calls from stray policy officials who needed to take make sure people could ‘do’ their policies. “I got your name through, maybe you can help me?” We certainly can.

And so with the insights from the living world, we went deeper and deeper into the system world.

So let’s dream on. Where do we go from here? What do I wish for our field?

More quality

To better understand the whole living world, both the individual as well as the collective side, we need to improve our work. For this, we need more diversity in research roles. The field is so large that no one is good at all the research methods we need. Neither is necessary. In the past, we had research teams consisting of one person doing everything, but that is no longer possible. A good research team includes usability researchers, strategic researchers, customer journey experts, behavioral scientists and more. We must embrace the full range of research methods.

Scholars from Sneek think with DUO

Diversity also says something about who we are ourselves. I still too often see a very homogeneous group when I look around. Especially we, who want to test the bias of the government, must also know our own bias. We have far too few people of color on our teams. One in 5 people has a visible or invisible disability, but looking around now, it seems that everyone has an invisible disability. Our teams are not diverse and that is a problem. As a result, we have too many blind spots that affect how we do our work.

Talking to people

I need to get something off my chest. It really should no longer be a problem to speak to respondents. Really. Come on. This is still far too often a problem in organizations. “Then what are you promising them?” “No, the GDPR.” “It has to be efficient.” Human contact, by definition, is not efficient; indeed, it gets better the less efficient it is. We can only do our job if we are allowed to have real contact with citizens. We shouldn’t put up with this stuff anymore.

Scaling up

If we really want to improve services to citizens, we need to expand our activities. It’s great that more and more development teams want to do usability testing in a sprint, but now imagine if all the teams in your organization wanted to do usability testing in every sprint? How are you going to manage that?

So we need to invest more in the organizational side. Contact with people does not have to be efficient, but we can organize our research work efficiently. This requires a different approach for most of us. The creative and human side is strong among most of us, but now it is time to embrace the blue side we know so well in civic service again as well.

Making policies and services together

I see more and more collaboration between policy and implementation, and research is the basis for that. I hope this becomes standard operating procedure in government. So that policies are based on insights from users and along with the developed services are always tested with citizens.

For this we need to stop that waterfall. I know I am raising a familiar point with this, and that we often complain about it. But we are not helpless on the sidelines. We can help stop the waterfall.

Sharing insights = working in the open

As far as I’m concerned, the best way to stop the waterfall is to share your work. Share citizens’ stories. Share how you do your work and what it brings. Also share the moments when things are not going well. In particular, stories about research insights getting stuck in a cumbersome process or on a system that is already finished help us understand how to work differently.

It often falls short of making a good shareable story as well. We are already so busy. To illustrate, I have spent about 1 day a week for years on this blog and giving and sharing presentations. And even now, on Friday afternoon, I am typing out my presentation from yesterday. I do this because I know it helps our profession move forward. Join me and contribute. After all, I only know what I happen to experience and see in Groningen here. Together we can learn much more.

It’s not real until it’s real

It is great that we are conducting pilots, living labs and experiments. But only when a citizen actually experiences better service, we can get coffee. Therefore, it is not strange to spend as much time sharing your work and following what happens with it as you do the actual research. What good is it if you put in all that effort and then nothing happens with it?

Let us strive to do full circle research. We start with the living world, with the citizen, of course. With the insights, we enter our organization and climb up the waterfall. We can. We work with others to adapt processes and systems, to adjust policies and, if necessary, legislation. We then re-examine how to translate those adjustments into individual experiences.

Full circle research begins and ends in the living world.

Full circle researching begins and ends with the citizen.

When I became a civil servant, my then manager Theo said, “Maike, it’s going to take a very long time for you to change anything in government. But if you succeed, you will have really accomplished something.”

So let’s start continue.

Continue reading?

This blog is full of tips on how to research and get your organization on board. For example:


What helps and hinders?

Every research, including action research, starts with a good foundation. In previous blogs I shared the big plan and approach for the coming years. This first year is a preparation year and I mainly work on the foundation: what will I research and a plan how.

In this blog I will tell you about this first step: how I dive into the literature and thus lay a foundation for the research years that follow.

This blog is a summary of this more extensive literature review design. literature review design (in Dutch). This is my working document and changes from time to time. Do you want to follow the research closely? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.

Momentum for good services

Since the benefits affair came into the news around 2019, the human dimension has been high on the government’s agenda. In February 2021, the Temporary Committee for Implementing Organizations (TCU) made recommendations to bring back this human dimension to the government. Together with the child care benefit affair as a trigger, this resulted in the great government improvement program, Werk aan Uitvoering (Work to Execute).

Last week, for example, their the State of Execution came out with a thorough analysis of what is going wrong and could be better in services for citizens and business owners.

And I like it that they now increasingly call themselves public service providers – focused on the citizen – instead of as before implementing organizations – focused on the ministry. I need to update that on this blog as well :).

Landscape of public service providers from State of the Execution 2023

So for several years now, there has been political and administrative momentum to improve government services.

This is good news because in previous years, several organisations were already actively advocating to put services higher on the agenda. The National Ombudsman continuously appealed to the government with his reports. Gebruiker Centraal (User Central) found ground within the government and is increasingly growing as a collaborative effort for and by professionals within the (executive) government.

The report “Knowing is not yet doing” by the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) also created quite a stir in the government. The WRR warns the government that it often overestimates the mental capabilities of citizens. They introduce the term act-ability, as a counterpart to ‘thinking’ abilities.

In this video, researcher Anne-Greet Keizer explains what is meant by that:

As a follow-up to Knowing is Not Yet Doing, the WRR came up with the guidebook From Test to Tools to conduct an act-ability test. WRR member Mark Bovens was questioned by the TCU about the report. In his questioning, and later in the Scheltema Lecture 2021, he suggested that the government should become proficient in service design and UX.

Haa! That’s my area of expertise.

Service design and UX design are certainly not new fields, and government, especially at the operational level, has also made strides over the past decade. In some organizations, there are UX teams, CX officers, customer journey managers, user researchers, etc. There is even an ISO standard for human centered design!

New dilemmas

At the same time, not only the call for more humanity has become stronger, but also that for customization. Both terms are regularly used interchangeably and are not yet defined, according to the Dutch School of Public Administration (NSOB).

Government services are highly automated at most organizations and “going back” to manual handling combined with individual customization on a large scale is not obvious. It also, as the NSOB describes, brings with it all sorts of new dilemmas (including legal ones such as the legality of government decisions). Directors fear that the pendulum will swing the other way.

We seem to be skipping in the momentum that there can also be good (digital) services that are user-friendly and connect to citizens’ lives. I elaborated on this thought earlier in the blog This is not about customization.

A sketch of how not to do it. From the blog: This is not about customization.

What I want to know: how can the government create and offer services to citizens while maintaining both the efficient nature of automation and legal legitimacy but also assuming a realistic perspective of citizen resilience?

The field of user centered service design has already proven itself in the non-public sector and seems to have potential for government as an organization as well. What will it take for this to mature? What are the reasons why this is not working and what needs to change for this to happen? What does this mean for the design and management of our government as an organization?

In short, my main question for this year:

What helps and hinders the realization of user-centric services in governments?

With this (literature) research, I aim to increase knowledge about applying user centered service design in government with the goal of making government services “doable” for citizens.

This will be the basis for getting started in the following years. I naturally devide this main question into a number of sub-questions.

The three most important are:

  1. What is “the state of the art” when it comes to user-oriented design of services? For this, I also need to look at what services actually are.
  2. How do governments create services and how have they organized themselves for this purpose? How does one affect the other?
  3. How mature is the government in realizing (at both strategic and operational levels) user-centered service delivery?

This month I tackle that first question. So prepare for a deep dive into the world of service delivery and user-centered design.

How do you do research? Visual working

Documenting your user research well

For some time I have wanted to write about documenting research. Whew, you’re thinking now, never mind, that’s not a sexy topic. Important though, so in this blog I show very specifically how to properly capture research results. I work for the public service as a civil servant, so I might as well give away my secrets šŸ™‚

Earlier I wrote about why good documentation is important. If you want to work openly, getting your documentation right is a must. At the Executive Agency of Education, where I work, it comes up every year in our good research intentions. And it’s important if you want to make decisions as an organization not on gut feelings, but based on an understanding of your user.

What is good documentation?

The same rules apply to recording your research as to any information. It should be:

  • accessible: anyone in your organization can access it (and if you work openly, anyone outside)
  • findable: the insights are searchable and the information reaches the right people
  • understandable: enough context for every reader, even if you are new to the team
  • actionable: clear conclusions and recommendations that you can deploy and they are well substantiated

Most research at organizations goes hand in hand with development or policy teams who then work on it. That means working in short iterations. The easiest way is to document each step directly. Your research file will naturally grow with you. I do that in 4 steps:

  1. I begin with the research question. This is also usually the reason for the research.
  2. I write and show how I handled it. What is the method, who were involved?
  3. What did I learn? Based on what?
  4. How do I proceed?

It works best when all the research is together and not scattered among departmental disks. Different teams sometimes work for the same user. Standing all together, they can easily use each other’s insights. And when something contradicts a previous study, you can see that. This is how you learn as an organization (without endless meetings, hehe!). I wrote this blog about it earlier: Everything we know about the customer, we all know.

From audio to drafts to blog to essay

An example. For the portrait series The Compassionate Civil Servant, I also tackled it this way. I began with an interview. I recorded that in audio and photographs. Later I listened back to everything and sometimes wrote 10 A4 sheets of paper. I also used Happyscribe for this on occasion, but writing on paper works nicer for me. In my draft, I marked the main points I learned. I looked for any additional context to that (desk research). I summarized everything in a blog with recommendations for myself on how to proceed in the research. After 17 interviews, I summarized all the insights in essays on The Compassionate Civil Servant.

From raw data to wisdom

When I document a research moment, I not only tell what I discovered, I show it. I provide examples and substantiate conclusions with quotes, in text or audio, and visuals.

You should not believe it because I write something, but for the evidence that comes with it.

In my interview with Henk as a compassionate civil servant, this process looked like this (from the “behind-the-scenes” video made by Aljan Scholtens):

From Henk I no longer have my drafts, but from Johan I still do. Especially for you here they are on the blog.

Another example: CoronaMelder

Over the summer, I walked along with staff from the Public Health Service in their work to fight the coronavirus. I was not allowed to make recordings, so I typed along live with every conversation. On my laptop, I made folders with a document per visit, or sometimes per person I spoke to.

After the visit, I went through that again. First to correct all the typos of fast typing. Then to discover patterns that I underlined. Different subjects I gave their own color. For each topic, I worked it into an insight. We shared those insights, along with the context of the research and the observations on which it was based, on Github.

What themes were the interviews about? What did I see while walking along? How did employees work with all the systems and with each other? Did something come back regularly, how?

When listening in with a source and contact tracer, for example, it looked like this. Green highlighted is about how the Covid measures are told, orange how people respond to them, yellow how contacts are mapped and blue is about the systems used. We found green and orange information especially important when designing the notification CoronaMelder sends via your phone. For comparison, here is the documented research from that day.

It’s not just about what people say, but what you see, what people do and what happens around you during a research moment. In one of my first visits, several employees told me that they have to work differently all the time. “At every press conference another change is announced and we have to do our work differently.” In the corridors I saw flip charts always showing the new approach, the old sheets lying on the floor in the corner. This follow-along day then led to this insight“The process changes every week.

In all this documentation, you can see exactly how I go from“what did I see” to“what do I know now” to“next step. At CoronaMelder, all research and insights are published on Github, and searchable in Sticktail (the program the researchers work in). That way, the whole research file is together and our wisdom as a team and as an organization grows “naturally” as we do more research.

What to record and what not to record

Of course, there are limits to what information you keep, how you do it and for how long. Consider the following

  • information about individuals. Of course you ask permission for the research, but you usually don’t have to tell in your documentation exactly who it’s about. Sometimes video footage is fine, do ask extra permission for this if you want to share it. (I usually send it too: ‘look, this is how I used it in the report’).
  • information that is irrelevant or outdated.
  • information that should not be shared. This is especially important if you work in the open. Where is the cut and what should not “go out”? Consult on this and discuss who determines this and on what terms.

And make sure your information is easy to find. I use categories and tags on this blog. At the Executive Agency of Education, like at CoronaMelder, we work with Sticktail which also makes tag-based searching in all your research easy. Give documents and folders good names that everyone can understand (not just you). That way you never lose track.

Documenting will never be completely sexy, but hopefully this will get you a long way. Good luck!