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.


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.