How are you as a compassionate civil servant?

The government is becoming more digital. Citizens want the government to understand them and to show compassion. The human contact between the two is delegated to "the system". How can the digital government have an compassionate connection with people?

As a researcher at the Education Executive Agency (Dienst Uitvoering Onderwijs, DUO), and as a student at the Willem de Kooning Academy, I’m looking into this digital relationship. Students can apply for a student loan at DUO. And DUO manages all kinds of educational data from citizens and institutions.

I photograph my colleagues at DUO as an understanding civil servant. Who are you as a person and what role does compassion play in your work? Together we look at the result. Do you want to change something? I publish the stories on my research blog. All portraits together call for reflection. Together we look at our image. Is this how we want to be as a compassionate digital government?

We should meet students more often ourselves.

I do not always have an overview of the student's experience. Each team is busy with its own sprint and products. You can always look at the roadmap or sprint planning of other teams, but that doesn’t mean that you see the bigger picture.

As a product owner, I weigh the priority of issues that my team picks up in the sprint. Quite a puzzle at times. It takes creativity, knowing how to play the game. You need to be able to resist, but also understand all parties. Colleagues who don't agree with me can approach me. But who is lobbying for the customer? I would like to talk to students more often myself.

Persoonlijk heb ik er een mening over, maar als ambtenaar niet.
Channel strategist

I want my portrait in black and white. Just like DUO, I can’t show my colors. The students loan system, for example, is a legal fact. If that is the case, we must ensure that citizens have all the information they need to make the right choices. In a way that I would like to be able to myself. But what those choices are ... that is up to the citizen.

There isn’t one student who is representative of the entire group. You have to be aware of that. You can never do right by everyone. It’s about having empathy. I should think: how would I feel as a 20-year-old when I am approached that way?

It would help if we have clear criteria about how this connection. What is compassion and when are we compassionate enough? Who should decide? I don’t know.

Being compassionate is to always stay positive. Even if the organization is pulling at you.

Yes, I am compassionate. I like to listen to others. I am really interested in what something means to someone and I always try to find out sincerely. Not only in my job when I speak with customers, but also with colleagues. I think that if you see it that way, you ... how should I put it... you might become a bit less embittered at your work.

You see, it's a political organization. I actually think that only if you manage to keep being interested in people, you can work well at DUO. This possibly holds for all government agencies. You’re working in a very political environment. Sometimes things happen that you yourself might want to see differently. It is such a political playing field with so many different interests.

Architecture should evolve by listening.

Our work is often compared to that of construction architects. An architect speaks with the client, with future homeowners and then designs a house. In retrospect we say of many buildings, hey, they look alike; we name it classicism or baroque. Architecture is evolving. But at DUO we have to think of the entire landscape in advance. That’s crazy.

A compassionate architecture is a changing architecture. It is never finished. We can talk for hours about what a good digital government is, but that no longer works in 2019. What does work is listening, gathering feedback and actually doing something with it. Adjust your services, a little more to the left or right, and do it better.

Empathy is a very unstable concept for a civil servant.
Business analyst

An analyst's work is about change. Changes in business operations and business processes. These usually come from politics or the ministry, after which DUO has to change things. For example with new laws. Analysts are the first to chart what it looks like after the change. We chart the different directions and solutions.

Traditionally, my work is oriented towards the organisation. And not towards the customer. We model business processes. How do I get a product or service from A to B as efficiently as possible? Employees adapt to this, but do citizens do the same?

We need means to be empathetic as a government. For example, a helpdesk employee having some leeway to fix things. The responsibility to make those means lies with me, as an analyst.

What is allowed and what isn't? We learn together by trial and error.
Customer Journey

How I am as a compassionate civil servant ... I find that complicated. We have so many different customers. Every student has his own story and therefore needs also his own kind of empathy. Sometimes that feels impossible. On the one hand, our services have to become much more personal and, on the other, there are very strict privacy rules.

I experiment with digital behavioral influencing techniques, but I find it difficult to decide how far you can go. Where does our responsibility end and where does the student’s begin? In the end, I think we have more responsibility for a compassionate connection than the student. There are a lot of gray areas between all those rules. Let's find out. What is possible?

The human dimension is in our role as link between policy and citizen.

DUO is the connector. We connect citizens and the policies that are made. There is a certain tension on that connection. We can signal that changes in the law will put an administrative strain on a group of citizens, but we do not determine the policy.

You can repeat the policy objective of the ministry, but that is not the only thing what you stand for as an executive organisation. There is more. What do you actually add to that policy goal as an implementing organization, as a connector? And what do you call that?

Our intention is to make a connection between policies and citizens. We can apply our humanity there. That’s a challenge, but it is also our strength. Standing up for the student at the ministry. And when in contact with the student, standing firm for policy and the ministry.

I create a compassionate connection between the student and DUO via the screen.

We talk too much and too abstractly. So not everyone has the same idea of what we are making and for whom. I was in a meeting recently. While the rest were discussing the issue, I was working at my laptop. "Is this what you mean?" I said, turning my laptop. Meeting done.

I am the bridge between the user and the system, at DUO between interaction designers and builders. It feels like interpreting. One is speaking in German, the other in Japanese. I translate the idea of the interaction designer into a prototype, so that a builder can get going.

The added value of a front-end developer to your team isn’t obvious to everyone yet. Many teams have a Java developer who also does the front-end. But a screen that works technically is not necessarily a user-friendly screen.

Business rules remove the disadvantages of empathy from the execution.
Business rule

We translate the law into business rules. These business rules can be programmed into an automated computer decision. Or they are used in an instruction for employees who get to make decisions. These business rules are neutral, consistent and unequivocal.

When making policies, policy makers often think about what can be automated. That is why you should write business rules in a dialogue. How are we going to implement the law and what influence does automation have on the law itself? That is also morally relevant. Which decisions should be made by a computer and which decisions need a human perspective?

As a human I sometimes struggle with being a civil servant.

I often feel unsettled. My job is to explain rules. I used to do that on the phone, now through a website. There is much more distance now and I find that difficult. I used to just ask the other person if he understood what I meant. "No? Then I’ll explain it again.” That’s what I find so difficult in digital services.

I’m the designer of a digital service with which a student has to make choices. To what extent am I responsible for the choice he makes? I don't think I am. But I do have an opinion about it. If you have to take on a loan if you want to study, should I as a designer make it easy for you to do this or not?

I want more light in the photo. Much more light. And very close-up. This is how it should be for me. You can see everything. That is important to me.

I don’t want to be a wall looming up before you when you think about the government.
Online Team

Some people need an instruction manual. I don't think you need one with me. I hope not. It would be nice if you didn't need one for the government either. As a compassionate civil servant, I would just like to be ... I want us to be simple. Not like a wall of ambiguity, complexity and hassle. To be very honest when I think of government agencies, that's what looms up before me.

Nobody at DUO comes to work to sabotage. We all do the best we can. Everyone is a compassionate civil servant, in essence. But due to the digital transformation, we no longer know how to do that: to be compassionate digitally. We have to change, and that is difficult. I want to help that change by being moved by others. By everyone inside and outside of DUO.

I don't have to understand a student to do my job.

There is such a thing as honour. Sometimes things go wrong, sometimes one of the systems of DUO is down. I want to fix that as soon as possible. But you don't need to know a student for that.

In the past technicians didn’t have as much contact with the customer. A few years ago I took my team to the helpdesk. We listened in for an afternoon. I wanted to show them which cog they are in the system. We could fix some things on the spot that we before didn't even know were a problem. Your work becomes more fun when you see your share in the whole. And that is important.

But DUO and the student aren’t the only connection. The ministry is also a factor. We’re increasingly organizing ourselves around IT, but ministries do not. Politics are completely different than software development.