We don’t know them because we don’t speak to them. And we don’t speak to them because we don’t know them. As a government organization, we spend a lot of time navel gazing. It doesn’t matter that we mean well and that we’re nice people, what we come up with does not correspond to reality.
We didn’t intended it this way
A couple weeks ago I read ‘Zo hadden we het niet bedoeld’ by Jesse Frederik, a book about the childcare benefit scandal in the Netherlands. It was an extensive exposition of the inside affairs of the government. Of course, it fascinates me enormously with my love for bureaucracy. The last couple years I researched what role empathy for citizens should play in the making of government (debegripvolleambtenaar.nl). I concluded several dark patterns in the way government officials and organizations work together that don’t lead to a citizen centered government. When I read Frederiks book I decided to count the dark patterns I recognized from my own research. My stickers ran out before the book was finished.
In a chat with a colleague from another large government organization I discussed the book. “So what did you think?” he asked.
“Pff, difficult,” I said. “I find it too easy to say ‘we didn’t intend it that way’.” (the literal translation of the book title)
“Are you stricter on your own then a journalist now?”
“Yes, maybe. Because we might not have intended it that way, but it did happen and it is up to us to fix it. ”
A little while later I got to meet Janet Ramesar. Together with her, Marlies van Eck and Arjan Widlak we had the opportunity to write a piece about the childcare benefit scandal. Janet was willing to share her story as one of the parents who was hurt by the affairs. We were not prepared for what she had to share with us.
In one of the first zooms that the four of us had, she explained extensively what had happened to her and what it did to her. The call took hours. I started in my study, took my laptop to the sofa and then to the kitchen. The laptop balanced on the counter top and I made dinner. The food cooled down again and Janet’s story… the misery never ended. Later I helped her to make a timeline of this misery where you can see more clearly how one fiasco is connected to the next.
The government sees itself as separate organizations that implement defined and separate legislation. That makes no sense in Janet’s life. What she experiences with the Benefits Services has consequences for the payment of her rent. Because of being in debt for so long, she lost her job and her child! Which in turn led to other problems with other organizations. At the government, we think we have organized ourselves so tightly and efficiently, but we have blinders on and miss what is going on around us. We think in terms of our statutory duty and the other stuff, well, that’s not our job.
“We didn’t intend it that way.” Yeah, well, maybe we did. I also hear a lot about cracking down on fraud, perhaps it was actually intended this way, but a large part of the officials did not even know what it was intended to be. After all: if you do not know what your part in the whole is, how can you know how your actions will turn out in the lives of citizens? How do you know the consequences of your department and your process?
At the end of his book, Frederik says that he thinks the title of the report of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into the Childcare Benefits is poorly chosen. “Unknown Injustice”. Because he says: “Walk with a bailiff for a day and you will find the dramatic consequences of harsh legislation behind many front doors.”
We could have known
When I first started working for the government, at the age of 25 at the Executive Agency of Education, I was often dizzy. All those departments, all those people: I didn’t know why my work was important. I had no clue. I only just started to understand it when I walked around schools, met students and visited homes of refugees. Then I understood much better why we do our work, why certain processes exist and also what is not useful about what we do. Small things, but also very big things. I started telling those stories to colleagues and just invited citizens to our office. Come by, come in and tell your story. When I started my quest for empathy in the government in 2018, colleagues regularly asked me why this was relevant now. “You had to be emphatic, especially at the service desk, but not if you just did your work in the organization.” When the benefits scandal became more and more in the news, I never had to explain again why it is important to everyone in the government to be a compassionate civil servant. And it starts with knowing. To just meet up and get acquainted.
Take the blinders off
Jesse Frederik writes: “It seems to me an assignment for all of us to never leave such injustice unknown. To prevent our government from ever acting so hard again — whatever work we do. ”
The benefits scandal is by no means the only urgent matter where citizens are stuck. In 2017, I was sitting on the couch with a stomach ache from all the stories I heard from refugees from Syria. This stomach ache is still justified. In the coming period I will be diving into another topic, that of Groningen people with earthquake damage. And no doubt there is a lot more injustice that we don’t see because we still have our blinders on. You cannot outsource the human dimension to a civil servant at the service desk, we must institutionalize empathy for citizens. This means that in every step of designing the relationship between government and citizens, the perspective of citizens must be the starting point and the end point. When making policy, processes, decision rules, or prioritizing for development teams, drawing up letters, interacting through computer screens, determining which department works with which department; we have to organize ourselves around citizens.
Facing reality together
And what better way to do this than to actively invite citizens to advise us as an equal partner. Last week, I attended a meeting about the benefits scandal. Janet Ramesar got the stage and this is what she said:
Duped, victim. Two words used to give us a name. Two words that make us smaller than we are. We are survivors. When the wheels of government drove over us over and over again and destroyed everything around us, we managed to hold our own.
We no longer want to be seen as victims, but as survivors. That is why it is important that new policies, laws and regulations are made together with the people involved. With us. It is precisely through the efforts of us as experts by experience that the distance between the government and the citizens can be reduced.
In the case of the benefits scandal, there is so much knowledge among the survivors, but there isn’t sufficient use of it. That is because we are still seen as people who have made wrong decisions in life and because we are still seen as victims. As people who are not smart enough to help. Other people are hired for that. We can of course give advice for free, but the real thing? No.
We would like to continue with our lives. Due to the benefits scandal, we (like me) are forced to sit at home unemployed after being fired, work in cleaning jobs or have other jobs below our level. If that is ignored we will always stay in the same little dark corner we were put in and we will not move forward.
You cannot regain the trust in the government that has abandoned us by making decisions for us again with people who have been hired just as quickly. But by working with us to ensure that this will never happen again.
I read this morning that the hiring of spokespersons and communication officers from the government has increased enormously during the last cabinet term. What a great idea if these colleagues are going to organize these new collaborations. It would be great if they could not just send and communicate, but listen. That they enthusiastically organize meetings between the government and the citizens to get to know and talk to each other. It seems like the beginning to take off the blinders and give priority to reality.