I notice a strong and persistent reluctance with Dutch civil servants to use the word citizen. Apparantly because the Dutch word ‘burger’ carries overtones of ‘kleinburgerlijk’, petty bourgeois, of bourgeoisie, and of the general disdain university students voice for ‘burgers’ (with ‘burger’ being bandied about as an insult amongst them, which gained national usage through the 1990’s Jiskefet satirical tv program). Many civil servants said to me they think the word citizen is ‘old fashioned’.

I find this not only an oddity, but also detrimental to public governance and potentially dangerous.
Not using the word citizen obscures how in the relationship to government citizens have basic human rights, specific constitutional rights, and some duties. A citizen has autonomy and a certain power vis-a-vis the government.
Not using the word citizen, easily obscures that power and those rights to civil servants.

I hear civil servants talk about

  • ‘customers’, usually in the context of providing public service
  • ‘clients’, often in the context of the social domain, reminiscent of how therapists talk
  • ‘inhabitants’, usually a hand-wavy acknowledgement that other people are involved, but in an abstracted, passive or even statistical way,
  • ‘users’, usually carried over from an IT related context
  • or worst case ‘residents’ as if you’re institutionalised.

In all these cases it creates either a distance to people or implies power assymmetries. It makes it easier to dehumanise people. The consequence is the creation of policies about people, but not with those people, because people are never perceived to be on equal footing. Policy gets done over people’s heads, done to them. Participatory processes are then easily reduced to a ritual, a checkbox to mark, something that is a pain and a drag without which your policy process would be so much more efficient. Clients, users and inhabitants are never equal to those who determine policies, whereas citizens would have to be met eye to eye. Acknowledging people as citizens would require curiosity about their needs, motives and actual experiences when developing policy.

Every civil servant I’ve worked with cares about good governance and public service, and individually they wouldn’t treat people as passive objects on which their policies operate, but collectively in their work context they do abstract people out of the equation. And their own choice of words contributes to that, makes it more likely to happen, I think.

In conversations with our public sector clients I always talk about citizens with emphasis. I often also introduce myself as citizen (not as consultant e.g.).

In our projects we always emphasize the need for civil servants to go outside, to check their data and documents against the reality outside, and as often as possible create conversations with real people, with citizens.

With the drive towards ‘data driven’ work, this is ever more essential. Data must be presumed to always describe only a sliver of reality, and to always do so badly on top of that. There is always a check against reality necessary when you want to start relying on data in policy decisions. Visit the places and the people represented in the data, do you recognise them? Do you have a sufficiently nuanced, detailed and rich view on an issue before making a decision? Do people’s stories validate the data, is their meaning incorporated?
Acknowledging people as citizens is also essential to being able to see and use government data publication as a policy instrument, meant to provide agency to people in the context of societal issues and as equal partners in addressing these issues.

Hight time for the public sector to use the word citizen routinely and meaningfully again.

Favorited How Big Tech Runs Tech Projects and the Curious Absence of Scrum by Gergely Orosz

I see scrum used at different levels of quality in different settings, and especially where the focus shifts from delivery to the rituals around enabling the delivery it becomes a drag quickly. Then there’s the ever increasing backlogs and the partial implementation where scrum delivery collides with the rest of an organisation not being ready to pick up on what’s delivered. (HT to Alper Çuğun for surfacing the link in his rss feed)

The success of companies and project management approaches is not always correlated and this story is a reminder of this…..the organizational structure of Big Tech greatly impacts how teams can – and do – execute. …. When talking to engineers at Facebook, Whatsapp, Google, Netflix and similar organizations, most of them have never used Scrum. Should companies dismiss Scrum and other methodologies just because most of Big Tech has done so? … There are many contexts in which switching to Scrum makes perfect sense

Gergely Orosz

Following the political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan with interest, the only proper but still fragile democratic republic in Central Asia. I worked in Kyrgyzstan during a few years, 2014-2016, and met a people fiercely proud of their democracy. A democracy that is not easy to maintain in a country where poverty is significant (22% below the poverty line last year), and where Soviet era aspects still echo in the legal framework and in the attitudes towards power of some. We worked on using open data to overcome some of those hurdles, and I encountered hihgly motivated people everywhere, from the then prime minister and the state secretary for economic affairs, members of parliament, officials in data holding government institutions, to the local IT companies, a struggling free press clamoring for access and transparency, NGO’s, and all the way to local primary school teams wanting to use open data to better show parents which schools still have space for more pupils in their free lunch provision programs (remember, poverty). All of those I met want Kyrgyzstan to be better. To function better and more equally, to reduce corruption, to provide agency to people, to provide better public services, to get out of poverty. It seems from afar they are at a new inflection point on their still young path of democracy. Reading the headlines I think of the many people I met and their energy and intentions. I just got a message from Kiva I have room to provide more micro credits again, and will, like I do frequently for countries I’ve worked in, spend it on supporting underbanked (budding) entrepreneurs and students in Kyrgyzstan.

And then think of the fragility in democracies elsewhere, here in and adjecent to the EU.

Replied to Filtered for Small Groups by Matt Webb (Interconnected)
It’s a crucible for exploration and creation… but this isn’t a team on working on a single project together. It’s about independent work and feedback. Says Mulholland: "An ongoing relationship provides more effective advice, allowing the use of shorthand for concepts and a two-way conversation that autodidactic education lacks." He asks: "What is the SMALL GROUP for the 2020s?" – and gives some boundaries: around a dozen members; mutual accountability on personal projects through regular presentations. It’s a powerfully engaging question.

Came across this in Peter’s favourites. I think a useful perspective on the described small groups is community of practice, which opens up a range of aspects you can address to steward such a group.

Groups like that are imo key for some of the things Matt describes because they provide the right kind of instrument right at the organisational level where complexity resides, somewhere between the small scale/individual and the statistical. The level of interdependent factors where new ideas, momentum, innovation, and feedback emerge.

It’s also why in networked agency I see a small group as the unit of agency. A small group of people with mutual connections in a specific context and with a specific interest or issue, getting their hands on the tools and methods right for them. People, a shared context/domain and issues one cares about are the three pillars of community of practice again.

Bookmarked The Tethered Economy (papers.ssrn.com)
As sellers blend hardware and software—as well as product and service—tethers yoke the consumer to a continuous post-transaction relationship with the seller. The consequences of that dynamic will be felt both at the level of individual consumer harms and on the scale of broader, economy-wide effects These consumer and market-level harms, while distinct, reinforce and amplify one another in troubling ways. Seller contracts have long sought to shape consumers’ legal rights. But in a tethered environment, these rights may become non-existent as legal processes are replaced with automated technological enforcement.

Bookmarked for reading (found in Neil Mather’s blog). Actual cases of ‘tethered’ economic transactions where a buyer is bound into an ongoing relationship with the seller with an uneven power balance, are already easy to find: John Deere suing farmers for tinkering with their tractors (with Deere claiming they never sold a tractor but a license to operate the software on one), insurance and credit companies remotely disabling a car upon a late payment, or Amazon removing books you bought from your Kindle (1984, actually, of all possible books!)

Outright ownership, the right to fix, the right to tinker, are all essential things, and key ingredients to keep your (networked) agency. While I understand the business model decision behind software subscriptions, it does make me increasingly uncomfortable because of the forced ‘eternal’ relationship with the seller.

Mooi woord van Karin Spaink, de nippertjeseconomie. Hier wat afschaven, daar een bochtje afsnijden, voorraden minimaliseren en alles just-in-time. Op het nippertje gaat alles goed. Meestal.

In complexiteitsdenken betekent een ver doorgevoerde efficiëntie wel het afbreken van veerkracht en wendbaarheid. Dat is niet zo erg voor heel voorspelbare zaken (als A dan altijd B), maar wel als complexe vragen zich aandienen. Ik spreek dan vaak over de broosheid van systemen. Broos omdat ze geoptimaliseerd zijn voor een hele smalle groep situaties, een heel specifieke niche. Broos omdat ze het niet meer aan kunnen, of erger nog, volledig in de weg zitten zodra er iets buiten dat spectrum gebeurt. Dan kieper je ineens van voorspelbaarheid in de chaos: heb je net in een paar jaar tijd de IC bedden in Nederland met zo’n duizend verlaagd (in 2017 hadden we er nog zo’n 2100, dit voorjaar net over de 1000) want dat is efficiënter, gebeurt er iets wat meer van je verlangt en wordt de zorg zo overbelast dat alleen drastische maatregelen het nog enigszins kunnen inperken.

Die chaos ontstaat uiteindelijk niet door de zich aandienende verandering, maar juist door de starre efficiëntie van je eigen structuren en systemen. Was je bij voorbaat al in het complexe domein gebleven, het domein van voortdurend waarnemen, bewustzijn van samenhangen en wederzijdse invloeden, en bovenal voortdurend situationeel schakelen, was ‘rolling with the punches‘ waarschijnlijk makkelijker geweest tot nu toe. Dat vergt wel op voorhand wat bewegingsruimte, dingen op reserve, niet alles op 1 paard zetten, maar op meerdere en zelfs ook tegenstrijdige paarden tegelijkertijd wedden.

Omdat je op die manier meer leert over de aard van de vraagstukken die je op wilt lossen, en een verscheidenheid aan oplossingen ontdekt in plaats er op voorhand eentje kiest en in beton giet. Energie overhouden om ineens van koers te kunnen wisselen, of een sprintje extra te kunnen trekken. Dingen achter de hand houden. Maar dat is, tot het nodig is, niet efficiënt op de kortere termijn.

Ik had ooit een manager die het verschil niet zag tussen efficiënt en effectief. Dat is het begin van broosheid. Want het verbeteren van de opbrengstenkant heeft altijd meer ruimte in zich dan wat is te winnen met het beperken van de kostenkant, want die heeft een harde ondergrens die meestal vrij dichtbij ligt. Een van die opbrengsten is handelingsruimte, en juist die wordt in de nippertjeseconomie vaak drastisch beperkt.

Het maakt een veelheid van onze systemen broos, doordat we de onderlinge afhankelijkheden tussen allerlei zaken uit zicht poetsen en negeren, om op ons specifieke stukje van een vraagstuk efficiënter te kunnen zijn. Omdat ze geoptimaliseerd zijn voor druk uit een bepaalde richting maar niet uit een andere. Zoals een been wel goed kan tegen belasting van bovenaf, maar niet goed tegen torsie en draaien. Broos omdat we in een nippertjeseconomie leven. Mooi woord.