The best of both worlds

8 April 2021
The Hague’s Chief Information Officer, Marijn Fraanje

The Hague is in the middle of a massive restructuring of its technological departments. From five separate offices working on IT, automation, data, digitalisation and smart cities, the city will end up with one single department operated by around 650 people. The man leading the revolution? Chief Information Officer Marijn Fraanje. Eurocities stole some of his time to talk about being strategic with the municipality’s use of digital tools.

The Hague’s Digital Strategy is very broad and covers multiple aspects of the digital transformation in the city, but if you had to choose the most important priority, what would that be?

If I really have to choose, I will say that our main goal is using digitalisation to make the public services faster, more reliable, and for us internally, cheaper. Basically, we want to be comparable to what has happened in commerce, where services have gotten as fast as possible. Today, I don’t think anyone thinks enthusiastically about having to deal with public administration. We hope for a future in which anyone, from their work or from a park, can just log in online, introduce their demand with the municipality, and it’s basically done within one or two days, or even on the spot.

Some would argue this sounds like a dream, how can it become a reality?

It can be implemented in different ways. For example, we already work in a project called ‘My Clean City’ where residents can point to abandoned trash by taking picture of it and send it through an app to the city. The app rewires the information directly to the nearest city agent responsible for the waste disposal and they can get there quickly and solve the problem right away.

What we used to have was: the resident calls the municipality to complain, the information comes through an office, they type it in the system, it goes through another office, and another one, then lands in the hands of the planning department that organises the schedule for the cleaners, etc. From the call to when the city responds, a couple of weeks have passed.

Another example is how we try to prioritise answering residents’ questions right away. We have a two-line strategy where we try to answer most questions directly, and only if the front desk, the first line, is really not able to help, we rewire it to the back offices, the second line. Previously, a lot of questions used to go to the back, and now we use every tool at our disposal to increase our first-line response. We have a physical desk at the municipality, people can call us or talk with a chatbot. We try to provide many options so that every citizen can chose the one they prefer.

What are some of the changes that a city needs to do to make this happen?

Public services were designed in the last century and based on a world running on paper, not a digital world. The problem is that a lot of these processes have slowly introduced digital components, all separately, without thinking about it in terms of process.

From the moment a citizen asks something to the moment that we deliver, how does the process look? And how do we make it as fast and efficient as possible?

Our organisations are still based on the ‘old way’, so we need to review and re-design every process. We need to look at the processes from different angles, from the perspective of the citizen. What are the logical steps for each request to make sure our residents get the right service from us? Which steps are necessary, and which can we cross off? By redesigning the processes, in almost every instance they get shorter, faster and cheaper, because we don’t need the same amount of people to do them anymore.

Does redesigning the processes always go hand-in-hand with introducing as many digital tools as possible?

There has been a trend that promoted digitalisation as a solution for everything. Digitalisation became the goal instead of a means to deliver better services. But that’s not always the best option. Some services are based on a lot of exceptions and are maybe needed once a year. They are still digitalised, but they make the system very complex and expensive.

Now, with each step we re-design, we also evaluate if digitalisation is the faster and better route. Sometimes you choose not to digitalise something because the ‘old way’ is faster and better and more suitable than the digital way. Ninety percent of the municipality services can be done digitally and there are ten percent of cases that are too complex and too hard to do digitally.

Can you give an example where digitalisation would just make the process more complex?

In The Hague, we have a subsidy system that we completely digitalised. We created an enormous system with a lot of examples and rules, which makes it difficult for users to select the right questions, and for us is very difficult to maintain and to handle.

We are changing the system now. We’re looking at the exceptions that are present so rarely that it doesn’t make sense to have them in the system but are better handled separately. The rules to assess certain subsidiary requests are so specific that they are almost impossible to digitalise. It’s easier to send these requests directly to the expert. To build a whole system and procedure around them is more expensive than handing the request the ‘old way’.

Another good example is the service that supports people fighting poverty. For the most complex cases it is better to have an in-person service, because each case is completely different from one another. If you try to go digital, you lose the personal contact and you lose the context of the problem that is being addressed. Not to mention the risk that by relying completely on a digitalised way of handling demands, you might come to the wrong conclusion. So, we prefer to take the extra time in person to really understand the issue and propose the best approach to tackling it.

Yet, in other cases, digitalisation can make a real difference for the better. The Hague is using e-ID technology to smooth out some administrative processes involving multiple agencies, can you give us an example?

We are starting a project called the ‘Red Button Procedure’, which is basically a financial emergency break. It’s directed at people in a precarious financial situation, and we use e-ID and an Identity Management Software to treat their cases. People in financial distress have to deal with multiple organisations, for example the Tax Authority, through this project the municipality functions as a mediator.

The municipality sends a trusted signal through the system to alert all agencies of the situation, without the need to share any sensitive data. Organisations don’t see the complete file of the applicant, they just receive the communication of a ‘risk case’, which is enough information because they get it through a trusted solution that is linked to the e-ID.

This also gives the applicant time and space to get back on their feet. The municipality provides councillors with whom applicants can make a plan to solve their financial situation and find arrangements with creditors.

We want to catch these cases at their first difficulty, so we can prevent it from getting worse. In most cases, when people start accumulating debt, debt keeps piling on and before they know it, they can’t afford rent, and are evicted. Even from a government perspective, it’s cheaper to catch the problem at an early stage rather than later. The e-ID solution helps us do so, making sure everyone is alerted right away, and the municipality can intervene at an early stage to support people in need.

This project is an example of how we want to work in the future when sensitive data and multiple agencies – like local, regional, and national governments – are involved. We want to connect relevant agencies with the necessary information and data in a way that will get us the desired outcome, without them seeing what the outcome is based on.

The Hague’s project ‘iZi Gezond Lang Thuis’, in which seniors test technologies that can enable them to live longer at home, is another good example of a positive use of technology. Can you tell us more?

A senior resident enjoying the robot-cat

We have started this project in collaboration with nursing homes, private companies that develop healthcare technology, and associations that work with seniors. In a retirement home, we created a separate apartment equipped with all kinds of tools and innovations.

We put together a test group of around 100 elderly people and each senior can ask to stay in the apartment for a night to try things out. After their stay, they let us know which innovation they would want for themselves and also recommend to others, or which one they find ridiculous and would rather get rid of. This way we get a first-hand experience on what works and what doesn’t.

We also involve the families of the elderly in the project. They also have a say in the innovations that are in the house and they work as a sounding board for the elderly. Sometimes you need some advice from somebody you trust, someone you can discuss things with. Family members can also call in the help line to get some extra advice and ask questions.

What are some examples of the tools at their disposal? What has worked most?

We have many things, ranging from cameras that let you see who’s at the door and open it, to tools that will remind you to take your medicine. A favourite in the apartment is the robot-cat. It purrs if you pet it, it’s fluffy and looks like a real cat. The elderly people love it! Sometimes, it’s small things like these that can do a lot.

When someone likes one of the tools, they get it, that’s the agreement we have through the project. It would be disappointing if they found something great, but then had to wait two years for it to come on the market. For the companies it is also beneficial, because by testing the product in real-life conditions they can make sure there will be people interested in their product and that there will be a market for it.

Also, some ideas are not purely digital, but design-based. For example, we have carpets that are made in a way that you cannot trip on them, or the kitchen cutlery is made so that it makes it more unlikely to cut yourself. We rely on a combination of digital and practical tools.

This project got us the Smart Cities Award in Barcelona two years ago for the category ‘inclusive and social city’. We were pretty proud about that, and we are now working on upscaling the project to more retirement homes around The Hague.

Many initiatives to be proud of, indeed. What would you say is the key to successful innovation in cities?

Successful innovation can only happen if you develop your projects in co-creation with your citizens and if you test them in real life. We try to implement our projects by involving the people who would benefit from them, and have citizens test them in a real-life situation. So, they can see how the innovation works, if it actually does work for them, or if it is a ridiculous idea that doesn’t work and we should drop immediately.

As part of a redevelopment project in The Hague, we created a digital infrastructure which we use as a living lab to try out new innovations in the public domain. We use real assets, like lamppost, benches, and kiosks to create a digital testing environment that is like real life in the city. And here we test out innovative solutions.

We have tested, for example, a trashcan that goes around the neighbourhood. A robot-bin that goes up to people, and they can throw their trash. We also have tested a beach-robot that picks up cigarette butts, because the normal cleaning machines don’t manage to catch them. Participants in the testing can train the robot to recognise cigarette butts using artificial intelligence and cameras.

Spaces like these bring technology closer to people. Anyone can propose something to test, even private citizens. With each use-case, people interact with the technology and can give feedback. So, we can directly connect what we’re doing, with the technology, with the response from people. That’s the trick, you should always aim to have this combination.

I would also suggest, if something does not work, get rid of it immediately! If people try it out and are not convinced, do not try to push it. If it works on the other hand, you must push on. Don’t wait for several years to scale it up, invest more resources in implementing it faster. I really believe in trying out things. That’s the basis of innovation. If you don’t try it, in a responsible and transparent way, and involving citizens, you’ll never progress forward.

*Photo credits: Frank Jansen and Martijn Beekman / gemeente Den Haag


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer