Universiteit Leiden

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Experiment in Leiden SSH labs: a peek inside a civil servant's head

You would normally not see public administration experts and water authority officials in a laboratory, let alone together. This is changing now, specifically for an experiment conducted by Leiden University. The focus of the study is on the attention of officials, using eye tracking. 'The eye movement gives the answer'.

eye examination with a different outcome

Today's test subject is none other than the secretary-general director of the world's oldest water board. Mariël Middendorp, who leads about 850 FTEs at the Hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland, sits in a clinically white room with her chin resting on a frame. It resembles an eye examination, which it essentially is. However, something very different is being studied; with this experiment, scientists are trying to make officials' attention measurable.

On the screen Mariël is looking at, factual information about the water board's performance appears: blue-green algae, water purification, fish safety, water level decisions, and nutrients. The researchers, experts in decision-making but laymen in the field of water boards, have translated piles of performance reports into an experimental study. 'It starts off quite positively,' Mariël notes. Joris van der Voet, associate professor at the Institute of Public Administration and project leader of the NWO Vidi project on administrative attention, and Amandine Lerusse, assistant professor of Public Administration, are watching attentively.

The attention of officials

In June, fifty water board officials will take the same seat. They will be surrounded by advanced equipment from the Social Science and Humanities (SSH) labs. Researcher Wouter Lammers, PhD candidate at KU Leuven, is also involved in the study: 'You can see how often participants reread, how deeply they read each word. Afterwards, you can also show participants how they read; you see the dot move. It's incredible what you can glean from it.' Joris adds, 'We have precise theoretical expectations, but we won’t reveal them before the experiment.'

Eye movement provides insight into how officials allocate their attention, Joris explains. 'How do we process information and what patterns can be identified in that process? As humans, we all have cognitive shortcomings; when choosing shampoo, we also miss information that might be relevant. For the complex social challenges that governments face, it is even more difficult to consider everything properly. Organizations like water boards have a wealth of performance information. This results in a scarcity of attention. The role of the official is to formulate policy based on evidence and information, but we currently know very little about the effect of attention on that process.'

When thinking of officials, people often think of municipalities or ministries, but the researchers point out that water boards are facing an increasingly significant societal task due to climate change. Director Mariël is pleased with the research and the collaboration with Leiden University. 'It's super important that good decision-making takes place. What information is still missing? Suppose we discover a certain pattern in that, then we can act on it.'

Extraordinary collaboration

Both parties find the collaboration very special. Joris: 'The oldest water board and the oldest university working together in a state-of-the-art laboratory using the latest technology. Our mission as behavioral public administration scholars is to create insight into the psychology of governance and policy. It's particularly enjoyable to see that our research is met with great enthusiasm within the water board.'

Text: Magali van Wieren

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