Margot Kersing's PhD research is about Big Data in the social domain; a qualitative ethnographic study commissioned by the Centre for BOLD Cities and Erasmus School of Health Policy & Management (ESHPM). This PhD research aims to explore the way in which professionals -in an environment where new norms and rules are emerging with regard to data control- pursue different public values, and what impact this has on the decisions and results in practice. Margot studied at Leiden University and obtained a master's degree in Public Administration and Political Philosophy.
Could you tell me more about your academic background and expertise?
My background is in Public Administration and Political Philosophy. After completing two master’s degrees at Leiden University, I worked for a couple of years as a teacher in public administration, focusing on courses about philosophy and ethics, before starting my PhD in April 2021.
Already since my bachelor’s I have been passionate about ethical dilemmas and tensions between the citizens and the state. During my studies, I became more and more interested in street-level bureaucrats, civil servants that are directly in contact with citizens. Street-level bureaucrats form the connection between the ‘system world’ of the government and the ‘real life world’ of the citizens. It is in that contact between the system and the real life, where all the logically planned out ideas and policies that were designed by government officials suddenly do not seem to work very well in real life. Instead, there are misunderstandings, tensions, and there is distrust because bureaucrats operate in such a different context than citizens.
Through the childcare benefits scandal and all kinds of other affairs, but also personal frustrating experiences with filling out many useless forms at the municipality, I became more and more interested in the role of data in the social domain. When I started writing my PhD proposal, I really got into the use of data, big data tools and algorithms and their impact on street-level bureaucrats: on their work, their professional role but also very importantly how (big) data changed their interactions with citizens.
Although my interest in that specific topic emerged gradually, since childhood I have been concerned with the vulnerability of certain citizens, although back then I would not have formulated it in such terms, of course. I grew up in a so-called Vogelaarwijk in Rotterdam and already as a child I was very aware that some of my fellow classmates did not own a winter coat or did not bring lunch to school. I always wondered why that was, if they got help, and later what the role of the government was in this. This sparked my interest in public administration – especially because when I went to high school and later to university as the first in my family, all the children there did live in very nice houses and had a lot of money. These extremes left me with a feeling of unease. Coming from that background has definitely shaped my academic interests.
The Centre makes it very easy to connect to people with other academic backgrounds and to hear their different perspectives."
How did you get involved with the Centre for BOLD Cities and what does it mean to you?
Prof. dr. Liesbet van Zoonen, academic director of the Centre for BOLD Cities, is my supervisor, so becoming affiliated with the Centre was a very logical step. Not just because of this personal connection but also on a substantial level: already during my job interview it became clear that I share a similar interest with the Centre in how the use of (big) data influences, and impacts citizens.
The Centre makes it very easy to connect to people with other academic backgrounds and to hear their different perspectives. I believe that this is really valuable because it improves the quality of my work. BOLD Cities, and especially Liesbet, has a great network: if I am interested in one topic but do not really know yet how to approach it, she can always connect me to the right people. In the future, I hope to collaborate more with other academics from TU Delft who are involved in designing the actual data-tools. I am curious to see whether, and how they consider the real-life applications and effects of their tools.
If I can influence one person working in a municipality or another governmental organisation who then critically assesses or reconsiders the data tools they use, that would mean a lot to me."
What impact do you hope to have with your research?
It may sound a bit cliché but if I can influence one person working in a municipality or another governmental organisation who then critically assesses or reconsiders the data tools they use, that would mean a lot to me.
I do not want my research to end up in a drawer; I want to give something back to the real world. This is also why I find it so important to give workshops and presentations to professionals, and teach students in Public Administration. Currently, the study of public administration is very focused on the internal workings of governmental organisations which can cause students to lose sight of citizens. I hope that through my teaching I can impact how students will do their job later on to help overcome this mismatch between the ‘system world’ and the ‘real life world’.
Do you have a book/podcast/film which inspires you that you would like to share with us?
Not just one, but two!
The first is Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks. Eubanks is an American scholar, and she illustrates painfully well how the government uses and links data with disastrous consequences for already vulnerable citizens. For me, the book functions as a cautionary tale. A must-read for every professional and student in public administration.
Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. St. Martin’s Press. By Virginia Eubanks. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017. Pp. 272.
My second recommendation is the movie I, Daniel Blake. It has nothing to do with data, but it really illustrates the huge gap between the ‘system world’ and the ‘real life world’, I was talking about. It also shows the struggles street-level bureaucrats face, sometimes they are not allowed to do certain things to help vulnerable citizens because of the systems they operate in and all the protocols and policies that constrain them. I think all students that might work in a government organisation in the future where they can make an impact on citizens’ lives should watch this movie.
I, Daniel Blake. Directed by Ken Loach and written by Paul Laverty. United Kingdom: Sixteen Films, Why Not Productions and Wild Bunch, 2016. 100 minutes.
 Vogelaarwijk is the popular name for forty disadvantaged neighborhoods according to a 2007 list by former minister for housing, neighborhoods and integration, Ella Vogelaar. These neighborhoods should receive extra investments by the government to improve the neighborhoods from a ‘problem-neighborhood’ (‘probleemwijk’) to a ‘power-neighborhood’ (‘krachtwijk’).