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Public Services • Design • Reform

Design your way to better public services

Lucy Kimbell - 27 November 2013

Innovative design-based approaches to public service management can rapidly enhance user experience whilst driving effective and efficient policymaking

Looking for a job? The UK Cabinet Office is trying to find someone to set up, test and prove the value of a Policy Lab that will deploy user-centred design and rapid prototyping to the improve the pace, quality and deliverability of policy. The Young Foundation is hiring a director of strategic design to build a world-class design practice to support the YF’s practical innovation projects.

Meanwhile, the International Telecommunications Union is hosting a two-day event bringing together people from Australia, India, Denmark and the UN involved in design-led innovation in government services. Elsewhere, Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation, is prototyping a design-led social innovation toolkit aimed at global NGOs and social entrepreneurs.

These are all examples of organisations reaching out to something confusingly called “Design”, in their attempts to create and deliver better responses to social challenges. Here, “better” public services can be understood through the lens of Roman architect Vitruvius. Well-designed public services should be pleasing and easy to access and use from the end user’s perspective (venustas). They should use resources effectively and efficiently, for example, reducing public sector investment (firmitas). And they should achieve policy goals resulting in the impacts that were the point of creating the solution in the first place (utilitas).

To those who have not followed the transformation of Design over the past decade, it might seem doubtful that designers have anything much to offer communities and social ventures grappling with complex policy challenges. Visit a design school and a cursory inspection will reveal messy studios, people in odd clothes sitting drawing on the floor, or playing around with digital and material objects in an apparently haphazard manner. Yes, they do things differently, and are very creative, but how do these mindsets intersect with serious matters like older people’s care or reducing offending behaviour?

Over the past few years, designers from these backgrounds, and organisations exploring new ways of addressing their challenges, have found common ground in seeing what happens when Design-based approaches are used to improve public services. Some of the prominent examples are in healthcare, adult social care, education and tax services.

For example, the Danish cross-ministerial innovation team MindLab worked with civil servants to make the company registration procedure more effective. Industry codes are a frequent source of statistical errors, resulting in increased loads on call centres and erroneous company inspections. MindLab worked closely with civil servants to analyse the problem and its impact on businesses. Then together, using methods such as creating storyboards and, later, clickable prototypes, they designed a new solution to streamline authorities' procedures, resulting in cost savings and an improved experience for business users.

What’s important to note here is although associated with Design, these approaches and methods are not solely the territory of designers. Denmark’s MindLab and The Australian Centre for Social Innovation employ few actual designers. Rather there is a team of people from policy, social science, technology and design backgrounds who together take a design-led approach to addressing social challenges. Here’s what’s distinctive about this approach.

Firstly, it changes the focus of attention. One thing that Design brings to public services is an attentiveness to how people experience and interact with digital and material “touchpoints” across time and locations. Customers and users experience services organisations through these engagements. For users, these interactions constitute the organisation or policy, rather than being ancillary to it.

The Design approach recognises that users are actively involved in creating these experiences, rather than being passive recipients of organisational designs. So the designing, orchestrating, organising, or curating of particular pathways through a service becomes central to the work of public service management.

Second, it involves specialists working differently together. Most people in organisations struggle to collaborate. Specialist functions operate in silos and only take ownership of how their tasks relate to the service to users, not the service as a whole, let alone from the perspective of end users. A Design approach – for example the agile, fast prototyping approach that resulted in gov.uk winning awards and being usable – emphasises rapid learning cycles through cross-functional teams putting the desired users’ experiences centre stage.

Thirdly, the Design approach involves repeatedly zooming in and out between material and digital detail, and the big picture. Grand visions describing a policy goal or value proposition are necessary. But so, too, are repeated attempts to describe the granular details — the layout of a consulting room, the navigation of a website, or the information design of a tax form. A Design approach requires moving to and fro between each of these, rather than leaving mundane detail until later in a development process, as if it’s trivial.

After a decade or more of trying out these approaches, often using Design consultancies, organisations are now building capacity in-house. Within healthcare, for example, Kaiser Permanente in the US has built-up teams with these skills and trialed a new way of working with clinicians and admin staff. The now defunct NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement’s experience-based design toolkit aimed to make this approach useable in the context of busy wards and GP practices. Capita, the outsourcing company, is building-up capacity in service design to help it deliver cost savings premised on behaviour change, for example, designing digital services so they are easier to use and become a first point of call for people that achieves what they need, reducing the load on expensive call centres.

Yet despite this flourishing of design-based approaches within public services, there is a trick that’s being missed. This is to design policy itself. A simplified way of describing how policy is made goes like this. Ministers set directions (influenced by stakeholders, interpretation of constraints, political commitments and career goals). There’s a research phase, typically quantitative and involving experts, rather than qualitative, let alone using ethnographic analysis that aims to understand and analyse people’s day to day lives. Then a solution is proposed, an initiative is piloted, and rolled out before its impact can be properly assessed. It’s a one-time operation.

In contrast, the Design approach aims to combine an emerging understanding of people’s lives with other kinds of analysis, within an iterative process of problem-finding and solution-creating. Multiple solutions are developed and discarded as prototyping through a collective inquiry helps multi-functional teams assess what a good design would look like.

Will the new head of the Policy Lab, in post for a mere 12 months, be able to bring this way of working into the Cabinet Office? Probably plenty of focus on utilitas, lots of firmitas, but not much venustas. Let’s wait and see.


Lucy Kimbell is principal research fellow, University of Brighton, and associate fellow, Said Business School, University of Oxford.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on The limits of nation state social democracy.

Tags: Lucy Kimbell , Opinion , Metropolitan Revolution , United Kingdom , UK , Cities , Reform , Government , Innovation , Government , Localism ,

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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