WRITTEN ON January 10th, 2010 BY William Heath AND STORED IN Design: Co-creation, Design: user-oriented, Ideal government IT strategy

No public service has ever been formally designed, from intention to execution. Every single one of them should have been.

That was the nub of an Aha-Erlebnis conversation with the late and much-lamented Charles Cox (who at that time was MD of EDS, responsible for delivering more on-line Whitehall services than everyone else put together).

Our government IT problems go deeper than procurement, staff, management, suppliers, contracts, lack of checks and balances. The new services were never designed, in any formal sense, to solve the problems they’re intended to solve for the people they’re intended to help.

This is folly, when we’re constructing more or less from scratch a vast new edifice of virtual public services. It’s doubly regrettable when we have astonishingly innovative and effective designers in the UK, and a world lead in service design.

That’s why we will include a section on design in the CTPR Ideal Goverment IT Strategy project.

Thinking of future public services using the language and techniques of design is more fun and more powerful. The Design Council‘s RED team showed it. IdealGov found it out for itself with ThePublicOffice. It’s clear from Total Place. Matt Poelmans keeps proving it in Holland with BuergerLink. thinkpublic exemplify it. Donagh and I proved it again with the fun we had doing the independent European conference Malmo09.

But design thinking immediately takes us beyond mere “IT strategy”, comments Professor Alison Prendiville in charge of the UK’s first Masters of Design graduate course (at London College of Communication):

…this is less a question about IT and more to do with the service design and the role Government IT plays in delivering that service. ‘Mypublicservices’ is great as it demonstrates the difference that individuals can make through their own personal efforts.

I also think that Government IT should be about empowering citizens, if this leads to incentives and improved feelings about community, less quantifiable metrics, then this can only be good.

My only fear is that ultimately Central Government is very much driven by measurements that rely on quantitative feedback and mechanisms that are very different from the user experience goals that define a good service.

She goes on to ask how one goes about converting them.

We have to welcome the more ambitious challenge.

Free government data (from Power of Info) plus new ways of self-organising make a powerful mixture. We will start to question everything government does. And we’ll believe (as Ivo Gormley showed in Us Now) its possible for us collectively to do almost anything ourselves.

Professor Nutt’s new crowdsourced alternative to the ACMD is this week’s straw in the wind. From participatory medicine via lifelong learning to gritting our own rural roads, we face the prospect of questioning and then potentially redesigning and rebuilding pretty well everything.

That’s why we want a strong section on design at the heart of the CTPR Ideal Government IT Strategy #idealgits.

It’s to ensure we put our efforts and investment along lines which are formally designed to achieve success, from intention, through specification, choice, development, feedback and improvement. We need what thinkpublic call “self-improving public services”.

Of course we hope that involving design expertise in #idealgits will allow us to present the output in a more attractive, comprehensible way of more universal appeal. But it’s about substance, not just style. The main reason is simply it’ll be so much better than any strategy which does not include design thinking. We’ve got to raise the bar.

Afterword: Unlike many other disciplines I’ve come across the designers I know will have no difficulty fitting in with the new “courteous and mutually respectful dialogue” #CMRD. I gather there are designers who are spiky, difficult people but the ones I have met have been a delight to hang out with, full of fun, empathy and creativity. So welcome aboard! Please add your thoughts about design in future public services here.

7 Responses to “Why #idealgits will pay special attention to design”

Ruth wrote on January 10th, 2010 7:11 pm :

Outputs of shared conversation with 2 design-orientated public service innovators:

1. to stop the endless workarounds from poorly designed IT systems
2. it’s design that connects IT systems with users. Everyone says that they design things around the citizen, but they DON’T.
3. They need to take the principle of prototyping from design: proptotype and iterate with users. Testing throws up linkages that only users experience (eg ‘this is the same thing I do on the PAYE system’ for eg. Lets you know who the system needs to talk to and how
4. Understanding future uses and trends (intended and unintended) is key – to build a system that is futureproofed
5 need divergent and convergent approach that integrates users and frontline, from insight through to prototype/testing and implemntation stages

This will also smooth out probs with transitioning systems

Got to go – got to Manchester and need to get off train!

William Heath wrote on January 10th, 2010 7:43 pm :

Andrew Hugill emails to say

The reason why thorough design of technology policy will be central is because real-world problems are complex and so do not parcel themselves up neatly into discrete elements.

When we speak of ‘health’ ‘environment’ ‘sustainability’ ‘culture’ and so on, we are not talking about single things but rather complex areas with overlapping levels of reality. Public services to date have tended to focus on single levels of reality and employ people with expertises in single disciplines.

We need transdisciplinary design to achieve services that fully address the needs of the citizen.

Jerry wrote on January 11th, 2010 10:20 am :

Design of the UK’s public services (and therefore the IT used to design, administer and operate them) has been constrained by the fragmented nature of the way Whitehall is structured. There is little intentional design in the actual role, objectives and functions of the Whitehall departments and each of these arbitrary silos then gets reflected in the way services are constrained and the related IT specified and procured.

There is a major issue here of political will and political cost of course. Any attempt to analyse what we need from our public services and therefore how the public sector should be structured and the impacts that a genuine citizen-centric focus would have on that re-design would potentially tie up a govt for at least one term in office, possibly two. Which is why most prefer to tinker with what they know to be inherently inefficient and instead focus on more externally-facing, and more visible short-term initiatives.

The theory behind a lot of the thinking of the mid to late 1990s was to use IT as a sticking plaster on this dysfunctional design – using IT to make Whitehall look joined up (even when it wasn’t and isn’t). This was only meant to be temporary of course. Behind that veneer of external joined-up-ness, it would then have been possible to redesign and re-organise Whitehall behind the scenes. To work out what the fundamental needs were of the public sector and therefore design those capabilities into an improved organisational structure and set of related services. Unfortunately, despite unprecedented levels of public expenditure, that has not happened. Whitehall is still much as it was in the mid 1990s.

Given the political challenges of focusing on a fundamental redesign of the UK’s public services, one alternative that has been floated is making Ministers responsible for outcomes rather than departmental silos. So a Minister for Welfare that could bring together all welfare-related aspects regardless of which departments, local authorities or agencies were involved in their delivery. Such matrix-management across departments would not be easy to accomplish without a strong political will. But it might, despite its complexities, be more practical than trying to re-design Whitehall from scratch based around a 21st century analysis of its required capabilities.

I’d also take issue with the idea that IT is about only “delivery” of services. This is part of the fundamental problem. Technology enables services to be rethought and redesigned in fundamentally different and better ways. The benefits of just throwing it as an operational or admin tool at current dysfunctionally designed services are marginal, as the £120bn+ spent on IT over the last decade or so has shown. But modern technology-enabled healthcare for example would enable a major rethink about what a future NHS might look like. Not just the current view that we can use IT to prop-up the existing NHS, but that we take the opportunity to rethink its very design based on what people want from a modern health service and what technology now makes possible.

Until we get this level of technology understanding into the policymaking process prior to design, IT will continue what it has been since at least the mid-1990s – just a sticking plaster on an outdated, undesigned set of historically-derived fragmented services.

Veronica wrote on January 16th, 2010 11:58 am :

Catering for the needs of citizens through public services is probably one of the most complicated areas to design for. Citizens cannot be grouped under one area. There are so many different characters with varying physical needs, capabilities, mentalities and approaches and all users/citizens must be considered and recognised.

Taking one type of user for a specific public service as an example – transport for disabled badge-holders, there are within that numerous types of users, in which the needs must be empathized with – a user who is wheelchair bound and lives alone who cannot do anything for themselves and has no one to help them, a user with mild back pain and has family and friends around them that can help, an elderly couple who are both disabled and help each other but are both limited. Without carrying out any ethnographic research and spending time with the users, one can already identify different needs for them. There are other insights that need to be discovered, like can they use a computer or have access to the internet? Can they walk up and down the stairs? Are they capable of holding an oyster card with their Arthritis or after having a stroke?

In order for the service to help the people it intends to help, specific users must be identified and then empathized with.

Engine Service Design uses ‘Co-Creation’ to do this. It’s about designing WITH the users. As Engine cleverly point out, the users are the real experts on themselves.

Designing with the users from discovering insights through to prototyping and implementation creates a more systematic and fulfilling service.

Tricia Austin wrote on January 17th, 2010 7:55 pm :

Public services and their delivery are lagging way behind commercial practice in terms of design. Change is urgently needed. I wonder whether government is aware that we have the ideas and resources to hand. There are growing numbers of expert designers researching and working in user-centered design for social innovation. There are students graduating from Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design every year who can help to implement the badly needed changes.

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Chris wrote on January 19th, 2010 9:06 pm :

We’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about a better approach public services could take to solving social problems. Only what we’ve got to is not just a design approach but an approach that draws heavily on policy and social science too. You can see it here http://www.inwithfor.org/how/ .

You talk about the model needing to be reversed – we call what we do ‘working backwards – because it builds solutions to problems in the opposite direction to policy and service design. Starting by redefining the problem, the outcomes, the practice and the policy. I think what I’ve come to see social problems need better problem solving approaches – and neither design or policy or tech has got that right.

As you say you can take a service design approach to a service improvement project – ie where the assumption behind the existing service is correct and it’s about making it more: streamlined, efficient, elegant. I could see that a lot of IT projects fit this space only here I’d focus on the value not of consultation but of actively prototyping solutions with people. A prototype is worth a thousand questionnaires.

When it comes to services where the key assumptions behind the services are wrong you need something more than design. I’ll give an example.

I just finished working for Participle on a project to redesign ‘universal youth services’ – youth clubs to you and me. Had we taken a classical service design approach to the issue I would have made better youth clubs – because we had policy and social science know how on the team we started by questioning what kind of ‘good life’ we were aiming for for the young people in question. That lead us to quite a different solution about building in-community connections that didn’t involve buildings at all. http://www.participle.net/blog/view/4/173

Is IT a good place to start to address these kind of radical rethink projects? If it is it may take more than service design.