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11. June 2014


LEGO - a business case for service co-design

Do you remember playing with Lego as a child or with your children? Let me give you a good reason to use LEGO at work to trigger your imagination and redesign your services the way LEGO did a couple of years ago.

Governance International has shown me that it is worth exploring new scenarios in which public service providers enable and skill up service users to help themselves and empower local communities to harness their knowledge and expertise to solve ‘wicked problems’.

The 50+ case studies in their Good Practice Hub show the wide range of co-production approaches all over the world. They demonstrate that co-production can either achieve improved outcomes or better value for money. Often it does both.  The Co-Production Explorer developed by Governance International highlights innovative co-production models so that you can design a new vision for your service. At the same time, it helps you to build on existing pockets of co-production in your service to link the present with the future.

Ignoring the imagination unleashed by co-production is almost like accepting the inevitability of future failure. Once again, don’t read on if that really is what you think is acceptable - but I certainly don’t.

Be honest - you probably need to save budget? Guess what, co-production can help with that, too. Co-production champions are refreshingly unwilling to accept that offering ‘less’ is the only path. Even with financial constraints, it is possible to do better.

Perhaps you might not expect a well known company to use co-production approaches? Well, read this Toy Story about Lego’s transformation.

Lego is now so popular that there are 62 little coloured blocks for every person on the planet but few people are aware that the family-run business nearly went bankrupt in 2004. From being an amazing start-up in the economic depression in the 1930s and experiencing a fast expansion in the 1960s Lego started to suffer losses in a fast changing toy market in the late 1990s. Kids simply preferred to play video games and playing with Lego was not cool any more. As a portrait of the Lego company in the Guardian states, in January 2004 the company reported a record deficit of £144m.

According to the brilliant analysis in Tim Kastelle’s blog on the Innovation Lessons from the Rise, Fall, and the Rise of Lego, its economic downturn was due to three factors:


  1. Poor overall management.  As LEGO reached its crisis point in 2003, everything was going wrong.  Its financial control was very poor, and it had lost touch with what customers wanted.  Furthermore, even when people who loved LEGO reached out to try to contribute ideas, the firm was fairly arrogant in ignoring this input, believing instead that they knew best.
  2. Lack of strategic focus.  In all of the pre-2003 innovation efforts, LEGO was obsessed with novelty – with doing new stuff.  But they were so far removed from understanding what their customers wanted (or even who they were), that these new ideas failed to create value.  They thought that the power was in the brand – so they launched things like LEGO TV series.  But really, the power was in the bricks – it was refocusing on this that started to turn the firm around.
  3. Disconnection from customers.  Many of the misfires prior to 2003 were the result of not understanding what kids wanted – most of the new products were based on assumptions about this, not on feedback from the customer base.

Does this sound familiar to you? Do you think that your commissioners know their clients – or what they need?

If not, continue to read the Lego story. Of course, as Lego is a private sector business not everything may be transferable to a public service context but in my view the LEGO transformation shows the potential of co-designing services with people using services.

Tim Kastelle describes in his blog how LEGO discovered co-design as a method to drive product and service innovations:

Shortly after LEGO released Mindstorm, the enthusiastic community of adults that love LEGO, hacked the software.  After a great deal of thought, instead of shutting down the hackers, LEGO embraced them.  This then led to further collaboration with the community. It was this community that drove the overwhelming success of the product:

Instead of taking a year to find two potentially big growth opportunities and then invest significant resources to develop them, the front-end team would align with entrepreneurs who were already working on nascent but promising projects. Within a matter of months or even weeks, the team would use the LEGO Group’s know-how to help these entrepreneurs test the market, make necessary revisions, and test again. The idea was to avoid making bet-the-firm mistakes by launching a series of low-cost, low-risk experiments, which would increase the odds that one might grow into a runaway success.

LEGO also discovered that the key to its success was harnessing the ideas of its end customers – children!  Lugnet, a Lego user community, works with users to co-design models, even using open source design software to create shared visions from different cities. This virtual community even tackled problem solving and design - for fun! Children are enabled to create their own designs making them co-designers of their own dreams. Lego now incorporates public feedback into its heart, soul and philosophy, contributing to its choices, designs and decision-making on new products.

In the end, it was its new strategic focus and this new collaboration with customers which turned the company completely around. As a result, five years after reporting its biggest ever loss, Lego was reborn and reported a net profit soaring to 32% to DKr1.35bn and sales up a healthy 18.7% for 2008 (source:

Are there any bells ringing yet or light-bulbs flashing inside your head? There should be…!

The transformation of Lego is the starting point for imagining how co-design can not only create ’improvements’ but can transform a whole organisation and its relationship to its clients and local communities.   

The many forms of co-design that Lego adopted illustrate the tremendous potential of harnessing the ideas and skills of people using services. And, as I’ve experienced in my career in public services, one ‘co’ leads to another ‘co’, involving clients and communities as part of the process, starting from co-commissioning, all the way to co-design, co-delivery and co-assessment.

Scotland has an amazing wealth of case studies to learn from – just look into the publication 

Co-Production of Health and Social Care in Scotland. But there is also an increasing number of local authorities in England and Wales such as LB of Lambeth, Stockport MBC, Surrey County Council and Swansea Council which have embarked on a co-production journey. What a difference it would all make, if even more service providers and commissioners adopted these ideas.

So we do some good things in the UK already – but don’t we now have a golden chance to harness fully the opportunities offered by co-production?

USA basketball legend Michael Jordan famously gave what I consider to be one of the best motivational quotes of all time:

“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But what I cannot accept is not trying”.

Now ask yourself honestly, why don’t you get in some Lego for the next senior management or team meeting and ask your colleagues to design an alternative service delivery model based on co-production? It’s obvious – what LEGO could achieve, you can do too!

Personal blog by Andy Tipper, a co-production practitioner in Birmingham.


1. October 2013

Service Co-Design

Caketember in Lambeth: Co-designing quick wins with staff

Everyone thinks innovation is great, everyone thinks working with the public is great. But how do you actually get this to happen? My colleague Tom Hoy has shown how it’s possible. Check out the next Made in Lambeth weekend make-a-thon to see how he’s helping create an alliance against violence, stopping pay day loans, and creating a brand identity for a local Brixton paper. Made in Lambeth now gets people from across the local community contributing and doing stuff. Most of the work is done in an amazing 48 hours.

But what about creating change within the council? Recent research in the sector has shown that the majority of council officers think innovation is one of the answers, but feel pace is far too slow.

So what can you do? Do you need to spend millions on branding, fancy buildings, and lots of experts? Do you need to launch more initiatives? I’m sure that could help. However, in Lambeth, we’ve gone back to basics. We’ve shared our ideas about what really seems to create a buzz on the ground. We’ve look at what captures our imaginations. Some of it is rational, some of it unexpected.

My colleagues Giles Gibson and Sue Sheehan have been baking delicious cakes. Sue is famous for her lemon drizzle, and Giles for his chocolate brownies. I have been pouring the tea. We find that it’s enough to get people talking and coming up with ideas and plans. We’ve also found that many of our colleagues love baking, and we have been able to capitalise on this tradition of sharing.

We decided the most important thing was talking to people, listening to their ideas, and giving them practical support. Money was rarely a barrier to coming up with ideas. Instead of using external designers, we found an artist amongst our council colleagues, and we designed our own promotional materials and worksheets. We produced all of these within seven days, from start to finish. Get in touch if you want to see what we came up with.

We have a letter from our Chief Executive Derrick Anderson, supporting each team to see what they can do over 30 days over the month of October. The idea is to help people try something new. We know that there is too little risk taking, too little experimentation and sometimes people need explicit support to try something new. We now have a dozen teams, with ideas ranging from re-launching an unused kitchen in the town hall, to involving residents in carrying out environmental inspections in their neighbourhoods, to growing and sharing vegetables in GP surgeries. We are supporting them in overcoming any barriers they encounter. At the same time, we are developing an in-house school of innovation, based on creating networks within the organisation, and working with local residents.

But we are not spending money on new buildings, or fancy prizes. We are working on the basis that people enjoy collaborating to solve challenges, and make life better. We find a little piece of cake and a cup of tea can go a long way.

This blog has been written by Governance International Associate Ajay Khandelwal, email:

20. May 2013

Service Co-Design

The Case for Design in Public Services

Photos by Francis Clarke, taken at various thinkpublic public service workshops.


I want to use this post to set out in more detail what design has to offer and highlight the significant contribution it is already making in the world today. 

What's 'design'? 

Before I go any further, it's important to first clear up a few myths about design and its relevance to public services.

For some, design immediately conjures up images of too-cool-for-school elite tastemakers.

As someone who has worked alongside designers in Shoreditch I can confirm that there is more than a little truth in this view. At its best, however, design is a profoundly human activity. Far from being simply about surface gloss, good design thinks deeply about how people will use the product, service or experience to ensure the solution developed meets their needs, whether users are fully aware of them or not.

How can design help?

Designers use a range of powerful techniques to translate their ideas into practice. Here are three characteristics of design which make it suitable for tackling major social challenges.

In the interests of transparency, I should say that I have drawn on some of the thinking carried out by the UK's Design Commission for their excellent recent report, Restarting Britain 2: Design and Public Services.

1. Good design starts from the point of view of real people's experiences

This might seem blindingly obvious but it is amazing how many change processes are not primarily rooted in the experiences and needs of those who will use the service. For example, given the well-documented barriers people on low incomes currently face accessing services online, the decision to make the current Universal Credit pilot schemes 'Digital by Default' suggests user experience was not driving the project.

A common technique for capturing people's experiences and needs is direct observation. For example, when working for the thinkpublic design agency to redesign Barnet Council's online Adult Social Care services, I held a workshop in which users were observed interacting with the existing council website.

Through observation we discovered users encountered many common accessibility barriers, like the size of font size and colour. More importantly, we quickly noticed there was a fundamental misunderstanding over the purpose of  the website. Users expected to be able to use it to get answers specific to their circumstances and book services as they  would do a train ticket. The council, on the other hand, had viewed the site primarily as a source of general information. 

My project team used these and other observations to drive service improvements. Together with other techniques, observation almost certainly gave us richer insights than would have come from more traditional engagement tools, such as resident satisfaction surveys.

Another great example of where user experience has driven service transformation is GOV.UK, the new place to find government services and information. To know more about the development of the service, click here.

2. Good design helps us to develop new ideas, not simply borrow from the past

Anyone who has ever worked on pressing social challenges - such as how to respond to the ever-increasing need for  Adult Social Care - will no doubt be familiar with the following nagging doubt in your head: 

"How do I know I've selected the best option for redesigning a service and what if it all goes horribly wrong?"

In an ideal-world decision-makers would make decisions after careful, objective examination of all the facts. This is the Holy Grail of evidence-based policy making. In practice, however, evidence is often in short supply and what there is tends to relate to evaluation of past interventions. While learning from the past is important, we also need a framework for developing wholly new ideas and anticipating the challenges of the future.

Think Different

This is where design can help. Structured creativity provides a framework to help people 'break the rules', so that out-of-date rules don't stand in the way of original thinking.

  • For starters, closely examine your challenge and the laws, regulations, policies and traditions which affect how you act in your role.
  • Now imagine that ANYTHING is possible - what would you do differently in order to achieve your goal? 
  • Getting back to reality, are there any ideas you came up with which you could actually consider trying out? Are the barriers you thought were fixed actually more flexible than you first thought? 

Using the previous example of Adult Social Care services in Barnet, structured creative thinking could help people think differently about who is best placed to create and maintain online service information. As 'experts through experience', could Adult Social Care users provide better and more up-to-date information than Barnet Council, using a system akin to Wikipedia?

Developing and Testing New Ideas

Design not only supports original thinking, it provides a cost effective means of testing new approaches. Prototyping is the name given to quickly developing, testing, and improving ideas at an early stage before substantial resources are committed to implementation.

Before spending money on a  new Wikipedia-style council website, council officers could hold workshops with Adult Social Care users to see how much appetite there is for the idea, using pieces of paper to mock-up what a future system should look like and explore how it could work. Learning from workshops and similar activities could then be quickly fed back, resulting in either the idea being built on and improved or being ruled out in favour of other ideas.

For a great example of how prototyping was used to develop a brand-new Community Coach service at Barnet Council, click here

3. User involvement is at the heart of good design

A common thread running through the previous examples I have given has been the importance of involving people who will be affected by a change process. This may seem simply a matter of common sense. After all, who knows a service better than the people who use it? Design thinking provides practical techniques for making user involvement both enjoyable and productive.

A good example of where design techniques have underpinned user involvement was the redesign of a voluntary and community sector funding scheme in Argyll and Bute, which Governance International facilitated.

Faced with the need to make 15 percent savings over three years, Argyll and Bute Council invited local groups at an early stage to work together with the council to develop (or 'co-design') the new funding system.

At the first workshop a system mapping exercise was carried out to help participants develop a shared understanding of how the existing funding arrangements worked. Using Post-It notes and pieces of paper, participants were encouraged to record both official processes (what's meant to happen) as well as highlight informal practices. One person, for example, described a three month delay between being awarded funding and receiving the money, which created serious problems for their organisation. 

The mapping exercise did more than just capture the current funding arrangements. It also provided a natural opportunity for participants to share their experiences, identify problems and suggest improvement ideas. Insights were ordered using an affinity diagram approach, whereby a facilitator supports participants to identify common themes and prioritise areas for development in future workshops. The end result was a new, streamlined funding system which focused on outcomes and minimised paperwork.

Future Opportunities

The case for embracing design culture and techniques to achieve social objectives has never been stronger. Rising public expectations, a rapidly ageing population and deep reductions in funding mean our public services are under unprecedented pressure. Whilst by no means a panacea, design offers a set of techniques for thinking and responding imaginatively to the challenges we are facing. As such, I will continue to urge everyone with an interest in tackling social challenges to keep an open mind about what design has to offer.  

This blog was written by Francis Clarke, freelance Public Policy, Social Innovation and Digital Technology specialist.

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