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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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