Service Design in Government 2016


Some of the Bexley Innovation Lab team have been out and about over the last week or so, sharing our experience and learning new things from other colleagues working on design in the public sector. As always, it was an energising and exciting experience, and has set our brains buzzing about how we continue to pursue innovation and design.

Our adventures included 3 days at the Service Design in Government conference, where colleagues from central government, local authorities, the wider public sector and design companies shared ideas and practical examples for making design happen.

Here are some of our key takeaways – an amalgamation of ideas from a number of different speakers, so apologies for not name-checking all the speakers n each point who helped build and consolidate these ideas. These won’t be news to many already experienced in this area, but are a helpful reminder and starting point for those of us newer to the game.

  1. Service design is just the start.

There seems to be a consensus that service design is a ‘good thing’ for government, and now the conversation has shifted from convincing us that the ‘Double Diamond’ is a useful tool, towards thinking about how we embed design and innovation into our business as usual.

A number of speakers stressed the point that organisation design and the way we work is just as important as having good design for services which means they meet user needs. Ben Holliday from DWP made the point that to deliver great user experience for our residents, the organisation needs to be right, as much as, if not more than, the strategy or the design. Transformation opportunities that come about through taking a design approach shouldn’t stop at the service but make us think about how we work, what we talk about and what we do as a whole.

  1. Customer insights can really transform public services

ThePublicOffice shared evidence from their work with Essex County Council about the impact of customer insight.  Ruth Kennedy encouraged us to think beyond consultation and surveys to build an ethos of empathy.  The trick is to really listen and learn from residents and customers however this up-ends the established power relationship.  Traditionally the working assumption has been that wisdom and insight comes from expert professionals – those who currently make decisions about what is needed and then deliver that, directly or indirectly, to passive citizens.

Real listening is based on the explicit assumption that the people who know most about the experience of accessing public services, about how services work (or not) in the messy and complex context of real life, are the citizens themselves.  Exploring lived experiences in this way often uncovers aspirations, energy and assets in individuals, families and communities.  Real listening seeds new ideas for different and better ways of using resources and achieving improved outcomes.  Could it be that we need to start with the citizen and work back towards the professional?

  1. Digital transformation isn’t about websites and being online

Louise Downe from GDS and others highlighted that government services weren’t designed for the digital age or for the internet (and in fact many of them haven’t been designed full-stop). The internet has fundamentally changed the way that people interact with each other and with services – so why shouldn’t this extend to interactions with government?

But embracing the intranet doesn’t mean putting the same services online or changing the way they look on a website. New technology doesn’t fix bad services. We need to fundamentally rebuild services from the ground up – recognising that the digital part of the service and the part where the user is interacting with government isn’t the whole service that a user goes through to do what it is they’re trying to do.

  1. It isn’t easy

In a talk about doing co-design at scale in the NHS, Jocelyn Bailey and Dr Matthew Fogarty made the point that when we’re working collaboratively to transform services, people won’t feel comfortable and happy and like they’re having fun all the time.

Dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty isn’t easy – but we have to embrace it as part of the design process. Our experience in the Lab echoes the idea that the hardest thing about design is not knowing what you’re going to get at the end of the process when you start, but when we’re looking for new ideas and innovations that’s exactly what we have to allow ourselves to do, trusting in the process and that definition and clarity will come.