Design is doing something on purpose, for a purpose


When we look at local government services, it can be quite a confusing picture. The reasons why a service looks and operates the way it does are often not straight forward and often not necessarily centred on the user. This isn’t because local government doesn’t care about the user, but more likely because the services have evolved over many years and been shaped by many people and many priorities.


Campfield Library in Manchester – the UK’s first public library in 1852

Take the library service for example. One of the aims of the library is to give wide and free access to information and opportunities for learning. The Public Libraries Act 1850 which gave local boroughs the power to establish free public libraries, and at the time having a building full of books made sense as a way to achieve this aim. If we were designing a service to fulfill that purpose from scratch today, that may not be our starting point and what we came up with could be very different. But because of the evolution of where the service has come from, physical books remain a key part of the library service.

When we’re trying to be innovative in local government we don’t get to start with a blank sheet of paper. We have to work within the circumstances that we find ourselves. It’s a big challenge and a complex one. But the important thing is to start somewhere and not be constrained by our history but to learn from it.

At a recent design event, we had a discussion with someone not from the public sector who asked what design meant in the public sector. We agreed that at a basic level, it was as simple as doing something on purpose, for a purpose. On purpose because we need to take control back from tradition to ensure that our services operate in a deliberate way to meet user needs, and with a purpose because our job is to make life better for our citizens, not just run services for their own sake.

If local government can get to a place where everything we do is on purpose, for a purpose, we’ll be heading in the right direction.