Building a culture of design

This (long) post is based on a talk given by Anne-Louise Clark and Ellen Care on 7 March at Service Design in Government 2018, at the John McIntrye Conference Centre, Edinburgh.

In this piece, we share our journey of design discovery over the last three years.

We’d like to share with you our journey over the last three years of exploring and embedding design methods in our organisation. We’ll be telling your our story as well as picking out some of the things that in hindsight feel the most significant or potentially useful to people who are taking a design approach to their work in government and the design agencies and external professionals who work with officers and civil servants to do this.

We talk about building a design culture – because it isn’t built yet. In fact, there’s not an end-state we’re building to. We will never be an organisation made up solely of designers as that’s not what local government is there to do – but over the last three years we’ve become more and more interested in how to mesh what design can offer into our purpose and ambitions.

As a local authority we believe that design thinking can unlock opportunities for us to deliver better outcomes for our residents. We are not purists. We are working within a system and our role is about spotting opportunities where applying design principles – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot – helps the organisation to deliver better outcomes and maximise the impact of our resources.

Today, this design thinking happens primarily through our Transformation & Change team. We take a design-led approach to change when working with services to respond to new legislative requirements or review how we’re providing services with the investment available. Design is also embedded in the commissioning cycle and our outcomes based planning approach. The Bexley D School builds design capability within the organisation, particularly around user research, and we have a Design and Innovation Board that forms part of our core governance structure.

The old world

In 2015, the world was a little different. We were part of the Organisational Development and Internal Communications service. Both organisationally and personally a lot of our focus was on a programme to consolidate staff into a central civic HQ, and with it a shift in our ways of working. We spent a lot of our time looking inwards and thinking about how things were working internally. Financial challenges were generally met by a series of discrete projects which collectively added up to the savings required to ‘get us over the line’, but didn’t necessarily cohere together as a transformational approach.

But things were starting to change. A new Director of Finance brought with her a determination to move to outcomes based budgeting, encouraging the Council to not just balance the budget but think about what we’re investing – what are we getting for our money? Is it the right thing? Do we want something else instead? In addition, a new Chief Executive, Director of Children’s Services and Director of Adult Social Care and Health joined the corporate leadership team in the next few months, changing the culture and direction of the organisation.

Anne-Louise went on secondment to manage the Council’s transformation agenda, opening the team up to a much broader set of issues in the organisation and a wider external network. We began to look up and out and start to engage in the bigger issues facing the sector as a whole, not just Bexley. This is when we first started having conversations about human centred design.

We started

Design resonated with us. It felt like the natural extension of some of our thinking and mind-set as well as offering a set of practical tools to apply to complex problems. It started conversations about the art of the possible and brought some optimism and purpose back to public service in the age of austerity. It offered the chance of creativity, of doing something different, but within a discipline that gave us direction and focus, and could handle the constraints that were around us.

So began our journey of meshing a new discipline with the existing organisation and approaches; not replacing one with the other but building a ’Bexley way’ incorporating the useful, interesting, opportunistic and necessary parts of the old and new.

Initially we commissioned design organisations to work with us on a series of projects, including FutureGov and Red Quadrant / Basis. This was our first exposure to using the Double Diamond and an agile project management structure to drive our projects forward. This experience and the relationships built have remained really important to us, and whilst the interventions they shaped haven’t always been implemented as fully as we’d hoped, the learning has been incredible.

Over this period we learnt a lot of valuable lessons. The need to hold space for discovery – that it’s okay not to know where you’ll end up; that design means shifting power dynamics and no longer privileging the voice of the professional over the voice of the user; that there’s no one way to do design and every project will be different; and that we had to invest time in proving the concept of the approach as well as developing the projects.

The most important thing was that we started. Even if we didn’t have the ideal projects or the ideal people to run a design project with, even if we couldn’t meet everyone’s expectations, even if some people weren’t ready to accept what came out of the work, we started. If we’d waited until everything was perfect, we’d still be waiting. We didn’t have time to overthink – we just had to seize the opportunity that was there.

Adjusting to a new world

Over the following few months, the next phase of our journey was about taking stock, re-grounding ourselves in a different world and adjusting to what we now knew and did. There’d been a shift in our approach, and a concurrent shift in how we saw our role and the value we could add to the organisation. In addition, the Transformation & Change team was born, merging OD with the corporate programmes office, and internal communications moved over to the Communications team.

We consolidated our design approach through the creation of Bexley D School, a mechanism to share and structure capability building, particularly focusing on user research. And we continued to learn by doing, with internal projects to look at staff volunteering policy and the website redesign taking a human-centred, agile approach, and extending our external networks and opportunities to practice design through events like the Global GovJam and Service Design in Government conference.

It was a ‘little and often’ approach rather than one big bang, and it was important for us to build a narrative as a team about where we are, how we got here and where we’re going next in our design journey. We also needed to design our own design approach focused on our organisation, principles, structures and ambitions rather than trying to drag and drop something from somewhere else into our context.

Going mainstream

The next big step was design “going mainstream” in the organition. A more corporate role for design developed, driven in part by leadership awareness and commitment to the idea of design thinking, if even not everyone had direct experience of what that means in practice.

A key part of this mainstreaming was doing user research to inform our corporate plan, a brand new step for us and one whose insights reached all the way to the Corporate Leadership Team and lead Members. The research influenced the kinds of things we talk about when discussing our organisational priorities and the language we use, and raised the profile of the ambition to of centre our work on our residents (users). It highlighted some of the gaps, and the fact we hadn’t done something like this before began to feel outdated. It became kind of crazy that previously we’d have made these kinds of decisions as officers without talking to real people.

This was not without challenges, professionally and personally. On the one hand it was great that more people were talking about design and wanting a piece of the pie. They saw the same opportunities we had and wanted to build on them.

On the other hand, it was frustrating to see people who a few months before would not countenance a conversation about doing things differently jumping on the bandwagon and singing the praises of the approach that previously they’d made quite difficult for us to pursue.

Similarly there was a conflict about the integrity of the approach. Sharing design with people who hadn’t been on the same journey as us led to concerns about whether the principles that drove the approach were understood, embraced and respected. While you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to do this stuff, it does mean changing how you do things and acting purposefully, with an understanding of why doing certain things in a certain way is so important.

There will always be a compromise in this sense – that’s what happens when you scale things up. So we have had to think about what is most important to the organisation, to our role and the value we can add, in this process and approach, and hold that ground whilst letting go of other things.

The Design and Innovation Board

Around this time we also started having conversations about setting up a Design and Innovation Board. This was a great opportunity to make a statement about our commitment to design, but it was also quite a vague idea with no template for what this should look like. So we went through a design process to design it.

(You can read more about building the Design and Innovation Board, what it’s like to present to the Board and what staff think of the Board.)

The next iteration of a design culture

A year on from the Board starting up, and 3 years since we started our first design project with FutureGov, we’re not looking back. Our design culture and the way we use design continues to evolve over time. This includes looking at how we build it into the commissioning cycle, which is exposing more people to design, but also reminding us how far some services have to go in terms of being user-centred.

We’re also starting to think about how we use design more strategically – not just to fix the things that we already do –  which is important and valid, and has a big impact on people’s day to day lives here and now – but also to think about how design can enable real transformation. The future of local government (and public sector) is going to be very different and there is surely a role for design in enabling this.

It feels like we need to be more radical and ambitious in how we apply design thinking to really stretch our ideas. And this needs to be done at a system level, not one authority at a time. We’d be really interested in talking to people thinking more about this.

Our journey will continue; there isn’t an end point in time where we’ll say that we’re done. The aim will keep changing and the goal posts will keep moving, but we’re confident that a culture informed by design thinking will help to build the mind-sets and toolkit that will help us face whatever comes next for local government.

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