Designing services is everyone’s business | SDinGov 2017 conference reflections

sarah sdingov

SDinGov 2017 conference reflections

I had the honour of being asked by Mark Dalgarno to close the Service Design in Government conference this year. I was going to share the stage with Caroline Jarrett but sadly she couldn’t attend due to family circumstances and we send our best wishes to her and her family!

In true there’s no done and we’re not done style, I named my presentation ‘Closing Keynote: A sort of closing opener’ – click on the link to view it on open google docs.

SDinGov previous years

I keynoted in year one and have attended every year since. Looking back, my spin on it was this:

2014 – We talked about why Service Design matters for and in Government
2015 – We saw more work and evidence of design(ers) in Government
2016 – We started talking about scaling the approach in more detail
2017 – Might have left some people confused but the call was for greater sustainability of the approach, not just celebrating or focusing on the distinct discipline of Service Design

SDinGov 2017 takeaways

I made it my effort to attend as many talks as possible to gauge the conversations, themes, focus and opportunities we’re discussing as a sector – who are working on the inside, edge and outside of Government in public services.

Here’s a synopsis of my highlights and key takeaways.

1 Transformation is never ‘done’

Louise Downe, Head of Design for the UK Government, gave a blinding kick-off discussing the notion that organisations go through 3 stages of being ‘done’:

  1. Legitimising the approach
  2. Delivering some good stuff
  3. Making the approach sustainable

Her point was to dismiss A. Don’t build the toolkits and the process charts. Go and deliver some impact and then figure out how to scale it.

For example, we saw the GDS approach to making service design sustainable and how services are taking a central stage as the strategy. From a new cross-government data platform for analysing and tracking users across multiple services to growing training inside Government for design – they’re working hard on the community and how this can work in future Government.

Louise’s salient point was that transformation is never done. So, we must focus on building a sustainable capacity to just keep going.

There is no ‘go big or go home’, there is just keep going.

2 Data in Government is still in startup mode

“If we don’t have the right data, we build the wrong thing. Bad data can mean life or death in my line of work.” [Kit Collingwood]

Kit, Director of Data at DWP, gave us a fantastic insight into how she is building a practice and culture around using data in the design and decision-making for services. She discussed the evolution of the multidisciplinary team and how she is building data stories into the Service Design process. Great to see this discipline emerging and linking in with Service Design to build both the quantitative and qualitative picture.

3 Bridging policy and delivery

“Policy makers will tell you what policies are fixed. Start with the flexible ones to make change” [James Reeve]

James gave a fantastic presentation on how policy works and when it is pliable in a Service Design context. He talked about getting to know the hard and soft policies where you can influence change. A great lesson for anyone involved in designing services to consider policy as a malleable material. Don’t bring policy and delivery together – make them the same thing – a blog post by James.

“Policy makers are at the sharp end of ultimate stakeholder management” [Sophie Dennis]

Sophie echoed this and broke down some great examples of how policy impacts on the services we live and breathe, making sure we don’t forget that some of our ‘users’ internal to Government are those who support Downing Street to take macro policy decisions. So, we need to really understand this chain of communication and be empathic to how it works. Here’s a link to Sofie’s slide presentation.

As people working on improving state and local Government services, we need to better understand the materials of policy, data and the internet. Just as we’d consider shaping a chair out of wood, these are the modern materials we need to learn to craft our services of the future.

4 Let’s get critical

It’s time we really start to scrutinise our work in the world. It’s been great to see Alistair Duggan’s work on the rise of accessibility in Government, and consultancies like IF launch networking events on how to think about data and privacy for designers working on services.

Sophie Boyd talked about a minimum viable  _______ not being a service and that we need to be striving for service transformation. In the landscape of design events and media over the past few years, much of it has been about ‘the next big thing’. Here’s a link to the slide from Sophie’s talk.

I loved Kate Tarling’s idea of “the best service is one where no one has to do anything”. This is perhaps a difficult notion for consultancies because we’re often asked for the ‘next big thing’. Most of the time, I’m promoting that we get rid of ‘things’ and focus on building better relationships between people and skills to continuously develop, not just ‘innovate’ once.

This builds on Louise Downe’s point on the first morning to forget building the toolkits and get on with the shipping of better services and sustainable approaches to scaling service design in Government.

It is all of our jobs to ensure our work can result in actionable, good change. We should be critical of ourselves, and open and honest when we’re not achieving it.

5 Building curiosity for change in education

There was a call for more training for Government. Put simply, consultancies can help Government scale up this approach as the resource is still thin on the ground. I’ve always believed we design with not for organisations. That means building their capacity and internal systems to become user-centred, not just being competent in Service Design.

This led to a critique of Design Education not preparing students to enter Government. This was about ensuring we build curiosity, problem-solving and a hunger for change in our emergent talent, not just a discipline of ‘service designers’ who understand the tools.

I’ve made a call to take this right back to high schools. After visiting my old school, in January this year, I’m keen to open up some free design modules that young people can play with as our schools are crying out for live briefs. Let’s start with young people and support the survival of our craft, design and technology subjects. After all, they’re the glue between science, maths and politics.  

6 Local Government

There wasn’t a huge Local Government presence at the event and they face complex service delivery challenges. In particular, the constant cutting off of funds.

Waltham Forest showcased their get it done approach through commissioning models for adult social care and other complex services.

How does Service Design work for Local Government? More of this, please!  

7 Statutory and voluntary sector

I’d be keen to see more of the voluntary and statutory sector (i.e Citizen Advice Bureau) who are filling the gaps where Government services fail people. Much of this infrastructure is supporting people who have complex needs to navigate Government departments, provide information and guidance where Government does not. They are part of the rich social fabric of Government service eco-system, let’s hear about what they’re doing.

8 Design it forward

Let’s share what we’re doing, as a community, we can come together to document design patterns from the work we’ve all been doing. Can we, as a sector, pull together our findings to grow work and not repeat it?

Systems Changers cohort

9 Empower the frontline

Frontline workers are the eyes and ears of service users. We should build learning systems that empower the frontline to change services to meet the needs of users. I talked at the closing about Systems Changers, a programme I’ve been fortunate to work on with The Point People and Lankelly Chase. I shared stories of people working within the voluntary and statutory services who are designing new journeys for service users where they found broken areas. They’re hacking the system with tools like ‘How to navigate ESA’.

These people have the skills, motivation and hunger to redesign the system, so let’s work towards a future where they can! As John Seddon pointed out in ‘The Whitehall Effect’ book, we need to re-bridge the operation of the front and back office.

10 Designing services is everyone’s business

“It took a multidisciplinary team to destroy the death star” [Ade Adewunmi]

Ade nailed it with this! Making services work, building the organisational culture, bridging with policy, tying all the sectors together – all of this is everyone’s job, not specific to the Service Design discipline.

Where Service Design works, is all of us owning the problem together.

For me, we need to stop proclaiming if we are or are not Service Designers and start focusing on the fact we’re all involved in making stuff better for people.

Finishing with Sophie’s close out on day two:

‘‘Let’s work together to transform the experience for all our users’’ [Sophie Boyd]


You can view all of these points, and more, in my closing presentation here.

It was a great conference! Good to see a mix of people coming from different angles. This summary is not a critique of what we didn’t see but a call to arms to push more in these areas.

Next year, I hope to see some examples of fringe work from the voluntary and local Government sector, some more complex service design work in areas like adult social care and criminal justice system, and let’s hope, an even bigger blossoming network of designers in Government.