When I was 20 years old, I was given the opportunity as a designer to enter the public sector. I went inside the machine and was confused about why we weren’t designing services the same way we made chairs: people first, understanding our materials, testing iteratively before the final production. Quite the opposite in fact, we were doing to people not for. Top down, prescriptive policy and delivering services as process charts; expecting people to use what we’d created.

During this period, I became fascinated by how Government and public services work (and don’t work) and where design principles (and designers) could add value. Working as a public servant, developing digital public services back from 2007-10, I undertook a Masters focusing on mapping design across the public sector and how policy moves from the strategy unit to the services we see.

This period pre-dated initiatives such as Government Digital Service and many of the innovation labs that were being set up by public sector/government.

It was an exciting time and a very new concept that had been brewing for many years before I came to it. I was lucky to become one of a new cohort of designers entering the public sector to redesign services.

I built on practice like Sophia Parker’s innovation labs in Kent County Council, leaders in the field like Futuregov and Engine who were launching ‘The journey to the interface’ and the innovation bodies like Nesta who were discussing Co-production, user led innovation and innovation for public services.

Service Design in Government

In 2014, I gave the Keynote at Service Design in Government. My brief from the organisers was to talk simply through the tools of Service Design, methods and some practical case studies. Having been in the field for a fair bit of time already, we wanted to see service design progressing to hit the mainstream, but we weren’t quite there yet.

I knew this was a ‘basics’ presentation, getting people behind the mindset of creating people-centred services that work end-to-end across public and government services.

Fast forward 3 years and I’m standing alongside our client Camilla Buchanan from the Cabinet Office with Cassie Robinson of The Point People who were our collaborators on the Designing Social Investment project and report.

Designing Social Investment – Cabinet Office UK, Snook & The Point People

We’re talking openly about researching the needs of users in the social investment field, what we’re discovering, how we’re creating guiding principles for the sector to be led by the Cabinet Office and how we’re prototyping new products and services for the social investment marketplace. We’re talking side by side, honestly and openly exploring the challenges of where design is supporting development of better informed policy. In fact, other agencies like Live|Work are talking alongside Department for Health and Us Creates with NHS England.

This is an exciting time. A really really exciting time with huge potential to get this right. But we need to keep pushing!

I can feel it again. It has been a really hard slog talking the same process and ideas for years but you know what? We are getting somewhere.

SDinGov 2016 was a great testament to this. It’s conferences like this that are like a mirror, they play back to you the progress that’s been made. It’s easy to get beaten down, or feel like the same message has been playing for years. Believe me it has, and long before I was in the industry or even studying; but it’s exciting to see it being put into action.

I think there were more people from across government and public sector bodies presenting than practice-based designers.

Here are my key takeaways

There are exceptional standards of practice and structures being developed at the highest level

Government Digital Service is gaining huge traction and their approach is spreading to other bodies. Their exceptional service manual outlines savings produced, an approach to user needs first, end-to-end service design, service standards, service pattern talk and fantastic work from Alistair Duggin on accessibility. Whilst it’s got a digital focus, they’re now embedding the foundations and platforms to scale this across all of Government. And other bodies are embedding design too (UKTI, Ministry of Justice, Home Office). It is fantastic to finally see such a united approach to getting service basics right.

Service redesign and meeting needs is about designing the organisation

I’ve shared widely Ben Holliday’s post on fixing broken windows. Ben is right – successful companies put design at the centre of everything they do. Everything in your organisation should be designed to work for people: on the inside and outside from onboarding process to communication systems and data sets making the service work.

Service is everyone’s and everything’s business

What was great to hear Louise Downe, Head of Design at GDS, pointing out is that we’re approaching all of this through a service design lenses. She explained that they’re not just redesigning forms, or a digital interface, they’re looking at everything that makes for a better service: from CSS codes and making sure text is readable by assistive technology, to the loading time on screen, the way we name services and the data sets they’re cleaning up.

There is an emergent common language

There was a common language being used. This is great. If we have the foundations in place about putting people first and end-to-end journeys, we can begin to build the platforms and structures we need in place to make this a reality.

We are all figuring this out – and in the open

It felt like everyone was honest, and sharing both their successes and failures, live on stage. This is a principle of a design-led approach, critical debate on the right thing to do and why certain decisions are made. Governments were using hackpads, open Google Docs and Wikis to document learnings and ideas. Agencies and clients were listing how they could better work together now they’d partnered. This might seem simple, but having gone to quite a few industry events where there’s often a focus on show pieces, this is really refreshing.

We need traction across local government, third sector and commissioning scenarios

The above points aren’t always true across all of the named fields. There are some fantastic examples out there and guys like Bexley Council are doing some good work but it would be good to hear more from other Local Authorities about what they’re doing and see them take part. I know from our work, that sometimes it is a struggle to communicate the value of service design to Local Authorities, particularly when there seems to be a disconnect in terms of a common language or mindset. The barriers to making this happen are often political and complex. Conflicting drivers impact on commissioners, such as moves towards provider market places and citizens being considered as more demanding consumers of services (i.e to get your passport, you can apply to one place and one place only). There is a huge job to do here and a large systems piece…

The larger systems piece to consider around design 

The public office, and others, picked up on Systems thinking which is taking a role in this, particularly around the local authority service design discussion.

In the complex environment of multi-stakeholder delivery, we really need to take a systems approach to consider how we commission services in this arena. This will involve up-skilling Councils to think differently about service delivery and information provision, and move away from the big ‘I.T transformation programmes’.

We need more of a conversation around the ethics and practice of codesign and research 

I can’t enthuse enough about the brilliant work of Katherine Garzonis on desinging with mental health service users and Liana Dragoman / Yasmin Fodal on the complexities of designing with and for vulnerable populations. Both brought nuances in how we should approach research, retelling the journeys of people and how we characterise their stories. We’ve got much work to do here in creating some accessible ethics and training across education on this.

We are at another exciting period of development but the job is bigger than we expected

There’s lot to do, and I think we’ve got a serious skills gap. It seems nearly every public body and government department is advertising for people to come and work on this. We really need to scale up our training and experience in doing this kind of work.

For me – I’m committed to an ‘outsider’ role after being on the inside of public services. I believe I have more impact from this position, supporting organisations to think differently about what they’re doing and building their capacity to do it themselves. And this is something we have done and continue to do.

We’re talking more and more about supporting organisations to build design capacity rather than doing the design work ourselves; and this has always been the ethos of our agency. However, there’s a role for everyone here: from outsiders to insiders in government and public services. We need to keep working together and sharing our insights and stories.

Thanks Service Design in Government! I genuinely left this year feeling powered up and positive. We’ve got a long way to go but we’re certainly heading in the right direction.