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Design first, act later

Source: PSE Aug/Sep 16

Stephen Miller, research and evaluation manager at the Design Council, talks to PSE’s Luana Salles about the main barriers to embedding smart service design in local authority projects, and how to overcome them.

At a time of financial constraints and growing demand, it is already clear to local authorities that they must start delivering services differently. Whether that’s digitising schemes that no longer belong on paper or streamlining the customer journey, public service transformation must uphold the pillars of innovation, efficiency and accessibility. 

One of the major routes through which councils can reform and digitise schemes is better service design. This is where the private sector has the edge over public bodies: because its organisations are driven by profit and competition, they focus on how to capture a greater share of the market and set themselves apart from other businesses.Whilst this used to be unheard of in the public sector, Stephen Miller, research and evaluation manager at Design Council, told PSE that there has been a change in direction in the last few years within public bodies. 

“They’re looking at how they can become more efficient and more effective. That has partly informed the increasing appetite for innovation and design that we’re seeing at the moment, and hopefully that will continue,” he said. “What we’re seeing now is the most forward-looking and strategic organisations actually thinking about how they can have even more bang for their buck: so how can we be more effective now, with less resources, than we were when we had more?” 

Design in the Public Sector 

Miller currently oversees the Design in the Public Sector accelerator programme, launched by his organisation in 2014 in partnership with the LGA, which invites applications from councils to take part in a series of immersive workshops that coach staff on how to ‘bake in’ design into every aspect of service transformation. 

These 90-day training programmes move council cohorts along different stages of what the Design Council has coined the ‘Double Diamond’ model, or a framework upon which to restructure services. The diamond consists of four stages – discover, define, develop and deliver – and aims to address practical and strategic barriers to effective service design. 

Last year, the programme published its first evaluation report, amalgamating learning from 18 months’ worth of case studies to showcase best practice examples of what works. In Brighton and Hove, for example, the city council is looking at developing mobile technology to digitalise planning services. The project, ongoing at the point of evaluation, managed to agree funding for pilots in a number of possible areas, including building controls, bailiffs, and children’s services. 

Similarly, Hart District Council undertook user research to digitise parking services through a new IT provider, and plans to feed the learning into a larger three to five-year project that will look at moving even more complex services online. 

Spreading the learning 

But how can councils not directly involved in the Design Council programme undertake similar large-scale design exercises? According to Miller, there are a range of ways local authorities can improve their services without access to professional coaching or large resource pools. 

“One way is just about awareness. Although we’ve had lots of organisations passing through this training, I think awareness of the benefits of design and how you stimulate innovation in public services is definitely improving. But there’s still room for improvement,” he argued. 

“Next is knowing where to go and what tools to use. We do as much as we can to share learning from this programme and some of the tools with others, and make those available. There are other organisations as well that talk about how you can apply design thinking to your work, and there are definitely lots of free resources available on the internet. 

“And the final thing is really thinking about the small changes you could make to your practice that are low-cost but potentially high-impact. There’s a bit of tendency, particularly in a politically-charged environment, to jump straight in with a policy solution or a service, when actually that’s not addressing the root cause of the problem that you think it’s addressing. Even just taking some time out, taking that step back and thinking ‘what is it that we’re actually trying to do here?’, even that could help.” 

Financial barriers 

Can this be done without extra funding? Miller argues it can – especially as the councils working directly with Design Council are affected by the same cuts as every other authority. The process of design thinking itself, he explained, doesn’t need much money because it is “essentially just a conceptual exercise”. This is where the Double Diamond model comes into play. Miller said most organisations begin to address a problem already starting in the middle of the model because they think they know what challenge they’re trying to address, when in reality, they must first take a step back and really think about the root cause of the issue. 

“What you might do is even reconceptualise the original challenge. So you might say: ‘I thought we were trying to address X, but actually, what we’re trying to address is Y’,” he added. “That sort of stuff is low-cost and highly effective, because it means that whatever you do, whatever resources you have after that, it’s going to have maximum impact.” 

As well as skipping over this crucial starting point, some major structural flaws that can prevent councils from diving headfirst into innovation is capacity. “It’s not so much that undertaking a design-led approach is resource-intensive, but it’s making that strategic decision to stop what you’re doing, where you’re currently working, and actually think about redesigning it,” Miller said. “Unfortunately, that’s a bit counterproductive, since it’s because they’re having constrained resources and capacity that they, more than ever, need to undertake service redesign.” 

Systemic barriers 

Other barriers necessitate more systemic change – such as to the way councils think about themselves, or the way central government perceives their services – or even rely on organisational culture. “Understandably there’s some risk aversion, and that is something which is longstanding,” Miller continued. 

“But we need to find ways to overcome that as the world becomes increasingly more complex and the challenges that we’re facing become even more stubborn. There’s going to be a need for testing and prototyping lots of different solutions, some of which are not necessarily going to work the first time round, so there’s got to be a bit more of an appetite for risk. 

“And then, likewise, that informs some of the wider cultural challenges when you’re trying to introduce innovation into those services; sometimes there can be a bit of resistance internally.” He added that the areas where the Design Council has seen this work best is where there is buy-in from senior management. 

Luckily for councils still limited by risk aversion or financial challenges, the Design Council’s programme is ongoing and will shortly start working with a cohort of local authorities from the East Midlands, with plans to open applications up again in a few months’ time – so keep your eyes peeled.

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