4 insights from 2 years of London #GovDesign Meetup

Learning about an expansive field through running a meetup

The state of design in government

In progressive Nordic countries, almost 90% of designers work in the private sector. Only 1 out of 10 designers in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden works in the public sector. This includes the in-house graphic designers in theatres as well as the design professionals working in product development for public research bodies. Fewer than 4% of Nordic designers work on public services. That might explain why many interactions with government and administration are so cumbersome. The experiences that citizens have with filing their taxes or becoming a citizen aren’t as clear and straightforward as booking a flight or signing up to a movie streaming service. Very likely, there are significant improvements that can be made to services related to retiring or applying for unemployment benefits. Having more user researchers, service and experience designers might help change that. And in various countries, change is indeed underway.

Starting a meetup

In February 2017, we ran the first meetup at the Royal College of Art. From the outset, the meetup attracted almost 50 people. Exploring the breadth of design in the public sector, we invited three speakers from different organisations.

Insight 1: Aim for fundamental change, embrace small gains

Designers in government regularly have to widen the scope of the briefs given to them. By conducting user research and better understanding the context, existing systems, and support structures, they learn what user needs and organisational constraints are. When designing for the broader problem space, designers have to balance immediate business improvements and long-term organisational transformation. Both are important. Looking out for marginal gains helps to achieve early victories that provide the fuel for the long journey. Over time, the number of small interventions adds up to measurable effect and accumulates stakeholder trust, which is important for more ambitious shifts.

Insight 2: Serve the most vulnerable to help everyone

By law, the government needs to serve all people equally. This includes everyone with access needs. Despite many organisations’ push of digital channels for service provision, they recognise that not every citizen can, wants to or will use digital public services. Under an inclusive services approach, other channels have to work equally well. The user research insights and learnings from building a new digital service can often inform and improve non-digital channels. In the UK government, service teams follow the Service Standard, which demands them to test services with people who have access needs. The UK Home Office has embedded an inclusive approach into their usability testing efforts. At least 1 in 6 people in every usability test has access needs. Including users with access needs, physical or cognitive impairments uncovers the weakness of services that affect many other users, too. In one example, deaf users did not want to share their phone number with the service as they would not be able to answer phone calls. An iterated prototype included the option to be contacted via text message. Shift workers, people working multiple jobs and parents with babies will equally benefit from this functionality. The example shows how including people with a wide range of skill sets and capabilities in the design process and responding to their needs will make the service offering better for everyone.

Insight 3: Favour renovation over innovation

Often, people want shiny new things — a piece of technology that can solve many of today’s problems at once. Senior leaders praise the impact of artificial intelligence, blockchain and big data without necessarily understanding them in detail. Beyond buzzwords, quite a few people in government look beyond what can be done and identify what should be done. In government, there is significant technical debt, infrastructure that needs in investment as it cannot be replaced. If well maintained, it can be leveraged; it can become ‘infrastructure commons’. Also, even new projects will have to interact with existing infrastructure. By anticipating future use and reuse and establishing a healthy maintenance culture, government can reduce future costs, save time and reduce risks. One example is data. While services are places where data is generated in government, service teams spend too little effort on quality and reuse. With the right awareness, scope and funding, service teams can create data outputs highly beneficial for others that the immediate stakeholders of the service. Currently, only the direct internal and external users of the data are considered — caseworkers, end users, statisticians etc. But it is unlikely that general purpose data will be a natural by-product of a development project. It needs to be considered from the start. For designers and user researchers in government, it means recognising and studying not just current external users, but also future internal users. Future colleagues and the public will later be the beneficiaries.

Insight 4: Make yourself redundant, make it sustainable

Hopefully, design in government is here to stay. But unquestionably, the individual designer is not going to be around indefinitely. They often move around from project to project, usually before the desired end state is reached. Moreover, government still relies a lot on contractors. Equally, contracting designers want to make sure not all is lost once they are gone. Working closely with other team members and potentially other teams is one way of making sure things will progress past departure. By partnering to deliver, ways of thinking are shared, and ways of working are experienced. Mixing teams and enhancing communication — up to the degree of oversharing — spreads expertise and grows capability within. An alternative to bringing in another external person temporarily: look out for someone from inside the team who wants to step up and take on a design-related role, even though they might not have the formal background. Investing in culture, hiring people with an open growth mindset and establishing quality standards for the work help make the creation of high-quality service much more likely.

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Martin Jordan

Making services work better for all people; Head of Design at German govt’s Digital Service, former Head of Service Design at UK Gov; Service Gazette co-editor