4 insights from 2 years of London #GovDesign Meetup

Learning about an expansive field through running a meetup

For the past several decades, the discipline of design has been mostly associated with the form-giving of commercial products. Only in the last ten years or so, the scope of design has expanded to strategic areas and the experience of intangible things. But even in 2019, design is most prominent in the private sector and barely exists in the public sector.

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.

In the United Kingdom, government organisations now employ almost 1,000 designers. In the last few years, they have transformed renew your passport and register to vote into truly digital services that work as well as delightful commercial services. When I moved to the UK in spring 2016, I stumbled upon presentations from designers in government and their service teams every so often, mostly when attending internal government events. The quality of the work and positive impact on users was significant, but outside of government, barely anyone heard about it. While there was a vivid design meetup scene in central London, government services were nowhere to be seen. To satisfy my own curiosity and possibly the interest of many others, a few colleagues* and I got together to initiate a dedicated Gov Design Meetup.

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.

After the success of the first meetup, the event series continued with a bimonthly frequency. So far, it’s covered more narrow themes like design for local government, large-scale infrastructure, design for data, healthcare and policy. Topics of the first meetup have been mirrored by later speakers and discussed more deeply.

The format for each evening includes three talks followed by a panel discussion with all speakers. It encourages attendees to ask questions and participate in the discourse. The audience is mixed: designers working in government, in smaller consultancies or big companies, students, people interested in a career in the public sector and also people only interested in one of the specific topics. Some attendees went on to apply for open positions in government as they were so inspired by the stories that they wanted to work on public services themselves.

The fact that government work is financed by the taxpayer and not controlled by competitive shareholders makes it easier for public servants to talk about their projects somewhat openly. The UK Government follows a “make things open: it makes things better” approach which doesn’t require anyone to sign a non-disclosure agreement before joining a meetup. In recent years, more civil service designers have taken the stage at bigger conferences enabled by this rule.

Some of the meetup locations, like Houses of Parliament or the Ministry of Justice, required participants to undergo some security procedures, though. Surprisingly, some attendees expressed their excitement about passing a security door system in a Parliament building as this experience gave them additional context of the work discussed.

After two years and thirteen meetups, particular attributes and circumstances of design in government emerged from the 38 talks. Even though the topics spanned broad areas — from developing a national roadsign scheme to enabling participation of people with learning disabilities — several insights went above these subjects:

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.

Talks to watch:
Darius Pocha on design tools for wicked problems;
Adam Walther on designing for the dark matter

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.

Talks to watch:
Ben Carpenter on inclusive services;
Kirsty Joan Sinclair on putting people at the centre of their services

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.

Talks to watch:
Ade Adewunmi on renovating and maintaining digital services and data;
Andrew Miller on your government wants to digitize everything?

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.

Talks to watch:
Kavi Harshawat and Xena Ni on how to exit;
Jack Collier on why service design in gov isn’t doing enough

Since early 2017, the meetup series has had hundreds of attendees. More than 1,000 people have signed up to updates via the meetup page. More recently, the meetup has also been on tour, visiting Manchester and San Francisco. In addition, more than 3,000 people have watched the recorded videos of the talks. The breadth of topics and themes covered so far is substantial. Presenters have given an insight into a wide range of services, including becoming a foster carer, applying for residential parking permits, becoming a citizen, renewing a passport, moving from hospital to social care or reporting a complaint to the city. To all of these public services, human-centred designers have contributed and made a difference. Many of the challenges they faced on the way are similar to ones designers have in the private sector as large-scale organisations are much alike. The four insights should be evenly applicable.

For the foreseeable future, the meetup will continue to run. The growing list of prospective topics includes education, transportation, law enforcement, security & safety, and futures planning. People who cannot attend the evening events in London will be able to watch the talks soon after via YouTube.

*My brilliant partners-in-crime for running the Gov Design Meetup are Conor Delahunty, Kara Kane, Maria Izquierdo, Nicolás Rebolledo and Stephen McCarthy

Adewunmi, A. 2018. Renovating and maintaining digital services and data. Gov Design Meetup, 24 October 2018. Accessed 15 June 2019. https://youtu.be/j8uacRZxc6c

Bason, C. 2017. Leading Public Design: How managers engage with design to transform public governance. Copenhagen: Copenhagen Business School.

Buller, J. 2018. Embedding inclusive research, design & testing in Home Office. Gov Design Meetup, 21 March 2018. Accessed 15 June 2019. https://youtu.be/dFR1HO5-2xw

Fawkes, A. 2018. Daybook: Designing with & for people with learning disabilities. Gov Design Meetup, 21 March 2018. Accessed 15 June 2019. https://youtu.be/cdpkvom1-1c

Government Digital Service. 2012. Government design principles. GOV.UK, 3 April 2012. Accessed 18 June 2019. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/government-design-principles#make-things-open-it-makes-things-better

Government Digital Service. 2019. Service Standard. GOV.UK. Accessed 24 June 2019. https://www.gov.uk/service-manual/service-standard

Harshawat, K. and Ni, X. 2018. How to Exit. Gov Design Meetup, 18 July 2018. Accessed 15 June 2019. https://youtu.be/p160VIjNl4Y

Herlihy, P. 2014. I fought the law and the users won: delivering online voter registration. Government Digital Service Blog, 20 June 2014. Accessed 15 June 2019. https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2014/06/20/i-fought-the-law-and-the-users-won-delivering-online-voter-registration/

Jordan, M., Kane, K., Izquierdo, M., Rebolledo, N., McCarthy, S. and Delahunty, C. 2019. #GOVDESIGN. Accessed 18 June 2019. http://gov-design.com/

Kane, K. & Jordan, M. 2018. Scaling Service Design in the UK Government. Touchpoint, 9 (2), 36–39.

Kops, H. 2017. Futureproof Design. Gov Design Meetup, 22 February 2017. Accessed 15 June 2019. https://youtu.be/-kD8xJQzErI

London Gov Design Meetup. 2019. Meetup. Accessed 15 June 2019. https://www.meetup.com/London-Gov-Design-Meetup/

Nordic Innovation. 2018. Nordic Design Resource. Accessed 18 June 2019. http://nordicdesignresource.com/

Pocha, D. 2018. Design tools for wicked problems. Gov Design Meetup, 7 February 2018. Accessed 15 June 2019. https://youtu.be/rQ7-O0NfPH0

Prince, M., Watson, C. 2019. Applying for your passport online. Home Office Digital Blog, 13 February 2019. Accessed 15 June 2019. https://hodigital.blog.gov.uk/2019/02/13/applying-for-your-passport-online/

Roberts, L. 2017. Life beyond Ecomms. Gov Design Meetup, 22 February 2017. Accessed 15 June 2019. https://youtu.be/rdgUomOhDKw

Walther, A. 2017. Designing for the Dark Matter. Gov Design Meetup, 22 February 2017. Accessed 15 June 2019. https://youtu.be/-1fDcIW5KkU

Making services work better for all people; Head of Service Design at the UK Cabinet Office; co-editor of The Service Gazette