Service Design in the Public Sector: New Ways of Thinking & Doing

Words & pictures by SDXer Mark Yiu

Having spent the last three years working in a user experience consultancy, achieving success largely depended on employing a cross-functional, co-generative and empathetic approach to problem-solving. It demanded a change in mindset, a willingness to actively engage with end users, seek external perspectives, and leverage behaviour insights to not only inform future solutions, but shift legacy thinking and behaviour. Such an approach thrived on the premise that people should no longer be held hostage by circumstance, but be the co-creators of experiences that impact their daily lives.

Being new to the public service, it occurs to me that there is a great deal of potential in employing similar approaches to relevant areas such as citizen engagement, policymaking, organizational culture, and capacity building.

Shifting Thinking & Behaviour

You can’t apply new behaviours to old thinking. If you change behaviours but not the thinking behind them, you haven’t changed anything at all.

- Stephen Gates

Shifting legacy behaviors and outdated thinking can be an incredibly difficult challenge — especially on a project-to-project basis within long-standing siloed institutions. Overcoming this challenge requires the rigor of an approach that integrates discovery, systems thinking, perspective-seeking, and culminates in the co-generation of solutions for long-term, sustainable impact. Enter Service Design, a human-centered approach that evaluates the entire value ecosystem and aims to provide a true understanding of end-to-end service experiences.

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For citizens: siloed decision-making within existing constraints

Through the use of investigative methods — such as ethnographic research, user journey mapping, and service blueprints — combined with co-generative ideation and prototyping with citizens, experts, and engineers, service design aspires to help stakeholders envision scenarios of futures that do not yet exist.

Orchestrating Sustainable Change

In more traditional approaches, short-term behavioural change often masquerades as a set of project objectives. Whether persuading customers to purchase more products, reduce energy consumption, or wash their hands, behaviours are observable, measurable, and experiential. User research may even lead to unexpected insights, but is often employed only in the optimization of the product, service, and/or interaction in question.

The resulting behavioural change becomes novel for a time until it becomes inconvenient and ultimately fails to deliver lasting change. The potential for change is often limited to what is immediately possible within the constraints of the existing system. Such constraints might include IT infrastructure, risk aversion, bureaucracy, capacity, and even incentivization to maintain the status quo.

In the public service, the practice of service design has the potential to be transformative for a variety of reasons. It introduces methodologies and principles that confront the siloed nature of government and its constraints, and challenges individual assumptions by revealing all of the entities, relationships and interactions involved, thereby making the often invisible visible. Service design also espouses high participation in decision making and introduces a fail-positive philosophy in traditionally risk-averse institutions by providing participants with a safe environment to experiment and play.

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With citizens: Cross-jurisdictional collaboration and co-creation of solutions

Reframing Citizen Engagement

Even the term ‘citizen engagement’ begins to take on a new meaning simply by virtue of including them in the design process. Their participation encourages empathy-building and provides a direct line of sight to the motivations and context that drives their behaviours when engaging with a public service. Citizen involvement pushes decision making out into the open and ingrains perspective-seeking as a mode of practice. Through user research, accelerated learning and rapid prototyping, ideas can be quickly tested with low investment and validated against real audience needs. Gone are the days of grand reveals of fully baked solutions.


The practice of service design in the public service unlocks the potential for greater cross-jurisdictional collaboration, the dismantling of constraints, and movement beyond assumptions. It introduces the question of ‘what might be’ in a controlled environment by gathering and synthesizing data in possibly unimagined ways to identify new value and opportunities. Ultimately, the power of service design lies in its ability to orchestrate holistic experiences by systematically challenging old ways of doing and thinking.

Mark Yiu is a Service Designer with Alberta CoLab in the Government of Alberta’s Department of Energy. Connect with Mark on Twitter.

Written by

Systemic Design eXchange: We are a community of practice co-convened by Alberta CoLab & the Skills Society Action Lab.

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