From Servants to Stewards: Design-led Innovation in the Public Sector (Part 1)

An introduction to the project and research, and the surprising revelation that the terms “innovation” and “design” actually mean something. Already read it? Check out Parts II, III, or IV


“The government is us; we are the government, you and I.”
–Theodore Roosevelt, 1902

For years, and very acutely the last few months, citizens of the United States and in many other parts of the world have been pitched into an often uncomfortable morass of debate and discussion about the direction of their country. Problems exist, and persist, which government at all levels has tried to address or currently addresses, and government’s efficacy at addressing problems affects all of us in some way. At such an historical moment like the one in which we live, in which a competing visions of government excite or frighten so many, we remember how much government matters to us.

A very powerful anecdote told to a crowd of listeners at Harvard recently recounted how, during a United States Digital Service project, the prototype for a project delivered to a decision maker and her team didn’t include a feature that was very clearly dictated to them in the requirements.¹ The head of the United States Digital Service team that facilitated the project received an angry call summoning her to the director’s office. There, the policy maker who had added the requirement asked for an explanation why the prototype didn’t meet requirements. “We described to her that we actually took this prototype to a school, and had people use it. It wasn’t a feature they wanted or used, so it didn’t make sense to build it.” The simple common sense of the logic of design-thinking immediately resonated with the policy maker. “Yeah, we shouldn’t build it if they don’t need it.” She stopped for a moment, and continued, “Oh my gosh, this is great, we should do everything like this, we should make policy like this!”²

“Yeah, we shouldn’t build it if they don’t need it.” She stopped for a moment, and continued, “Oh my gosh, this is great! We should do everything like this! We should make policy like this!”

This story demonstrates how a growing movement within governments around the world has begun improve the public sector through design-led innovation. This article, presented in four parts, explores various aspects of that movement. To get right to it, the “design” in design-led innovation refers in this work specifically to design thinking, or the idea that design is a process, rather than a domain of outputs. You’ll see that I advocate strongly for a particular design process known as human-centered design, commonly referred to as HCD. HCD is a process made up of alternating divergence and convergence by which an individual or team starts by empathetically understanding a problem through close interaction with the people that experience it. The team then extends that co-creation to the solution phase, and experiments with ideas originating from both the team the humans who have the problem. It relies heavily on prototyping and small-scale releases of potential solutions to facilitate multiple iterations and get as close as possible to a solution whose effectiveness the team measures relative to its ability to solve the original problem. This may represent a bit of a switch to some: rather than become enamored of and advocate for a favored genius idea, many of today’s best designers fall in love with the problem, and don’t rest until a solution, originating from anywhere, gets it closer to solved.

I define innovation here as the process of developing and cultivating new ideas, often from individuals throughout an organization and even outside of it, thereby maximizing the potential of all of the resources at an organization’s disposal and often breaking down organizational silos. The marriage of innovation and design thinking suggests a strategy in which innovation encourages new ideas and helps an organization adapt to ever-changing conditions, and a transparent process that helps to develop a deep understanding of a problem, decreases cost and mitigates the risk of releasing something that doesn’t solve the problem, and provides a mechanism for questioning the system itself.³

This work culminates an introductory research project for me. At the heart of the work is the question, “How can design thinking and innovation improve public sector effectiveness, provide more opportunities for rewarding political participation,⁴ and facilitate the pursuit of ambitious, shared goals that move us into the future?”

Yours truly in personal protective equipment [PPE] used by doctors administering care to Ebola patients. Photo taken during a workshop convened by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the U.S. Agency for International Development, in which individuals from diverse professional backgrounds worked together using design-led innovation to solve a pressing problem: reimagining the PPE and minimizing the risk of spreading the Ebola virus. The Office of Personnel Management’s Innovation Lab and Médecins Sans Frontières facilitated the workshops.

I want to accomplish two things with this research: I work and research topics relevant to design practice, and social and public impact in design and innovation seemed like a relevant and timely topic. As such, this research serves to increase my own competencies in this subject. Going forward, I hope to increase these competencies through further research projects like this one and shorter articles that foster a broader discussion around design-led innovation in the public sector. I’m eager to participate in facilitated workshops and learn more with others about real-world problems.

For 4 months, I explored the impact and potential of design thinking (with a strong focus on HCD) and innovation, the combination of which I refer to as design-led innovation. I define these terms on the basis of my research and my own experience in the paragraphs that follow and demonstrate how both work on their own and together. My research has taken me through various books, dozens of published articles and blogs, incredible and thought-provoking resources made public by courageous and committed design leaders from both inside and outside of the public sector, and several interviews with a diverse array of professionals. My conclusion? Design-led innovation can have a game-changing impact on both public sector effectiveness and the ways we as citizens participate politically and perceive government. Furthermore, I believe design-led innovation has the potential to grow from “a great way to do business” into a political paradigm shift.

Design-led innovation helps to ask the right questions and focus on the underlying problems. It delivers results, but also more efficient and empathy-driven systems to produce them. For those who have called for evidence-based government interventions, this provides a clear process for delivering on that goal. And rather than just clouding the discussion by increasing the number of voices for its own sake and without an active purpose, it truly takes advantage of the incredible resource that each of us represents as citizens. British journalist George Monbiot suggests the solution that design-led innovation provides now: “Unlike pushback to the gilded age, design-thinking provides a way to make neoliberalism in fact more effective, while creating a greater resilience based on improving talent and constantly learning in a democratized way, thereby making more for everyone.”⁵

Nonetheless, I have identified some limitations of design-led innovation in the public sector, and I believe now more than ever in the need for moral, visionary leadership to help build consensus around problems worth solving. And to be sure, design-led innovation in the public sector has a long way to go, at least in terms of delivering on the promise that a more effective government will play its role in creating a better political conversation. Even now, those countries which have worked on the cutting edge of implementing design-led innovation are among the most plagued by reactionary, nationalist tendencies, for example the U.K., the U.S., and Denmark. Whether design-led innovation in government can do more to counter these tendencies remains to be seen. But if employed correctly, citizens can play a new role, and have a new outlet for their desire to make a difference that current calls-to-action fail to provide.

The research has developed many angles, and in future work I’ll go deeper in topics covered here, as well as related aspects that deserve a deeper dive. In this part, I’ll explore innovation and design, and what they mean now in the context of the public sector. Many have used both terms rather freely, often to their own benefit or as a means of acquiring some social capital or an embellishment to their personal brand. This makes a clear discussion of definitions of these terms and the processes and systems they represent all the more important. Part II discusses political history, and explores whether government reform based on design-led innovation resembles and contrasts with other past attempts to improve government. It takes a close look at the birth of a very interesting tension between the anti-establishment roots of the modern technological sector (with which design thinking is closely related) and government, a tension which may in fact allow this movement to have far more reaching effects than reform efforts of the past. This part culminates in a brief overview of the frameworks, mechanisms, and political dynamics that many governments rely on today. In Part III, I’ll explore some best practices of implementing design-led innovation in a public sector organization, presented in the context of the drive toward digital, which has had very mixed success. I then expand into some straightforward quick wins for any organization, with a strong emphasis on cultivating empathy.⁶

I’ll focus more explicitly on the types of problems that design-led innovation works best to solve, as well as offer some comparisons between different types of government and political and economic conditions in Part IV, although examples from all kinds of government organizations appear throughout this research. This aspect of the discussion suggests that design-led innovation pushes back against the standard one-size-fits-all solutions often offered by government and makes a case for building design competency within an organization either through recruitment or training. I’ll conclude with some recommendations and some of my own takeaways from so much time spent learning about this movement.

It’s only appropriate before I get too deep into this to say something about my own background, biases, and intent. I currently work as the head of design for a startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts whose core mission is to provide tools for researchers in the life sciences, regardless of whether they work in organizations, academia, or clinical laboratories, in an effort to help them make a seamless and painless transition to working more innovatively. We help them do this by connecting both the human and information resources they already have at their disposal with an integrated data layer and the interface to manage it, rather than forcing people to learn an entirely new set of systems. For many years prior to working in technology, I wrote about social enterprise for an academic journal published through MIT Press, which inspired me to learn to do what I do now–so convinced I had become of the power of design to have an impact. My education in intellectual history and international development led me to live and work throughout Latin America and work for a time in the Organization of American States. In the years that followed, I learned some tough lessons about the real world during my time as owner of an independent coffee company that operated out of a neighborhood coffeehouse in Washington, D.C. I don’t claim expertise in design-led innovation in the public sector, but I do work in a design-led organization and use innovation strategy and design thinking every day. As I talk about it here, I invite you to be a part of my journey to learn more.


Let’s play two truths and a lie:

  1. Good ideas have existed for a long time, and came to life as a bill or a regulation before innovation strategy came along.
  2. There are such things as bad ideas, or at least ideas that don’t produce the result you hoped for.
  3. Implementing design-led innovation in a public sector organization is a long, drawn out process filled with human resource overhauls and restructuring.

Don’t tell, but number three is a lie, and we’ll get to implementation in a bit. First, let’s discuss the two truths. Number one: for a long time I’ve appreciated the work of Jim Hightower, a former agricultural commissioner from my home state of Texas (I grew up in Austin) who has since written prolifically about politics from a very progressive point of view. As agricultural commissioner, he did a tremendous amount for farmers, paving the way for organic produce to make it to market and enabling the farmer’s markets that today we think of as a roadside staple. Were these good ideas? For sure. But it’s important to note here that Jim wasn’t working in an “innovative” environment. He just had good ideas and cared about small farmers. As for the option about bad ideas, I think we’ve been fed a bit of a line on that: I’m willing to bet that you have sat in a brainstorming session where the one leading the session tried to get your creative juices flowing by saying “come on, folks, there are no bad ideas, let’s have it.” It’s tough to distinguish a bad idea from a good one early on, so to some extent the encouragement is fair. But far too often the flip side of Jim’s situation occurs: the group or organization elevates a bad idea into a law or a regulation, which stays in place for years, even decades.

“…design thinking provides the process and a structure for understanding the problem in the terms of the human beings that have it, selecting ideas to try out relative to their supposed ability to solve the problem. Trying out ideas in this way can mitigate risk, and the organization can move quickly in order to ensure that the attempted intervention remains closely linked to the outcome of whether it solved the original problem.”

In contrast, an innovative organization, which encourages the innate creativity of individuals within the organization and stakeholders outside of the organization, experiments with previously untried ideas to solve a vexing problem. Those ideas don’t have to be brand new, strictly speaking–maybe they’ve worked in a similar situation, or in another industry altogether, like in instances where an organization tries a process or method that’s commonplace in hospitality or manufacturing and merits experimentation in a different setting, such as in the case of the Department of Doing in Gainesville, Florida, which mimics the experience of the front desk at a hotel to help citizens start a business more quickly (we’ll discuss that more in Part IV). In my own work, I’ve drawn heavily from manufacturing and the quality assurance principles of Six Sigma to create software for clinical labs. Meanwhile, design thinking provides the process and a structure for understanding the problem in the terms of the human beings that have it, selecting ideas to try out relative to their supposed ability to solve the problem. Trying out ideas in this way can mitigate risk, and the organization can move quickly in order to ensure that the attempted intervention remains closely linked to the outcome of whether it solved the original problem. More resources are spent than in the past on keeping a close eye to the effectiveness of the system that delivers the result and bears in mind the resources available. Alternatively, the project team members may search out novel relationships or partnerships that make new resources available.

Shout out to a few of the thinkers & writers I relied on most for this research: Christian Bason (left), William Eggers (center), and Jon Kolko (right). I highly recommend their work if you want to move past this article into a deeper dive.

Christian Bason, who headed the MindLab in Denmark to bring design-led innovation to the government there and has written a lot of the playbook on the subject, defines design in the public sector as a “way of reasoning that allows bridging and managing the two opposing (yet complementary) cognitive styles constituting knowledge acquisition and implementation of public policies: the ‘analytical-logical mindset’ that characterizes most large organizations and professional bureaucracies, and the more interpretative, intuitive mind-set that characterizes the arts and creative professions.”⁷ Or, as the United Nations Development Program [UNDP] explains the connection between design and innovation in a brief on the subject where the above Bason quote originates, “Design is what links creativity and innovationby providing a process for a focused, meaningful set of ideas and the process to carry that out.⁸

So what about Jim, and what about those bad ideas? As for Jim, he had quite the challenge getting his good ideas to the public. At an organization driven by a commitment to innovation, however, many more good ideas like Jim’s could have bubbled up, whether from farmers or economists or a low level clerk, and become part of an arsenal of potential solutions. Contrast this with our current conception of political leadership, who we judge on their agenda or ideas, rather than their ability to encourage good ideas from all over. As the corporate world demonstrates often, the public sector doesn’t have a monopoly on sometimes keeping great ideas under wraps, or even blocking good ones from a different agency or department in the hopes that they’ll get the credit.

As for the bad ideas (defined as bad because they don’t get the results relative to the problem everyone had hoped to solve), unfortunately just as many of those have become a bill or a law. Thus we generally witness nationwide rollout based mostly on a sponsor’s political skill at getting others to say “yes” to funding, without any real experimentation or even a metric to measure success. Many of these ideas then languish without sufficient enforcement or fail in implementation, but only after burning taxpayer dollars in the bonfire of the vanities, the “pet project” of a public sector manager or elected official who had probably left office by the time the ramifications of their work fell on the laps of their constituency. But the critical strength of design thinking is picking apart the bad ideas for something of use, or ensuring that the rough draft of a bad idea doesn’t bubble up untested to high places. As Bason puts it, “public sector innovation is the process of creating new ideas and turning them into value for society.”⁹ Design thinking helps to make sure bad ideas don’t make it too far, and good ideas, iterated upon in the crucible of initially limited public release, become more sophisticated and useful; more than they would have been if a public sector organization had released them into the wild at scale in what a designer would consider a rough draft form.

This general understanding of innovation and design thinking, and how they work together, provides a pretty good basis for understanding both topics in greater depth, especially given the liberty with which many use both terms. As described, both innovation and design thinking feel like nothing more than a method or an approach. The reality may cut way deeper, and refer to a set of cultural norms that an organization acquires through a combination of leadership and practice.

“For some organizations, keeping the lights on might be sufficient.” Matthew Burton noted in a 2014 article describing his experience at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He continues:

“But many organizations — both government and corporate — are talking a lot about innovation these days, and they’re doing it in a way that rings hollow: They are creating ‘innovation strategies and launching ‘innovation initiatives.’ Innovation is not a product or a strategy. It is a culture of efficient problem solving. It is the unexpected, beneficial by-product of an organization that hits the sweet spot between process and lack of process. It happens when you insert curious, creative people into an environment full of interesting problems, and you give those people the freedom to pursue their own ideas.”¹⁰

Burton elaborated on this in an interview with me recently. “In my experience, people want innovation, they want to say they’re innovative. They get points if they can say they were innovative.” I brought this up with Stephanie Wade, program director at Bloomberg Philanthropies and a former director of the Office of Personnel Management’s Innovation Lab in the U.S. Federal government as well. I asked whether or not organization leaders just wanted some social cachet by claiming to be “innovative,” confusing that with just deciding to do a better job or care about their end users. “I’ve certainly seen people confuse the two,” the director said. The difference is that “innovation is about understanding root causes, less about big ideas, and more about the heart of a challenge and solving that, not the symptom.”

And while the director points to a willingness to boldly confront core problems, Burton suggests that a stomach for risk is the real differentiator between those who want to innovate and those who don’t. At one point, when considering the core tenets of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at its inception, many suggested that innovation be among them. Burton opposed it. “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not saying what we are trying to do, to be in favor of innovation. No one isn’t in favor of that. What they aren’t in favor of is taking risks.” With this, Burton harkens to one of the points made above, about how good and bad ideas make it to the surface.

Like in the world of science, which currently contends with a culture in which researchers share primarily positive results, the status quo doesn’t necessarily reward an effort to try something out that ultimately doesn’t work. But innovation not only thrives in a culture of experimentation and controlled failure, it requires it. While generating lots of ideas from all places is a great start, having a process in place for seeing if things work, and ratcheting them back if they don’t leads to learning throughout the organization. Risk is a necessity. How much risk and how much disruption a public sector organization can really tolerate, given its core mandate as a provider of stability, is a question for a later part of this article.

Innovation not only thrives in a culture of experimentation and controlled failure, but requires it.

Innovation itself can take a few forms within an organization, which combine into what Bason calls the innovation space. Bason describes one aspect of this space by giving an example of what he terms paradigm innovation: “In a number of countries, public organizations that used to see themselves as controllers are currently in the middle of a significant paradigm shift to see themselves as service organizations.”¹¹ Here, we see that the very assumptions underlying the perception of the world and how to work within it change.¹²

What Bason calls positional innovation looks and feels like what we’d call a rebrand–an effort to reach a new sector of the market by changing the existing perception of a company, or increasing or changing the organization’s line of products or services in order to appeal to a different set of people.¹³ I think most of us have become used to this, like when Comcast became Xfinity, or Time Warner became Spectrum. Entire countries make attempts at this, like the U.K.’s short lived “Cool Britannia” campaign, a spin on the traditional (and deeply imperialistic) “Rule Brittania” that preceded it for centuries, in gimmick that was at best cheesy and at worst kind of offensive. It didn’t stick around for long.

All of us as consumers have a familiarity with product innovation, which addresses the final output of an organization, whether a service, a physical product, or a piece of software. In fact, we’ve all come to expect regular improvements to most of the products we love, and alternatively get a bit miffed when a product that we’ve become used to rely on operating in a certain way changes. Regardless, organizations tend to favor product innovation as their primary means of improving or remaining competitive in the market.¹⁴

This contrasts with process innovation, which Bason describes as the way “structures, work processes and routines [are] organized, and how…changing these factors increase the value of the organization’s outputs.”¹⁵ An outstanding example of process innovation came about in the early 1980’s at the NUMMI car factory in California, a joint venture between GM and Toyota. The full rundown is worth a read, but in short, GM’s worst performing plant with the lowest level of quality and high absenteeism turned around and became one of its highest performing factories in only a couple of years with almost entirely the same workforce. They did it by empowering employees from throughout the organization to make decisions on quality and literally anyone could stop the production line to correct an issue, a practice called andon. By changing the process and the system, but with all the same resources, GM and Toyota accomplished significantly more than they did with the system they started with.

The NUMMI Factory in Fremont, California. It’s now a Tesla Motors factory.

The integration of design thinking into an organization represents a kind of process innovation. One can pretty confidently thank IDEO for the adoption of design thinking in organizations both within and outside of the public sector. IDEO, the famed industrial design firm cum design consultancy and its non-profit arm ideo.org, were involved in some way with almost every project or organizational transition to a design-led process that I encountered in my research (even that goals setting exercise at the CFPB I noted above). IDEO began in 1991, the result of a merger between different design firms building heavily on the work of Stanford professor and mechanical engineer David Kelley, who in addition to founding the consultancy that would become a part of IDEO, helped to found the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, known more popularly as the Stanford d.school. Kelley and others provided both the scholarly basis for and process of what came to be known as Human Centered Design, which became popular not only through the accomplishments of IDEO in helping to create innovative products, but through thought leadership and active efforts to document, share, and popularize the HCD process. “It started with listening to people,” said my friend Owen Sanderson, a business designer with a focus on resource-poor environments at ideo.org. He works often in the developing world applying HCD to the wicked problems endemic in those places.

Image source

While the above diagram may seem a little complex, it’s comprised of 4 core stages (with various optional components depending on the situation): research and listening, empathy and insights, ideation and pitching solutions, and prototyping/getting feedback/iterating. As the UNDP notes, the initial part of the process cannot be stressed enough, and is equally, if not sometimes more important and valuable, than the solution-finding process:

“Design thinking places enhanced attention to the crucial phase of decision-making: problem definition. Framing the problem correctly from the start is a pre-condition for the effective unfolding of the phases of policy formulation, development, adoption and implementation.”¹⁶

Important to note here are two very important concepts in the design process: convergence and divergence.

In a time of divergent thinking, the endpoint is unclear in a very liberating and awesome way–think varied, multiple interviews or just spending time in the environment of human beings whose problems you’re trying to solve. At its best, the designer speaks to not only an array of people who have a problem and thereby developing a rich tapestry of human experiences, but consults existing research and subject matter experts who play a critical role in deeply understanding all the angles. For example, I’m no scientist. In my current role I have to both capture the human element through extensive interviewing and spending a lot of time in labs, as well as consult smart folks with a scientific background in order to sufficiently understand the pretty complex requirements of sequencing a gene.¹⁷

Thankfully, I got the assistance of actual scientists in the software I worked on, because this is not even remotely what the process of sequencing a gene looks like. And virtually every new client we have participates in a structured co-creation.

As a result, this is a very active, action-oriented, and collaborative process, as opposed to the approach used by many that essentially tries to better articulate a hunch. For example, in my work with scientific labs who need to track a sample’s progress through a laboratory process, I discovered that other vendors’ software didn’t account for an essential data point that labs had to track on paper: that samples always went through a series of activities as a part of a batch, and so lab staff not only recorded a workflow’s progress by batch numbers (rather than a sample identifier), they had a major bottleneck in their process because they had to wait until they could create a sufficiently large batch to do the work. It also introduced a lot of risk for inaccuracies in a sample’s “story”, an accurate version of which labs need in order to comply with regulations.

The convergent phase is when these observations start coming together, and connections and patterns start to emerge. I transcribe all my interviews with people I’ve spoken to whose lives we want to improve, and I share those transcripts with the whole team (and at least in my current job, that means the entire company, from the contract engineer to our sales lead). We each highlight relevant parts of the transcripts from our own often different points of view, and then I put those sections onto post-it notes. We then work together to find patterns between those sections: the “source” of the data falls away, and we begin to see larger trends in what everyone has said, leading often to unexpected results: for example, many scientific researchers didn’t struggle with data management per se, but with project management in the context of the data that a team of collaborators produced.

Hopefully, by the end of that process the designer and her team have understood the original problem far better, and maybe have even uncovered an unexpected root cause or problem that should be solved for, rather than what they had to start out thinking they needed to solve for. It was only with the tools used in this creative problem identification and understanding phase that I could uncover the real dimensions of a challenge and even discover a deeper, underlying problem. In some very cool ways, this process can help to build empathy throughout the organization, and also expose shortcomings in the organization itself that need to be corrected later during the solution process, which can often require a level of bravery and willingness to explore some internal changes.

In the following phase, or solution gathering phase, the ideas all roll out, and each is carefully assessed, and this is very important, for its potential impact relative to the effort and resources it would require to make it happen. During a great divergent solution phase, constraint is embraced, not avoided. The designer starts small, sometimes with just sketches, and gets feedback from the people with whom they’ve interacted, to try and make changes to the design before significant resources have gone into a product. Ultimately, this has proven to be good business, at least as shown by IDEO as they, well, prototyped the prototyping process:

“…IDEO realized that no matter how deep the up-front understanding was, designers wouldn’t really be able to predict users’ reactions to the final product. So IDEO’s designers began to reengage with the users sooner, going to them with a very low-resolution prototype to get early feedback. Then they kept repeating the process in short cycles, steadily improving the product until the user was delighted with it. When IDEO’s client actually launched the product, it was an almost guaranteed success — a phenomenon that helped make rapid prototyping a best practice.”¹⁸

Not only is this just good business by minimizing risk at every step, it includes an important, and perhaps game-changing element for the public sector, namely by including more people in the process and being “a creation process where new solutions are designed with people, not for them.”¹⁹ The solutions that prove themselves during the rounds of feedback see release, but in a sense the process has only just begun.²⁰ As the UNDP describes the role of the designer of a product or service released, at whatever scale:

“Design thinking is intimately linked with the notion of ‘stewardship’ — defined here as the core ability of agents of change to successfully translate ideas into practice to achieve the desired outcomes. The choice of the term connotes well the underlying rationale sought by design thinking: Stewardship is preferred to the notions of ‘implementation’ or ‘execution’. Making designed ideas operational is not a neat, linear and unidirectional process. Complex environments impose re-calibration, adjustments and revisions that can be achieved only through iterative, collective exchanges. Stewardship is conceptually more than mere ‘facilitation’. Stewardship indicates that innovation is shaped through an intentional, direct and controlled action. Facilitation suggests the concomitant action of equally important factors in making a policy intervention more concrete.”²¹

While it may necessitate an adjustment of perspective on the part of managers or organization heads, as well as those within the organization who will become an integral part of the design process, the benefits of this process are tremendous. As one of my favorite design thinkers Jon Kolko notes:

“Design is more contemplative, reflective, and because it demands systems thinking and marinating in the ambiguity of cultural data, it simply takes longer. The benefit is in producing emotionally sound products: products that people love, not just products people use. Increasingly, people expect more from the products and services they engage with. They expect quality, and use it both as a selection criteria for purchase and as a constraint for sustained use.”²²

The result of implementing design thinking and innovation can fairly be depicted as centered around a core idea: a design-led organization is a learning organization, and buttresses its collective knowledge in every corner of the team by interacting with the individuals whose problems it seeks to solve as often as possible–sometimes qualitatively, sometimes on broader levels that good analytics can provide. And as noted above, this learning bubbles up to the innovations that an organizational leader seeks to implement. Learning about people may uncover a more pressing problem, or a potentially more valuable solution among a different segment of a population; or it may identify and seek to rectify a barrier within the system that hinders the full effectiveness of an employee. Or it could reveal that their product offering doesn’t fully solve the problems it set out to solve. While HCD may not always be the fastest way, it has proven to be the best way to innovate. And very importantly, the above don’t represent a series of theoretical constructs. At each stage of the divergence/convergence process, an endless number of practiced and refined workshop templates and best practices exist, making up a pretty robust HCD toolkit that professionals practice and apply every day.²³

But if it’s so great, why isn’t everyone doing it, especially given the appetite for change raging feverishly within the U.S. and around the world? While concepts like design thinking, agile, and lean (practices that don’t always play nicely together) have grown to such prevalence to be common claims among startups, in a world where A rounds, cap tables and acquisitions don’t reign for most of the players involved, namely the world of the public sector, NGO’s, and social enterprise, how does the innovation described above take place? Should it take place? And in an era where the ideological spectrum has become nebulous and technology in the public sector has garnered more headlines not because of success but because of failures, as in the case of healthcare.gov, where does innovation strategy and design thinking fall in the political landscape?

On the one hand, it seems that with some modifications to the public sector it could be a terrific and useful management strategy. On the other hand, many of the people I spoke to, and many of the texts I read imply that design-led innovation is nothing less than the essential tool of a new era of reform that will fundamentally change our relationship with government. Unfortunately, the talk around reform or government change rings as hollow for many. Therefore I think many have a healthy skepticism toward the claims of a paradigm shift in the making. To understand whether any real potential exists, in Part II we explore how this process compares with past efforts, and for that we need to get reacquainted with some history: of reform, policy making, and a shifting definition of design in government and of the emergence of and ethos behind technology.

So go check out Part II, and as always I’d love a conversation, so please reach out.


  1. For a full writeup of the panel, check this out.
  2. Great design is the only real way to guard against feature creep. “It was as if the blueprint of your dream home was created with input from every member of the family each person making sure it had all the cool features here she wanted but never reviewed for structural Integrity make sure all the parts words together. The ability to get a unanimous vote results lotto in and of themselves, but eventually prove disastrous.” Eggers, William D. and John O’Leary (2009) If We Can Put a Man on the Moon. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
  3. As a former director of the Innovation Lab states from their own experience at OPM: “HCD takes a lot of risk out of idea implementation, and makes managers more comfortable doing that due diligence.”
  4. Matthew Burton, formerly a technology leader within the then newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, agreed: “My theory on democratic government is that the citizens need to be more than observers. Going into a booth is not enough.”
  5. Monbiot, George (15 April 2016) “Neoliberalism–the ideology at the root of all our problems.” The Guardian.
  6. Empathy is defined as as “seeing the world through someone else’s eyes; this ethnographic approach is not about uncovering a particular problem in an existing product or service but instead building a tacit sense of what someone else is like, what they value, and how they experience the world. Empathetic research uncovers cultural themes and areas ripe for behavior changes.” Kolko, Jon (14 May 2015) “Lean Doesn’t Always Create the Best Products.Harvard Business Review.
  7. United Nations Development Program, Global Center for Public Service Excellence (2014) “Design Thinking for Public Service Excellence.
  8. While applicable to most issues and challenges that public sector organizations face, design thinking is at its best when applied to “wicked” problems, a phrase coined in an article by Richard Buchanan in 1992, in one of the first attempts to define design thinking. The process has a unique ability to make sense of and tackle previously unsolved problems of potentially enormous complexity.
  9. Bason, Christian (2010) Leading Public Sector Innovation, University of Bristol: Policy Press at the University of Bristol. Pg. 34.
  10. Burton, Matthew (January 2014) “Lessons learned from my time at the CFPB”, O’Reilly Radar.
  11. Bason, 2010. Pg. 60.
  12. One can tie this quite easily and closely to the phrase “paradigm shift” introduced by Thomas Kuhn in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a work that Bason draws on frequently in his work, and is cited often by Richard Buchanan in his foundational work on design thinking, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” It’s probably important to note that Kuhn contends that a big part of paradigm shifts taking hold is that the older generation leaves the profession.
  13. Bason, 2010. Pg. 62.
  14. Bason 2016. Pg. 61.
  15. Bason 2016. Pg. 61.
  16. UNDP, 2014
  17. “I’m not sure how you can design anything if you don’t have subject matter expertise. ‘The devil is in the details’ certainly holds true here. Designers have an arrogance that they can become experts in anything; I’ve certainly fallen into that trap. And there’s certainly value in being a novice, because you can see things that experts can’t; you don’t have an expert blindspot, and you don’t fall into conservative and entrenched views of what works and what doesn’t. But at some point, you really need deep expertise in order to build on tacit knowledge.” Interview with Jon Kolko, November 2016.
  18. Brown, Tim & Roger L. Martin (September 2015) “Design for Action.” Harvard Business Review.
  19. Bason, 2010. Pg. 8.
  20. I would personally add a third triangle here, to encapsulate an important, valuable, and often overlooked process of divergence and convergence. With many products users have a tendency to hack or use a product to modify it to meet needs the product creator didn’t intend to meet. Consider the increase in emergency calls in many municipalities, although actual emergencies have gone down; or a shift in the use of a digital product from checking in to a place to doubling down on image editing and sharing (Instagram); or gardeners who use hand drills to dig holes for tulip bulbs. Understanding these uses, and deciding which ones to act on and support, through product evolution or a new product altogether, is a super interesting process, and should not be ignored.
  21. UNDP, 2104.
  22. Kolko, May 2015.
  23. IDEO makes their toolkit available at OpenIDEO and Design Kit.