Design in the Public Sector: project managers emerge blinking into the light

“We don’t know what we’re going to do yet, and that’s okay”
Tools of the trade

We’re already halfway through the Design in the Public Sector programme, and we’re making great progress.

During the last session we had a masterclass from Stephen Miller on measuring impact, and Becky Rowe from Revealing Reality gave a fascinating insight into the role of ethnography in service design (she and her team recently spent over 300 hours in British A&E departments, observing violence and aggression. At Christmas).

They were both practically applicable and will help us with our project, but it was the progress reports from the 8 teams that was most captivating. People were so energised by using the tools that helped to refocus project planning around the needs of users, and it was already having an impact for some.

Clearly teams had considered users in their service designing before, but this was different. One of the projects is reviewing the support they offer to children with special educational needs and disabilities, and they have invited parents to complete photo journals about their challenges.

The approach has been incredibly powerful (parents said they’d never been asked for their opinion this way), and provided rich insights for the project team. The big change for them has been thinking more about families as users than just the traditional focus on children- they reported that this felt “counter-intuitive”, but could change the way they work.

We’ve given ourselves permission to do a lot of talking at this stage

In the face of trends to need constant outputs, to iterate at pace, and to prefer doing over thinking, it was great to hear people taking more time to speak to people about their work.

A lot of the techniques we’re using won’t be new to you, and it’s telling that the approaches appeared to be so liberating. But this is only partly about the research tools, it’s also about the freedom to change.

Persuading others to try new ways of working can be hard (especially in services with a duty of care to vulnerable residents), and teams have reported some side-eye from colleagues and senior managers when they suggest novel ways of getting feedback from users. Having the backing of the LGA and Design Council appears to be really helping to overcome this.

Mapping out logic models to evaluate the impact being made

There is service design thinking being applied in councils all over the country, it just hasn’t permeated that deeply into the teams that provide these services. This is why the Design Council’s programme is so important.

I’ve felt this sort of shared nervous excitement before. Having dipped a toe into the world of ‘unconferences’, and events like Notwestminster that bring together local gov folk together to imagine solutions to complex issues.

The difference here is that unconferences tend to attract Digital staff* who are used to agile working, or by staff in comms and policy roles who support the way a council operates but aren’t directly responsible for delivering services. By sharing this enthusiasm with the permission to work differently, change is on the way.

*This is a massive generalisation, but I have often spent time at these events trying to find housing or health staff and come up short.