Redesigning public services: 5 things I learnt working in UK

Alessandra Canella
Designers Italia
Published in
6 min readNov 2, 2017

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Questo post è disponibile anche in Italiano

Redesigning public services has a strong impact on people’s everyday lives. Is there a secrete recipe? That’s the question that Designers Italia asked me: this Guest Post is my answer.

by Alessandra Canella for Designers Italia

When you design services for local authorities, you get the opportunity to improve the lives of everyone — your mum, your auntie, your father-in-law and your next door neighbour.

With that in mind, at FutureGov, we aim to create lasting change by adopting an approach that connects the agency world to the realities of the public sector.

Since joining the team, I’ve worked alongside several councils and here are five lessons I’ve learned along the way that are valuable when working with the public sector.

Set the rhythm of a project, taking into consideration the capacity of managing change from the council’s side

In the past, I’ve worked full-time on private sector projects where clients would be constantly pushing us to complete a fixed set of deliverables against a strict timetable. Working with the public sector, rather than working against a definitive tick list, the main objective is to change something — and that takes time.

From our point of view, we need to begin by learning about an organisation, a service area and the needs of citizens. And from a council’s perspective, they need to get used to us, someone external, collaborating with them and challenging the way they work. Not forgetting that council officers are usually really busy when they’re already struggling to meet demand.

It’s a shift in mindset from “output-driven” to “outcome-driven” design. In practice, for us this means spreading out an engagement over a longer period rather than rushing. So instead of five days a week for two weeks, we sometimes work one day a week for ten weeks.

There’s a fitting Italian expression to explain this — “È una goccia che scava la roccia”, which loosely translates as “it’s a drop that digs a stone”. Over time, regular drops of water can carve their way through stone and create new shapes. But a sudden downpour wouldn’t have the same effect, as it would overwhelm the stone with its energy and then stop before having a lasting impact.

Nina working with the Birmingham Improvement Hub team

Develop your team’s expertise through collaboration

Collaboration speaks of sharing location, skills and expertise. We always work on location for at least one day a week as sharing a space is a step towards being able to share some of the challenges too. Moreover we don’t aim to become policy experts in every area, but through collaboration with practitioners, we can trust in their experience to enlighten us.

This collaborative approach worked well during a recent project, with a focus on the Education Health Care Plan request process, for the Integrated Children Disability Service at Nottinghamshire County Council. The aim was to support families while ensuring that their views and aspirations were taken into account when defining future provision.

The first sprint was used solely for discovery with the council staff — learning about process, challenges and discussing the team’s thoughts on how to improve the service to citizen and the internal process. Based on this, we then gathered insights from families and helped the council to create a deeper, more representative, understanding.

Throughout the project, the council provided contextual knowledge, such as: what are the timescales that the service has to meet; and what are the statutory needs? By working closely in this way, FutureGov could shed new light on the key challenges by making sure that users’ voices were taken in consideration.

Staff from other areas also joined the fortnightly “show and tell” presentations, which helped us to progress a series of prototypes and move things forward with a wider consensus.

Last Show and Tell with the Integrated Children Disability Service, Nottinghamshire County Council

Create sustainable change and put yourself out of work

You can only create lasting change within the public sector by helping staff to improve their own services. Ultimately, this means creating independence and reaching a point where you’re no longer required. That’s the aim — to reduce the requirement for external help by transferring skills and building capabilities. Success is, as Simone Carrier says, when you’re not needed anymore.

Often, we’ll encourage council staff to shadow us while we’re working on a project, rather than hiding the tools and pretending we’re equipped with a magic box of tricks. Recently we collaborated with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and an engineering student on secondment shadowed our work. As a result, he’s now looking for opportunities to become a junior service designer within government.

In my early days at FutureGov, I remember my colleagues Emma McGowan and Lingjing Yin celebrating getting an email from Haringey Council that included an attachment of how they had been evolving a service blueprint built with them months before. And the excitement was all about the fact that the tools used are just a mean for change and this one resonated very well with them, and it became theirs.

Tri-borough partnership SEND team taking over the project Stuart Mackenzie, FutureGov has been leading on

Always support recommendations with data

Councils generally don’t have the resources to invest in ideas unless they produce savings or efficiencies. But finding data that can support an assumption is tricky for two reasons.

Firstly, council expenditure is rarely aligned with services areas, so you need to hunt through every record to trace what you need. But this can be time consuming and at times impractical. To get around this, over the last years we built tools to make intelligent estimations — such as when we worked with the Essex Record Office. It saved us needing to pick through every single ledger entry and still resulted in a set of accurate figures.

Secondly, sometimes data just doesn’t exist as it’s never been tracked. During our work for the Birmingham Housing Options Centre, we learnt that due to a recent reorganisation of housing centres in the city, everyone with housing related needs had been redirected to one central location — resulting in long queues and stress. But when we tried to ascertain how many people were attending daily and what they were looking do, no-one could tell us.

So to gain some more insight, we created a system that could be used by floorwalkers to record footfall and determine the reasons for each visit. After a month of tracking, we learned that four in ten people wanted to simply use PCs/telephones and two in ten were signposted elsewhere.

Based on this data, we suggested creating a triage tool, placing more PCs at the entrance and improving the pre-visit guidance to reduce the amount of wasted time.

Birmingham Housing Option Centre, floor walking tracking

Keep the faith — it’s worth it in the long run

As designers, we’ve been given the ability to shape the way people interact with government. It may take longer than you’d like and it can be frustrating at times — but it’s always worth it.

It only takes a small incremental change to improve a service for thousands of people. And for me personally, I can’t imagine a better way of applying our expertise and experience.

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Alessandra Canella
Designers Italia

Mum x2, Head of UX @Cazoo, Italian immigrant, Mega Mentor co-founder and FutureGov alumnus