How the government will benefit from hiring foreign-background designers?

Personal reflections of a foreign background designer working in the Finnish government

Migri decided to start an in-house service design team and hired two foreigners to do so. I am one of them. This is definitely a pioneer decision, as in the large group of designers working for the government, we have not yet met another full-time designer with a foreign background. We hope to meet more of us in the future. So, this blog has the intention to tell how it is to work as non-Finnish native speaker in the Finnish government, and encourage other public agencies to be as brave as Migri has been.

On a personal level, I have to say that I have been living in Finland for 19 years and I speak fluent Finnish but full of small mistakes. Mostly, I make myself understood. However, I am unable to write a whole paragraph without lot of grammatical errors.

As I have been working for long time in English, I had to switch my working language gradually. Previously, I did my slides in English and presented in Finnish. This was super difficult for my co-workers in Migri because I was bringing new design vocabulary, speaking with a strong Argentinian accent and presenting materials in two languages. After a while, people told me that I need to prepare all the materials in Finnish. This is what I do now.

Therefore, I constantly need editing support when I write emails to people that I have not meet before, tweets, articles, reports and presentations. Luckily, we hired a Finnish designer for our team and the fact that I need help in the editing, also opens the possibility for other team members to be better involved in my work and improve the content. When I ask for help to edit language, I also get suggestions to improve the content. I dare to say that the language disadvantage increases the collaboration in our team.

Pia and me working on a visualisation

Another good point of constantly asking for help with language is that it decreases the threshold for others to ask for support in other tasks. During the years of living in Finland I noticed that for Finns in general asking for help is not easy. There is this weird idea that people have to ‘parjata yksin’ (manage alone), especially at work. However, nowadays working practices and even development methods have taught us that doing things together improves the quality of work. The success of methods such as extreme programming is one example of this.

One of my roles in Inland is to overview and consult on projects. So, one of my tasks is finding new strategies to make team members proactively collaborate and ask for advice. I recognize the practice of collaborating in the writing as one of these strategies.

Another issue is the attitude towards working with someone that does not speak perfect Finnish. In previous working environments where everybody speaks English and Finnish as a working language, I was replied to in English when I would ask in Finnish. This is very discouraging for someone that is trying to improve her language skills. I have to say that Migri’s colleagues have been exceptionally collaborative and I am thankful for this. However, sometimes I wish that they correct me and ask proactively for clarifications when they do not understand. Otherwise, beside trying to clearly articulate what I want to say, I need to also try to decipher gestures and other communication clues of the listeners. Please, make my life easier and just tell me: “I do not get what you are trying to say”. Finding new ways of saying it, will help me to improve my language skills.

Once a colleague was laughing at me when I did a mistake. I love it. First because it showed that she has the confidence to laugh and because she was the only one that taught me how to correct a mistake that I was doing repeatedly. Yes, you can laugh and tell me about the mistakes, I will also laugh when I understand it.

As writing in English is still easier for my other foreign colleague and me, most of the content of our blog and our website is in English. This brought us a lot of international contacts and recognition. In addition, our “other” language skills (German and Spanish) support this international recognition. We were invited to do keynote presentations in Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Denmark, Germany and Italy in only one year and a half of existence. Also, we have been invited to participate within international networks of designers working in the government. Participation in these networks has been useful for us to better understand our work and map best practices of designers around the globe. I have this secret hope that at some point, this international recognition also contributes to the legitimisation of design in our organisation.

Finally, I want to give an answer to the question of how the government will benefit from hiring foreign-background designers based on our experience:

  1. Your staff will learn how to work with different people with other cultural backgrounds and language groups,
  2. You will get more competitive workers as you could choose from a wider array of experts, not only Finnish ones,
  3. Your team will reinforce collaborative working practices that will benefit the quality of the work,
  4. Foreigners could bring their own network to the workplace that has the potential to increase international visibility.

Written on the flight to Milan, to present Inland’s work in the Re-think festival. Service Design stories.