25 interviews to designers working in the public sector
During my free time, I host a podcast on design for social change in Spanish and Portuguese called: Diseño y Diáspora. In this article I will share some lessons learnt after interviewing 25 designers for a special season I made on their work in the public sector. Previously, I have written an article in Inland’s blog about the background of this podcast and how a podcast can be a tool for personal development.
What have I learned so far?
Designers can spark public imagination
As service designers, we give birth to new projects and initiatives constantly. This happens normally in co-design workshops in which we imagine a satisfactory and positive future. One of our big concerns is how to stimulate public imagination to get into innovative ideas that will answer our current challenges. In the interview with Isabella Brandalise, she argues for the role of design to motivate public imagination.
In Inland Design, we have been discussing how to get better and bolder ideas during workshops. Sometimes in ideation sessions the same old solutions come up again and again. This is why this talk inspired me to try new methods in Migri. The most recent example is critical design. In the context of a short service design training in a reception center, participants used critical design to come up with solutions to improve the interaction with clients. These solutions were provocative and will not be implemented but they were seeds for the final results that participants implemented. Participants were happy to try new methods and about concrete and bold results. We, the designers running the training, were proud to be able to inspire and influence public servant’s imagination.
Designers move between public, private and third sector
Designers move positions between public sector, NGOs and private companies. There is no one direction but a continuous exchange.
For some designers, working in the government holds the possibility to do work with real impact, but they move to other challenges because of the lack of open positions in the government. In various interviews, we talked about the mobility within third, private and public sector. In the episode with Brenda Vertiz she mentions her intention to continue with the work she started in the Mexican laboratory as part of her doctoral studies. Jody Parra left the Colombian laboratory to work in a social enterprise in Spain. Other designers such as Emiliano Cosenza and Sofia Moya work for companies and their clients are municipalities or other public organisations. There are also designers working in an NGO in collaboration with the government as is the case of the Patricia and Fabio.
Some of us believe that working for the government is the possibility to do design for the social good and explicitly decided to move towards the public sector. Meanwhile, others consider their work for the government as just another design work with its own challenges and are not especially attracted by the opportunity of designing in this context.
We often work in multidisciplinary teams
In many cases, designers are working in small teams. Most of these are multidisciplinary, which is perceived as a great advantage. Many designers consider themselves articulators of their work amongst people from different disciplines. Designers have a vital role in framing the collaboration. In the episode with Elisa Briones, she talks about the work in multidisciplinary groups and how her own knowledge is interwoven with the contributions of her colleagues. Also, Andrea Cuesta highlights the role of designers as the ones moving conversations forward.
We acknowledge that in Inland Design, we have a multidisciplinary team, as we are designers coming from architecture, industrial design, museology, new media, arts and graphic design. In our daily work we collaborate all the time with experts from other disciplines such as decision making, communications, technical experts and so on. Nevertheless all three of our team members are trained as designers. However, we want to recruit experts from other disciplines, especially if in the future we have the opportunity to expand Inland Design.
It should not be a question of methods, but of sensitiveness and principles
Many designers refer to methods. Many of my interviewees use and explained their design perspective through methods. For example Daniel Cabrero talks about the need for more inclusive and multicultural understanding of people through the use of personas. Ricardo Mejía has been using and adapting speculative design approaches to imagine possible organisational futures and discuss about them. Javier Arteaga developed a method, Feeling, to adapt design thinking processes to the Latinamerican context.
We know we rely on methods, however, Caio Werneck reminded us, that at times there is too much emphasis on methods. Although they are concrete, he made us aware of the fundamental thing is to have the principles and sensitiveness at hand”. I would add that in the context of public sector design, we need to work hard on redesigning of processes towards an organisational change. This work requires a deep understanding of the context. The only way to achieve human centered design in organisations is by embracing a strong contextual understanding. Other researchers have already acknowledged the importance of the situations in which design takes place. For example Haraway (1998) and Suchman (1987) suggest that design processes take place in particular situations and are carried out from embedded positions. Also, Simonsen et al. (2014) propose that design is situated and propose that methods need to be thought in relation to the context in which they are used. According to them “any design process is embedded in a social context and the context and the designer’s interpretation of it are crucial to the output and the outcome of the design process” (p.6).
Long-term commitments have pros and cons
Many of the designers I interviewed work in innovation or design laboratories in the government. Most of these laboratories face challenges with the sustainability of the groups. Ones the government that supported them changes, there is usually a turn in the political agenda and thus fears that the group will need to leave appear. Actually, many of public innovation labs have closed. These groups are considered experiments and not permanent departments which brings insecurity to the employees, and at times hinders the possibility to attract senior designers and develop long-term partnerships. We invest a lot of effort in building a team and creating working practices in order to be efficient and produce quality work. All this work disappears when these groups are closed down.
There are also some good sides of having a fixed-term contract: We all work hard to demonstrate that our work is beneficial for the organisation. Another issue that appears as a result of this uncertainty was mentioned in the interview with Silvina Klein: or her the quality of the documentation is very important, because in case the group would not continue the projects could possibly still survive, if documented well.
Co-design can support the creation and management of networks
Designers are supporting organisational change in the government by contributing to breaking silos in the public administration. To this end, designers benefit from co-design approaches. In my opinion, in the future, designers will have an increasingly important role in the development of networks of collaboration across government agencies and with other stakeholders from the civil society and the private sector. This is about expanding the space in which we work and inviting new actors to participate in design processes. It also relates to the concept of life events, in which several organisations work together to solve a challenge in relation to the needs of a person in a certain moment. In Finland, we see these life events spread more and more throughout different parts of government. While using the life events approach, there is a need to break silos within different service providers.
There is a lot of work in the development of these networks already. In the countries where designers in the government are a significant number, such as the United Kingdom, they are investing an increasing amount of effort into building networks and designers are key actors within them. In the interview with Oscar Diaz, he tells us that the Chilean Laboratory of Innovation @labgobcl created and managed a network of 5000 public innovators including designers and civil servants. Also, Javier Arteaga brings the topic of Latin-American networks of innovation by telling us all the good work his group is doing in regional networks. In Inland design, we also invest a lot of effort in network work. We contribute to many networks and we also learn a lot about this exchange with peers.
Training and teaching efforts bring together design minded people
Many of us see the design trainings for our colleagues as a way to better communicate the value of design and create internal networks inside the organisations. Pablo Vallejo and Juan Manuel López Manfré, in the Argentinean government, train and give consultation to other groups within the government that have recently started digitisation projects. In Chile, the Laboratory of Innovation use competitions to consult public servants and help them to develop ideas into concepts, which was explained in the interview with Oscar Díaz.
Silvina Klein, in the Ministry of Culture in Argentina has been collaborating with educational institutions and design students to create city identities. Working together, is also a way of teaching and training design students. In addition, this is a way to show designers that the public sector is an attractive and realistic work environment.
Inland design has built a network of ambassadors by providing a one year service design training. I have written about this project in another article. At the moment we are doing shorter trainings that last 5 days. Our colleagues who participate in these trainings work in new initiatives within their area of expertise and they use the days of training to develop initial ideas into concrete projects.
Digital transformation is mainly about people and attitudes towards change
In two episodes we discussed digital transformation and change management. Rodrigo Goñi in Uruguay and Belén Palacios in United Kingdom told about their experiences in being part of these processes. Rodrigo focuses on people and their attitudes towards change. Belén thinks that digital projects are trojan horses that allow change to happen. Digital projects allow designers to enter into new territories and contribute to the design of processes, practices and policies.
It is common that digital transformation is thought from a technical perspective and technical experts are hired to lead these processes. But digital transformation is not about technology and designers could play a role in making it happen, if they are invited to participate in the process. Our principles and mindsets can make a difference in this transformation.
We want to measure impact
Service design has already demonstrated its contribution to different fields, but in the government it is still a new approach. Many designers I talked to mentioned their interest measuring impact.
Demonstrating the value of our contribution is key to the survival of the design group. In the episode with Federico Vaz, a Uruguayan designer researching in Loronbourouh (UK), we discussed this issue. According to him, most of the work of designers in the government cannot be measured, because “our work needs 20 year of observation to show its impact”. Short term measurements are not enough. Even though I agree with Federico’s view, I also think that too often we forget to even do short term evaluations, or we outsource evaluations in order to get an external view on our work, and that is not helpful in many cases. Both options, short term evaluations or outsourcing evaluation, could be a mistake, because there is always something to learn after the implementation of a new service, process or policy. By doing it ourselves we ensure that the evaluation is done according to the goals of our project and using a design approach. However, we can also say that by evaluating ourselves, we are bias.
Many of these design groups in government are trying to measure the impact of their activities. This has become a hot topic within designers though not a lot of good indicators have really been implemented.
My experience of doing this podcast has been very positive and as I showed in this article, I learnt a lot during these conversations. In school they taught us that we need to find our own way of learning: Learning from colleagues, peer learning is the one I prefer.
Doing these 25 interviews on a similar topic is definitely my way of doing research, at a time when I am not working full time as a researcher. However, I would like to devote more time to the analysis of this content. I would like to transcribe these interviews and be able to analyse them in depth. But first of all, I need to ask permission for this from the interviewees.
I am aware that interviews done for a public podcast are not the same as interviews done in the context of a research project (e.g. people will frame their answer differently when they know they will not be anonymous). Interviewees tend to show their work in a positive light when they know that they will be heard by an audience. In many cases, interviewees point out challenges in their work after I turn off the microphone but they prefer to avoid them during the interviews. In spite of the positive light of these interviews, the dialogues are good content for research. Even when I interview friends or colleagues with whom I work closely, we have a deeper dialogue that would not happen in another context. In daily life, there are many interruptions. During the interviews for the podcast, I can ask my questions without being interrupted by everyday life. The staging of the interview situation serves to generate a reflective dialogue, and I think this is valuable in many ways.
In this article I reflected on what I have learnt out of a group of people in relation to their ways of talking about their work for a public podcast. I have also learnt a lot of other things out of making this podcast. For example, I learnt how to define the concept of a podcast, design its identity, express myself professionally in my mother tongue, and contribute to a huge community of spanish and portuguese speaking designers spread around the world. On these issues, I will also write in the future.
A bit of data:
Andy Fetchenholz and Julian Pereyra do audio production. The original music is from a composer and friend, Antonio Zimmerman. We publish interviews twice a week. So far, we have published 61 episodes, done 96 interviews, got 220 persons listening to each episode every week and more than 12000 plays, all together.
Haraway, D. (1998). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575–599
Simonsen, J.; Svabo, C.; Malou Strandvad, S.; Samson, K.; Hertzum, M. and Hansen, O.E. (2014). Situated design methods.The MIT press, Cambridge.
Suchman, L. (1987). Plans and Situated Action: the Problem of Human Machine Interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Editor: Suse Miessner