Systems change and futures

Themes for International Design in Government Conference 2024

Anni Leppanen
Julkis-muotoilijat
Published in
10 min read6 days ago

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International Design in Government Conference is all about the community of practice: public servants learning together. We want to drive for deeper impact of design in government — from systems-level transformation to delivering better services and policies. This year, we chose “Systems change and futures” as the conference main theme. In this blog I will share what we learned from our community through a Call for Ideas, how we chose this general theme, and desbribe the chosen theme.

If you are interested in submitting a proposal for a session at our conference, please check our website and download the Speaker Guide. The deadline for submissions is 09:00 pm (UTC) Sunday 16 June 2024.

Call for ideas

We hosted a workshop in April to gather initial ideas for the conference themes from our group of volunteers. Our volunteers are public designers from Finnish municipal and state government, as well as our colleagues from Estonia and Sweden. We identified 7 potential themes that were included in the global Call for Ideas. With 129 responses from all the continents, here are the results for “Choose 3 topics you are most interested in”:

  1. From reactive to proactive government: emerging futures thinking in government (73 votes; 57.5%)
  2. Working with systems and across organisational boundaries (69 votes; 54.3%)
  3. Co-design, participation, new democracy (68 votes; 53.5%)
  4. Changing role of the designer in public sector (68 votes; 53.5%)

The rest of the suggested themes received around 30% votes:

  • Impact, outcomes, influence and change leadership
  • Role of AI in the future for design in government
  • Sustainability, regeneration and planet-centric design
Respondents in the Call for Ideas (N=129)

An internal Finnish vote on the topics followed a similar pattern, but the systems approach received most votes. This might be related to a popular theme in Finland around life event ecosystems — an important goal of our national digital strategy. Finns also voted more for the impact and change leadership theme. This might be due to active discussions around measuring impact of design in government — an elusive topic that no one seems to have solved in full. Impact is also the main theme for the Service Design Network’s global conference this year.

The Call for Ideas also had two open questions to collect topics and ideas for the programme from the wider community. Design maturity and relevance of topics varies between countries and organisations. We clustered the responses in 4 larger areas that are introduced below.

Systems and complexity

Systems and complexity were mentioned most often in the open responses. We also grouped responses on futures and sustainability in this category.

Perpectives on systems

  • systems thinking (theory and practice)
  • working across sectors: grassroots and the civil society, businesses and government, and collaboration between governmental organisations
  • mission-led design for impact on systems-level transitions
  • zoom out to an ecosystems view on the problem (vs. working with service level outcomes)
  • breaking silos, and organisational structures that support a systems approach
  • holistic services across silos, governance of shared public services delivered by multiple organisations
  • multidisciplinarity and multistakeholder collaboration
  • value creation, sharing, learning and interoperability in and between systems

Complexity

Complexity was a surprisingly often used word in the responses. It was most used to describe the challenges and objects of design work — “complexity as a design problem”. Complexity was used to refer to societal issues, that are beyond digital interactions and service development.

I am interested in innovation framing, complexity mapping and strategic imagination. — a respondent from Europe

Designing flat, flexible and resilient organisations. How might we design a whole new structure for central government institutions for 2030, in order to be better prepared for today’s complex and wicked challenges? — a respondent from Finland.

How might we deal with constraints and distributed responsibilities in federal systems and across hierarchies within the public administration? — a respondent from Europe.

Futures

Futures approaches and strategic foresight have been emerging topics of interest in the wider design community. Public designers are also interested in discussing the future of design and designers in government, and the Finns launched a Futures Process in November 2023 to make sense of the changes we are experiencing. Designers approach futures also from an organisational mindset of future-proofing and long-term thinking — often frustrated by turbulent politics, economics and security.

I am interested in the role of design in envisioning desired and actionable futures. — a respondent from Latin America

Embedding lasting change: We’ve been at this for a while now (decades?), and I feel like we’re solving the same problems over and over again, in tiny places. Has anywhere really changed how government views technology and how it makes policy and delivers services across siloed organisations over more than one cycle of elected officials? In the US, we’re really feeling the swings from one elected party to another. — a respondent from North America

Policy design and legal design

Design has previously entered the government from a service-led perspective. With a call to design at a more strategic level and for systemic challenges, design for policy is of interest to many respondents. Policy design has been a reoccuring topic at the international conferences since the early years, especially with the leading example of Policy Lab UK.

Perspectives on policy design

  • Embedding design within policy-making, designing regulation, using design to create and shape policy decisions more effectively
  • Working with policy-makers and drafters early on
  • Shifting policy-making from retroactive checklist-based work to user-centred?
  • Understanding where design and evidence inform or clash with political will and decision-making
  • How might we design digital-ready policies for better public services?
  • Designing for user involvement in procurement policies and practices to tackle corruption
  • design for justice
  • making legal matters and language in public sector accessible for everyone

How might we design in risky and tense environments, when the role of design means uncovering processes that can be inconvenient given local politics and policies? — a respondent from Asia

Participation, trauma and accessibility

Co-design and participatory approaches have always been central to designing in the public sector. Many respondents were interested in addressing the arising challenges in participation work.

How might we co-design with populations historically excluded and disenfrancised from the government systems, and use research and design as a form of repair and trust building with communities excluded or previously harmed by policy? — a respondent from North America

We saw how design can destroy the cultural heritage but also help to keep it and design for the communities and with them. As a designer I have been looking for the actual design, and how impact in indigenous communities when we don’t design with them. — a respondent from Latin America

Examples of participation challenges

  • Collaborative decision making and moving beyond “participation theatre”
  • Amplifying youth engagement and participation in elections
  • Decolonising design in government — the extent to which governments are aware, respond to and are sensitive to different ethnicities and cultural values, and how design could bring that awareness in
  • Multiculturalism and diversity, multilinguality
  • Peacebuilding, conflict resolution
  • Care, ethics and design activism
  • Accessibility and inclusive design
  • Involving people and different professions in research

How are citizens part of the policy and service design process, and how do we distinguish between their levels of participation — consultation, engagement and collaboration? How might we design for alternative forms of policy making, e.g. citizen assemblies? — a respondent from Europe

Trauma-informed design

Several European and North American respondents highlighted an emerging interest in “trauma-informed practices”. If you are not familiar with the approach, here are a few links to useful resources:

Digital services, data and AI

Many public designers work with digital services. Interestingly, several respondents referred to policy-level issues with digital — this seems a new perspective. While several respondents also expressed interest in discussing practical and delivery level issues in digital design.

  • getting buy-in from political and administration leaders and existing IT managers
  • design systems and designOps — scaling delivery capacity and enforcing consistency of quality
  • working in digital product development and developer-led organisations
  • object-oriented design and information architecture

I am interested in managing disruptions in service delivery, use of technology, and transparency and governance. — a respondent from Africa

Data

Data was highlighted as a specific interest area of some respondents. This included topics such as:

  • privacy, risk, data sharing
  • digital identity
  • use of personal data, duty to provide information, proactive administration
  • interoperability, automation and service catalogues

AI

AI remains a popular topic around the world, and designers expressed interest in the following viewpoints:

  • The use of AI and avoiding bias
  • How might we use AI and LLMs in government for research synthesis, user simulations, and analytics?
  • How might AI help show inconsistencies in digital and in-person user experience of a government service?
  • How might we make automation-friendly and user-friendly regulations that are easy to digitise?
  • If anyone actually using AI in a live service? If so, how?
  • AI & access to justice
  • The future of wellbeing in the age of AI

Choosing the theme and topics

We wanted to keep the conference theme open enough for community members to feel their perspectives fit in, and that there is a strong connection to their work in practice. But we also wanted to create a frame that pushes us as community to discover new directions in our work. In the end, our Programme team chose a main theme of “Systems change and futures”. We also want to recognise that there might be topics that could be very important for the community but not listed in our theme descriptions, and encourage community members to submit proposals even if it is outside the chosen themes. Below we open in a bit more detail what we mean by our main themes and what topics we are looking for in proposals.

The conference general theme in 2024 is “Systems change and futures”. How might we work across organisational boundaries and address complex systemic challenges? How might we design for a proactive government and support emerging futures thinking in government?

Introducing systems change

…as breaking silos. Systems or ecosystems as networks of organisations and people working together across traditional boundaries. Designers in government are working more across organisational boundaries, instead of within one organisation.

  • Users, customers, citizens have needs that that cross those boundaries. In order to deliver end-to-end journeys, we often need to work with several governmental teams, units, organisations or even outside government — with civil society and businesses.
  • Challenges in our societies are complex and systemic in nature. In order to achieve desired outcomes and impact from policies and services, we need to work across organisational boundaries.

…as zooming out. Systems as a holistic understanding of issues. Designers in government are working with more strategic challenges, instead of designing for discrete problems and incremental change in existing services.

We invite proposals around:

We would like to invite proposals that highlight best practice or case studies of services, policies or other interventions that represent systems level design for government.

  • designing services for user groups and needs that cross organisational boundaries. For example where several organisations worked together to design a service or policy.
  • designing for strategic challenges or policy outcomes or missions that require a systems level change and involve different stakeholders in both the design and delivery phase.

We would like the proposals to be about:

We would like the proposals to describe the change in live services, policies or decision-making, as well as the process behind it — how it was designed, what were the challenges and what was learned.

Introducing futures

The context for designers in government is changing. We are experiencing political, economic and security uncertainties, climate change and new technologies. There is a competition between short-termism and cutting costs, with long-term thinking and imagining radically different futures.

The international design in government community is turning 7 years old. Much has changed in these past years — the volume of designers working in government and design maturity has increased significantly across government organisations and countries.

We invite proposals around:

  • combining design and futures approaches in government
  • the changing role of design and designers in government
  • designing for sustainability transitions and systems change in government
  • participation and designing for inclusive and diverse futures: for example: trauma-informed practices, reducing harm; challenging patterns of inequity, decolonialisation of design; considering future generations and non-human stakeholders
  • design for long-term change and transformation: embedding and scaling change
  • moving from a reactive mode to designing for a proactive government
  • designing future services with new technologies, data and AI

We would like the proposals to be about:

  • case studies of experiments and sharing learnings, tools and approaches
  • or critical thinking, reflection, pushing the boundaries and reimagining new directions

The conference programme for “International design in government conference 2024” is delivered by the community members. Please submit a proposal for a session by 16 June 2024. To find out more about how to submit a proposal, please visit our website and download the Speakers guide.

About the writer:

Anni Leppänen is the Chair of Conference for International Design in Government Conference 2024 in Helsinki, Finland. Anni is the Founder of Julkis-muotoilijat, Finnish government design community.

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Anni Leppanen
Julkis-muotoilijat

Strategic designer, change agent and specialist in sustainability transitions, digital transformation, government and experiments.