Can Design Really Make Better Government?
Getting critical (but not losing all optimism)
In my recent visit to the University of Melbourne, I participated in a series of conferences, roundtables, and workshops that all centered around ‘innovation’ and the government.
Many of the participants work in Australian federal, State of Victoria, or Melbourne local government — or in government-adjacent jobs, like with foundations, advocacy groups, legal and social services, and designers and engineers who work on public sector projects.
This was my second trip to Melbourne (last was a year ago in August 2018), and with a similar mix of people, but this year the tone of conversations had shifted. If last year was all about the shiny potential of human-centered design to make government services and systems work better for people, this year was about the hard work, pushback, and dysfunctions of actually making this design-driven innovation happen in the government.
Part of it was a shift in my own perspective, as the hype cycle of design is starting to wane, an initial round of pilots and training is not necessarily turning into overnight transformations, and the notion of design is getting thinned out into (the inevitable) co-optation and marketing jargon. Not to say that I still don’t see real value in design-driven strategies for reform of the justice system, but more that I’m realizing how necessary it is to be strategic and critical with how design can actually be used to get to meaningful impact.
And my own critical wariness was matched by many of my Australian colleagues, whether they work on justice sector projects, university ones, policy labs, or federal government digital transformation. There was a sense of:
Okay, now that we have established fairly firmly among our colleagues that design has potential, and have started to see the embrace of these mindsets and processes — what is the next phase, where we see ‘real change’ in how government works?
So the discussions were not all sunny, techno-optimist futurism, about how new digital technology will build a new generation of accessible, friendly, intelligent services for people to better navigate government systems. Rather, the conversations tended toward a more fraught, critical, practical series of conversations — that still highlighted opportunities for profound system improvements and technology innovations, but which made explicit the difficulties in getting civic tech, systems innovation, and service design ‘right’ in government.
Here are some of the big themes about design’s potential + dysfunctions in government innovation, that I will be diving into further in future essays, studies, and conferences.
1. Challenging ‘Tech + Digital’ as the Definition of Government Innovation
Governments and public interest groups should have a richer vision of what innovation looks like, beyond the digital. Innovation does not equal Digital Transformation, even if that is a big part of it. The stakeholders in the workshops were pointing to other areas for investment and creative new work: the development of infrastructure in the government, the provision of human (or human-like) services, and the reform of regulations and rules. All of these other areas are central to ‘innovation’ as well.
People may have Diminished Digital Capacity in ‘Government’ Use Cases. Digital government innovation (in the form of new apps and online experiences that streamline applications, do intake, provide guidance, and allow for virtual interactions) will be of huge benefit to some users. But many people who are seeking out government or legal aid services will lack the capabilities to benefit from it.
Especially where people have high stress and emotional burdens from the crisis they are in — their digital capacity may likely decrease. A person, even a digital native who is fluent in tech, may not want to use an online app to deal with a situation like an eviction or a debt collection lawsuit that has made them particularly vulnerable. This hypothesis emerged out of anecdotal discussions and lab-based user testing of new tools — and it’s worthy of more study.
2. Yes, Bemoan the Design Hype Cycle — But Use It to To Open Doors.
There is a moment of openness for digital and design-driven innovation in government. Most of the participants all acknowledged that there is a particularly ripe point in the hype cycle for human-centered design. Leaders know what this is, invoke it, pay for training of staff in it, and reward projects that are framed with it. As with any other hyped framework, it means there is a lot of overuse of the notion of human-centered design and thinned out versions of what that means.
But it also opens many doors for good human-centered work and changing the way things are done, in order to get to better government services. This is a moment that can be seized, if there are thoughtful people, deeply literate in design, and motivated by public interest — to coordinate better what design-driven innovation can actually be in the justice and government sectors. This means forming new leadership (even if informal) to set out theories of change, strategic coordination, and investment in not just hyped-up pilots but also meaningful infrastructure changes in how innovation projects are run.
One of the main ways this design-oriented moment may fade away, is if it leads to big, one-shot, all-or-nothing, over-funded pilots that are done through design methodologies. If these pilots are seen as ‘failures’, for lack of usage, bugs in the technology, or inability to secure more funding — the moment will be gone.
What if instead, we can change the infrastructure of how new prototypes and pilots are rolled out in the government? Right now, new innovation projects proceed as follows:
- An idea for ‘innovation’ is proposed
- If supported by a minister, senior officers, or the industry lobbies — then it moves forward
- The funding and budget cycle kicks in, and the idea is very quickly funded at a high level
- The idea, as described in its proposal, now has to be developed with very little room for iteration
- It must roll out into a full-scale pilot that should serve the whole public. It’s ‘out the door’, and it either works or it doesn’t.
This mode of developing new pilots is not sustainable in terms of funding, experimental in learning gradually what actually works, or taking advantage of design’s prototype-and-iteration cycle.
Instead, good design work needs a new model of government funding and approvals. It’s a different kind of policy cycle — the Rolling Stone Model versus the typical One-Shot Pilot Model. In this, the funding and permissions allow for small pilots, that have slow acceleration of support to increase the performance of each round.
Another key warning for how the design hype cycle might end badly in the government: the Expensive Empathy overload. The interest in design-driven innovation can lead some units to spend most of its budget on doing design research, at the first half of the design cycle — gathering data on needs, preferences, agenda items, and current journeys. The issue is that the budget gets spent, and there is no support for prototyping, testing, piloting — and getting to real impact.
Yes, do initial empathetic research work, but the real value is in converting it into hypotheses, prototypes, and evaluations that can lead to substantial, meaningful interventions that can gradually grow into large pilots and policy changes.
3. The Real Key to Design-Driven Innovation’s Success is the Infrastructure
A final big theme of the conversations was that all of the ‘exciting, PR-friendly’ work of new digital developments, innovative new services, and design sprints must be done in combination with the ‘dowdy, boring, PR-unfriendly’ infrastructure work.
This means improving data standards, staff performance and mindsets, and organizational rules/incentives/funding structures — that can provide the ripe environment for the new digital and service innovations. This means digging into system details, to see how the policy cycles can be changed. It means looking into the everyday operations of the people who work in justice and government services, to change how procurement and IT development is done, and to change the mindset towards user-centered services.
Data standards and evaluation protocols are also essential. These will be the key to proving that design work is not hype, but that it feeds into a larger ecosystem and that it can demonstrate its ability to improve outcomes.
For evaluation to spread in legal innovation work, we need to have common outcomes and research protocols (for both process evaluation and outcomes evaluation). For outcomes for access to justice tech, for example, there is the Drake Equation work has begun to set standards. For process and research outcomes evaluation, we can look to public health and innovation in the medical/health systems for guidance.
The final area for infrastructure work is actually some of the most exciting. Investment by innovative lawyers, policy-makers, and designers in the ‘rules of the system’ can lead to substantial reform, like the New Zealand tax authority (the Inland Revenue Department)’s total transformation of the tax return filing process. They didn’t do this by making the tax return digitized or with better service designs. They invested in a system infrastructure solution — and changed the entire system, to remove the burden of filing a tax return altogether.
This kind of fully transformative design comes from digging into the infrastructure of the government system — its rules, policies, and organizational dynamics — to emerge with a profound, human-centered improvement.