Tips on Service Design for the Public Sector


Pulse Lab Jakarta, with the support of DFAT, recently teamed up with GiZ to deliver a couple of health service design workshops in East Java, Indonesia. We find these kinds of workshops useful for identifying data innovation opportunities in frontline services and sub-national public administrations. We share what we learned from the experience below.

Prep Yourself

Get to know as much as you can about the challenge to be addressed, and translate your findings into a set of design prompts or inspirations that you can showcase early on at the workshop. This kind of preparation helps us all to better understand the challenges, opportunities and incentives facing people on either side of the public service interface.

We find that showing the participants that we have done our homework helps to establish credibility, gives the participants some loose structure to which they can hold and, later on, smooths the transition to the research phase of the workshop.

Respect the Culture

Understanding cultural nuances that may hinder us from capturing meaningful stories is essential for facilitators. During a series of interviews at a local health clinic, we observed that pregnant mothers were much more reluctant to talk to the male workshop participants (not a huge surprise, but we should have seen this coming).

Another example relates to the feedback that we received post-workshop in a Moslem-dominated area, where one of the biggest complaints was the insufficiently equipped prayer facility in the workshop space. Get these things right so that the participants can focus on what is important.

Leave your Professional Identity at the Door

The hierarchical nature of government naturally leads to situations where one opinion carries more weight than others. Labelling of government officials also creates a natural barrier for meaningful conversations with citizens.

We found that requiring the participants to forgo their corporate attributes, like uniform, especially when conducting fieldwork, built trust within the teams and with citizens during interviews. It is amazing to see how a simple act, such as banning uniform, has an impact on people’s openness to connect and expose their true feelings.

Onboard Creativity

Selling creativity in this particular type of workshop can have a negative effect on the participants’ enthusiasm. Most of them did not feel that they are creative (we beg to differ!), but more dangerously, many did not think that creativity is a relevant skill in their work.

We found, during the first workshop, that forcing participants to do an intense and unfamiliar creative task right away makes them see service design approach as something anecdotal, a perception which sometimes lasted until the end of the workshop. This is not to say that we should eliminate creative exercises from the workshop, but, instead, that they should be introduced in digestible chunks.

Give them a taste of the whole shebang

Many public officials are accustomed to a governance model that encourages linear thinking, that has little quarter for creativity. To public officials accustomed to structure and hierarchy, design thinking can feel chaotic and, thus, demotivate engagement in such an approach. We have found that participants in our workshops, at least initially, find it hard to see its relevance to their day-to-day work.

We have found it useful to run a quick exercise early on in the workshop that gives the participants a taste of the methodology, and thus of everything to come. Let them go through an entire design cycle on an unrelated topic and without having to acknowledge the lingo. We use the gift-giving exercise developed by the at Stanford.

Beware though, this is not a silver bullet, as feedback shows that participants find this exercise to be the most confusing part of the workshop. But at least it let them experience the highs and lows of the methodology connected to an unrelated topic and it pays dividends later because once the participants are exposed to the design challenge they have an ‘anchor’ amid the ‘chaos’.

Structure, Structure, Structure!

As most public officials are accustomed to structure, a workshop programme with good structure on paper but following design principles is easier to digest. Based on our user research we developed themes and scenarios to help the participants structure their thoughts. We created these in a way that suggested, but did not dictate, creative direction.

Some participants ignored these and followed their own research insights which was good to see, while others augmented our scenarios with insights of their own.

We found that each group relied heavily on its facilitator. Floating facilitation and self-guided work is possible in follow-up workshops, but not recommended for participants new to the approach.

Rethinking Collaboration

One of the strengths of design thinking lies in its focus on collaboration across disciplines. But for this to work it requires that participants are interested in collaborating with people from different backgrounds. We have found this to be challenging for some public officials, especially if they have been selected to participate rather than volunteer.

We recommend that participants are able to self-select and, thus, that the multidisciplinary nature of teams comes a distant second to public officials’ motivation to participate.

Design for Implementation

Working on issues and priorities that already have political traction increases the likelihood that the prototypes developed and tested at the workshop will be implemented.

Post-workshop facilitation is also critical. This could be through a follow up workshop with relevant staff in the host agency or institution so that they embrace the open and iterative approach to public sector reform and the prototype itself. It could also be through ad hoc support such as lobbying, grants, mentoring or networking, among others.

Data Innovation in Mind

Pulse Lab Jakarta uses design thinking to uncover data innovation opportunities as well as to develop new initiatives. A similar exercise in NTB Province uncovered the fact that midwives are required to complete over nine data artefacts connected to their work. Clearly form filling distracts from delivering services to citizens and communities.

Together with midwives and the Vihara Innovation Network, PLJ developed and tested a new data collection and management system. The prototype rationalised the overlapping data collection processes and helped health clinics to use the data they collect in decision- making.

We would love to hear from others working in this field, especially if you have experience integrating design thinking into institutional planning processes.

Pulse Lab Jakarta is grateful for the generous support from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Government of Australia.



UN Global Pulse Asia Pacific
United Nations Global Pulse Asia Pacific

UN Global Pulse Asia Pacific is a regional hub that aims to drive data innovation and sustainable development to ensure that no one is left behind.