Design is taking over governments around the world, changing how they deliver services. Just like in the business world, design is understood as an enabler for change, often linked to digital transformation. Governments adopt what we have seen previously in the private sector where companies like IBM, SAP and Apple hired hundreds of designers to shape their products and services to better meet user needs. Designers also challenged and changed how the businesses are run and operating. The scope and meaning of the term design have broadened continuously to encompass a more strategic focus beyond products and services. For public administrations worldwide the user-centred digital transformation transcends their service offerings and entails a cultural change in many ways. Many countries have therefore set up digital service teams to improve public services that have not been working well for users — citizens and enterprises alike. Digitalising services often necessitates rethinking them entirely. Nonetheless the specific drivers for adopting a user-centred design perspective have varied depending on the pressing issues in each country. While Australia’s digitalisation efforts try to ensure equal living standards for its citizens in a country of great distances, the Nordic countries incorporate user-centredness as part of an already established democratic culture of political participation. In Singapore, user-friendly services have become a means of greater legitimacy for the government in the face of a general lack of democratic freedom. In the UK, digitalisation and cost reduction were the main drivers for the uptake of user-centred design, while in the United States the failure of implementing the Affordable Care Act has pushed this development. To introduce designerly ways of working into public administrations seemed revolutionary at the outset and has kicked off a design revolution in government.
First wave: How did the design revolution in government evolve?
In the early 2000s, the Australian Taxation Office started to experiment with user-centred design. Later on, DesignGov, a pilot initiative of the Australian Public Service between July 2012 and December 2013, helped to promote user-centred design and to establish design units in several Departments. More recently, the Digital Transformation Agency in Australia was modelled after UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) to consolidate digitalisation efforts for public services.
In Europe, Denmark’s innovation unit Mindlab has been one of the pioneers of the design revolution in government. Situated at the intersection of three Danish Ministries Mindlab acted as an in-house consultancy for user-centred design projects and training.
Finland, too, has a long track record of user-centred design in government, such as the Helsinki Design Lab sponsored by the national innovation fund Sitra (until 2013). In addition, D9, a team of 11 service designers operating from Finland’s State Treasury, started to work on guiding principles for the design of public services and supports departments in their digital service transformation.
E-government champion Estonia has built a strong reputation for its approach of rapid experimentation, policy iteration and delivery in the past decade, but largely relied on small and medium-size enterprises to develop digital government services. Starting in July 2018 a new internal Experimental Innovation Team will work on digital services with five different Ministries for the next three years.
In the United Kingdom, GDS has been the coordinating body for digital transformation in the Cabinet Office of the central government. With an explicit insourcing strategy GDS has paved the way for different government departments to hire over 800 designers. GDS provides standards, guidance, and components to build quicker, cheaper and better digital services. It also offers training to upskill UK civil servants in the wider area of digital, data, and technology, including agile, research and design.
The design revolution in government continues to grow. In 2016, Italy established the Digital Transformation Team — or Team Digitale Italia, led by a former senior manager from Apple and Amazon who reports to the Prime Minister. They work on guidance, front-end frameworks and tools for developers and designers. In 2017, Portugal started its LabX and now has a team of five service designers and anthropologists working on services — supported by the former heads of Denmark’s MindLab. In Germany, the Federal Agency for Employment (Bundesagentur für Arbeit) has set up agile development teams conducting user research and running usability lab sessions with users on an going basis. The German administration still exclusively relies on designers from consultancies, but started utilising research and design methodologies more frequently. Also, in local government and city states like Hamburg and Berlin, design, research and innovation consultancies are regularly brought in to ensure user needs are understood and early prototypes are tested.
Building on the legacy of the United States Digital Service (USDS) and digital service agency 18F, Canada has grown its design capabilities both on a national and regional level. In 2017, Chris Govias was hired as Chief of Design in the newly established Canadian Digital Service. The Ontario government grew a team of interaction, content, and service designers and share their approaches on a public blog. Also individual departments like Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) started bringing in designers and researchers to define and test new human-centered policies, programs and services.
Cities have been a major driver of user-centred design initiatives. Since 2015, Helsinki, New York City and San Francisco hired designers on director or c-level to change the way how their public services are designed and delivered. Apart from big cities, other local government bodies have incorporated user-centred design. For example, London’s districts Hackney and Waltham Forest hired multiple service designers to improve local services for the most vulnerable people.
Second wave: Establishing standards
Once designers were hired, teams set up and the first services redesigned, digital service teams developed design patterns and established standards to save time and ensure consistent quality.
In the UK, all newly developed and digitalised public services need to follow the Digital Service Standard, a comprehensive list of quality criteria. Services are assessed against the standard three times before they can go live. The standard requires teams to understand user needs, conduct user research continuously, and work in multidisciplinary teams. If they don’t meet these, the service cannot progress or launch on the country’s single government website gov.uk. The assessment panel consists of four specialists with a background in product management, technology, design and user research.
Teams in the USDS, Australia’s DTA, Finland’s D9 unit, and Canada’s Ontario Digital Service have created their own sets of standards and principles. These greatly overlap and directly reference each other, mostly building on GDS’ standard as foundation. Accompanying its standard, GDS created a service manual to help government teams create and run digital services that meet its quality criteria. In contains chapters on accessibility, agile delivery, design, user research, and technology.
In mid-2018, both Australia and the UK government launched their Design Systems. They consist of visual styles, interface components and design patterns making it easy to create prototypes and service front-ends in little time. The GOV.UK Design System was developed by GDS, but contributions come from all parts of government as most designers work in the various departments now.
Third wave: International collaboration & design beyond digital
The design revolution in government has reached a new stage. Existing design teams have started to share practices, standards and guiding principles across borders and have moved beyond designing digital services.
Since early 2017, the UK’s GDS helped build an international community of designers in governments. Its over 800 members come from 50 different countries. Apart from mailing lists and Slack groups, they discuss specific areas of work like immigration services, design systems or policy design in a monthly call.
This has led to collaborations among government design teams from different countries. For example, the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada team started working with international counterparts from the UK’s Home Office and Finland’s Immigration Service (Migri). Migri established Inland, an in-house design lab within the Finnish Immigration Service. There, they combine design thinking and advanced technology to co-design services that support immigrants and their communities. And Australia and the UK exchanged components and code of their Design Systems even before they launched publicly.
User-centred design has matured and moved beyond designing digital services. Design in government increasingly covers holistic, end-to-end services. On the one hand, design needs to deal with operations reaching deep into service implementation and the ongoing provision of services across channels. On the other hand, digital service design reaches into the policy sphere. For example, previously in the UK user-centred policy-making was only advocated by a small experimental unit in the central Cabinet Office called Policy Lab working on far-out future policies. In the last two years, various departments in the UK recognised a need for building in-house capabilities bridging policy-making and service design and spun off user-centred policy teams. In the Ministry of Justice, a mixed team of policy experts and design professionals develops prototypes around custody dispute mediation to inform the details of a policy currently under revision. The Policy Exploration team in the Department of Work & Pension is a group of service designers and policy specialists that investigates and validates ideas of the minister and other senior civil servants.
In mid-July, the international design in government community meets for the first time in London. 240 participants from 26 countries come together to share their work — hopefully leading to more international collaboration and exchange among government designers. Especially in the European Union, designers are encouraged to collaborate more as their nations committed to providing end-to-end cross-border digital services through the Single Digital Gateway and electronic identification regulation. More than 500 million users on the continent will be able to access services from 28 different countries — service patterns and ongoing collaboration will help improving people’s experiences with these services.
Dr Katrin Dribbisch works as a senior business analyst at DXC Technology for public sector clients. She wrote her PhD thesis on embedding design thinking in public administrations.
Martin Jordan is the Head of Service Design at GDS. He co-organises London’s Gov Design Meetups and the first International Design in Government Conference.