Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Designing better services

I sometimes think what's lacking in government policy making is a really good institutional memory and a broader outlook. The real benefit wouldn't be in recycling old policies but in 'ah we tried that before and if we want it to work this time we would need to ..."

The reason I say this is that I have now learnt that senior civil servants recently received training from the Royal College of Art in the hope that they would be more creative and think about how public services could be better user focussed in design. One of the speakers has been quoted as saying:
"We were trying to get them to think about products from a supply chain and user-experience point of view rather than in terms of policy roll out."
A good starting point could have been considering the success of the Nesta Creative Councils initiative or indeed what happened with Innovation Nation. So, learning from those successes and failures would point to: 'ah, therefore, this time we would need to ...'.  Isn't that what you would expect from good policy advisers?

Although I may be doing them an injustice, I suspect that the attendees are not personally known for creativity and design in either their public or domestic lives. I also suspect that they have a civil service centric approach to design - by that I mean 'we can best interpret what the user needs and wants in service delivery'. So while they may have left the training with new colouring books what they probably needed most was a blank notebook and the removal of their pens - were that to have happened they would be dependent on others stating the problem and writing the solutions.  Hold on, haven't we been here before, isn't this specifying by outcomes!

If we want to be creative in service delivery, we need to
listen to service users, hear their pain and their happiness, and let them shape the way forward. The cynic in me suspects that the very thought of that would been enough to have qualified the attending civil servants for the next Olympic middle distance running team.

So, excuse my scepticism, but I think another more comfortable route may work: why not create a statutory 'Duty to design by user' on all public sector commissioning. We certainly have some illustrations of how user design in procurement can work and save money. For example, one of my previous ventures in procuring the design of a new cafeteria for a crematorium was all about embedding the users into the design process as opposed to viewing them as recipients. You can view that and other examples in Alexis Brooks' Case Studies in Public Sector Procurement and Design (2002).

It is not that we don't know how to develop cost effective user centric services, it's that we can't get those, who we also expect to be and reward for being risk averse, to manage that risk. It is on that basis that I suggest the Statutory Duty. Would it work? Well why not ask and design a prototype - at least that way we could stop designing and shifting the deck-chairs and see.

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