“I’m sorry, but we are a big company” – a fragment about scale

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about scale…

Trello blog post backlog

… but I struggle to get it all out as a single coherent narrative…

… so instead I want to tell a short story. It goes like this…

In order to supply my services to a large public organisation, I find my little company as a sub-sub-contractor in a Byzantine procurement framework. Anyone who believes the dogma that the private sector is inherently more efficient than public enterprise need only look at the outsourcing giants that squat in this space for empirical evidence that it is just as often the exact opposite.

A few weeks into my new contract, it becomes clear that the bureaucracy is incapable of paying the correct amount for work done. They ignore my suggestion that their timesheet system is treating half days as whole ones – until months later I get an email out of the blue from an administrator whose sole role in life is to recover erroneous overpayments (Note to managers: if your Exchange server has an email inbox called something like “OverPayments@CrapCorp.com”, that’s a clue that you have a problem with failure demand).

The overpayments administrator and I become allies. We exchange spreadsheets back and forth until we have reconciled all the discrepancies. In a final twist, she reveals that to straighten things out, they have to knowingly overpay my company even more money, which I must then return to them.

And that’s when the overpayments administrator speaks the words that should strike fear into every “C-suite” executive (because let’s face it, executives, if your organisation is big enough to have a “C-suite” then it’s big enough to have this problem).

“I’m sorry about this, but we are a big company.”

And I wonder. When exactly did “big company” stop being a byword for trust and solidity, and become sufficient excuse – no further explanation required – for systematic, terminal ineptitude?

Up the school! Or, a passive-aggressive letter to the headteacher on the occasion of the unveiling of a new logo

Dear headteacher,

Welcome to your new role! As a parent of two children at the school with another still in primary school, I’m delighted to see your commitment to making ours an outstanding school in line with your new motto and values.

The problem is the new logo.

In the course of my annual visits to Jo Brand Plus of Harehills Lane (where I am always welcomed like an old friend) I have made a study of the state of the art in school insignia design. In this there appear to be three basic genres:

  • The first, preferred by primary schools, is the “Earth Child” trope: brightly coloured trees, linked hands, happy blob children or some combination thereof.
  • The second is the “Modernist Corporate” style, in the spirit of the late Paul Rand’s IBM, FedEx and Enron identities. The school’s current logo falls into this category. Here a thoughtful designer has considered the ascenders and descenders of the school name in lowercase, along with the relative lengths of the words to create a tightly locked up wordmark. It’s a little weak but is done with integrity.
  • The third – and by far the hardest genre to execute successfully – is the “Heraldic Achievement”. Some schools have this ready-made in the form of a local family coat of arms, or, if a church school, the crest of their sponsoring religious establishment. A few manage to combine local insignia and scholastic symbols – books, quills, etc. – to make their own convincing heraldic combinations.

The thought process that leads a school like ours to the Heraldic Achievement is easy to imagine. We inhabit an old country where aristocratic deference has deep roots. What better way for a mid-century secondary modern to announce its arrival at the top table of outstanding schools than to put on the clothes of elite institutions that pre-date it by centuries?

To achieve the desired effect, the heraldic design has to play by the rules. As the aspirant newcomer here, you do not make these rules. They are determined by the holders of archaic positions such as “Maltravers Herald Extraordinary” and “Rouge Dragon Pursuivant”. I Am Not Making These Up.

Our school’s new logo makes a brave start. A blue field with a white Yorkshire rose feels genuine, if a little generic. It could apply equally to hundreds of other schools in the county. Except that the rose used is the East Riding version, which has a sepal pointing upwards. Traditionally here in the West Riding the rose is the other way up with a petal at the top. Who knew? I do now because I have taken the trouble to Google for this important detail.

The credibility rating starts to go rapidly downhill when we add the motto to the shield. Heraldically, this should be on a scroll below the escutcheon, not plastered straight onto the field. Not only is this distinctly unheraldic, it is also ham-fistedly done. The geometric sans font worked well within the Modernist Corporate style but has no place in the traditional genre that this logo attempts to emulate. Then there’s the distribution of the words in a semicircle above the rose. Because “Aspire” is a shorter word than “Succeed” the whole arc ends up being lopsided. I fear I shall look at this and cringe every time I send my children off to school.

Finally, the name of the school perched like a black granite tombstone at the top of the shield adds nothing to the ensemble. The way the word “School” is orphaned on a line of its own raises the question of why it was needed in the first place. In many uses of the logo this wording will be redundant or duplicative, and its overall effect is to make the whole thing thoroughly pedestrian. This is such a missed opportunity to add a distinctive charge to the black band. Rouge Dragon Pursuivant would call this band a “chief”. It is commonly used to make a coat of arms unique – but never simply by slapping the name of the holder on as text.

All these points may in themselves appear to be nit-picking. But cumulatively they make our school’s new logo the exact opposite of its ethos. A school on course to being outstanding would have the creative sure-footedness and intellectual curiosity to get these details right. It would know from its careers department that design is a job, done with skill and care, with users engaged, contexts considered and alternatives sweated over.

How can the situation be saved? We could stick with the Modernist Corporate approach. The current design could be improved on but has a clarity and originality that is lacking in the new logo. We could even hark back to the noble spirit of the school’s foundation in the 1950s. The award-winning GOV.UK website, for example, successfully marries the genuine heraldic device of the Crown with the clarity of Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinnear’s road sign typography from that era.

But if you are determined to head the kind of school that has a coat of arms, I plead with you to do it properly. I myself attended a 450-year-old school that took its heraldic identity from a founder with a walk-on role in Wolf Hall. There I got to know the attitudes that still pervade the institutions your highest-achieving students must navigate if they are to realise their full potential.

Please ask yourself how our sons and daughters will be received when they arrive at the doors of an Oxford or Cambridge college that has a grant of arms from around the time of Magna Carta. Will they be taken seriously? Or will the new “aspirational” logo elicit a silent sneer? This should not matter but it does. The elite networks of this country are tilted against some of your students enough already. The last thing they need is for an unthinking act of cargo cult design to subtly undermine their life chances even further.


Matt Edgar


Eagle eyed readers have pointed out that I have published a 1000-word tirade without showing you the actual logo. This is mainly to protect the innocent. I can DM the offending image to those I know and trust :)

Thanks, everyone! We just rocked the public sector


GGovJam Leeds 2015 003

Still decompressing from an amazing 48 hours running Leeds GovJam 2015.

Stand-out moments for me (sorry if this is one of those “you had to be there” posts :)

  • Seeing a full house for the Tuesday evening kick-off
  • Ben Holliday’s powerful talk about doing user-centred design at DWP
  • Stick-figure voting to organise the project teams
  • Handing out new-style jam passports including 10 service design methods to try
  • Watching the space empty out on Wednesday morning as teams headed into Leeds to do their first round of user research
  • Sharon and Kathryn’s impromptu intervention to reinforce Doing Not Talking
  • Seeing the space transform on Wednesday afternoon as the prototypes took shape
  • Making global connections with new jams in Athens and Chelmsford
  • Seeing teams solve differences of opinion by making, testing and iteration
  • Watching project after project pop up on our global jam site
  • The purposeful but calm way all the teams approached the 3pm Thursday deadline
  • Seeing how much they all had done in just 48 hours
  • Having James Lewis and Tom Riordan of Leeds City Council visit our show and tell
  • Tidying up the space in record time thanks to everyone who stayed behind to help out

Thanks to all who made it happen.

We rocked the public sector!

Originally posted on Leeds GovJam:

We’re going to write more about Leeds GovJam 2015 over the next week or so, but for now you can see all the projects on govjam.org …

Leeds GovJam projects

… and take a look at Lisa’s lovely photos of the event

Photos by Lisa J Jeffery

People we need to thank:

  • Global GovJam organisers Adam, Markus and Natasche for making this amazing event happen around the world
  • Twin jammers at the Athens GovJam for sharing their progress through their first jam
  • Digital DWP for being the loveliest event sponsors imaginable
  • Ben Holliday for his inspirational talk on the opening night
  • Supporters UKGovCamp and SD Leeds
  • Hosts Kathryn and Paul at ODI-Leeds for keeping us fed and watered, and for the perfect jamming space
  • Councillor James Lewis and Leeds Council CEO Tom Riordan for joining our end-of-jam show and tell
  • All the jammers, including contingents from Leeds City Council, DWP and the rest of the World!

View original 40 more words

Most of government is mostly service design most of the time. Discuss.

Without exception, everyone I meet in the public sector wants to help make their service better. Most of them are in some way frustrated. The domain is massive and the activities disjointed. People engaged in any given service – from users and frontline workers down to managers and policymakers – can go for months on end without coming into contact with each other. On the rare occasions they do meet, they generally do so with mutual incomprehension.

This is not exclusively a government problem. I know from my time as a product manager in the private sector that a similar malaise affects all big organisations. But when it happens in government the impact of poor service is graver. This is service delivered with the authority of the state. As users we cannot take our government custom elsewhere. Neither can public service providers cherry pick their customers like the private sector does.

Whether we realise or not, most of government is mostly service design most of the time. If we fail to acknowledge this, we’re doomed to short change our citizens and fall short of our policy goals. But when we wake up to the potential, we find proven tools and techniques for designing service. Applying them can and should be everyone’s business.

We only have to look at definitions of “government” and “service design” to find a naturally good fit.

Exhibit A: The Institute for Government’s Whitehall Monitor summarises the business of government under the following headings:

  • the resources available to government (ministers, money, civil servants)
  • how government manages them (through arm’s-length bodies or contracting), what it does with them (passing legislation, answering requests for information) and how it measures what it does (major projects, permanent secretary objectives), and
  • what impact all of that has in the real world and how the public and international studies rate government effectiveness.

… which is nice because, Exhibit B, the Service Design Network defines its members’ practice thus:

“Service design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers.”

We may call it many things, but service design happens all the time at every level of the government stack. The problem is that when done unconsciously it’s just not very good. All of the following contain random acts of design by default…

  • Users work their way around complex government processes, even if it means hiring costly experts like lawyers or accountants to do it for them.
  • Frontline staff hack the process just so they can serve their customers better. Visit any contact centre to see tattered papers, sticky notes by screens, Dymo-labelled folders and trays put in place to expedite information from one part of the process to another.
  • Good managers manage with ingenuity to sort out shift patterns, holiday rotas and flexible working so that their people can do their best work – in spite of policies and processes that treat workers more as resources than as human beings.
  • Entire, organisations-within-organisations accrete with baroque titles such as “change management” to drive through discontinuous re-structures that fracture working relationships and frustrate any long-term organisational learning.
  • “Policy” is a Platonic conception perceived to exist on a higher plane where users are always rational, processes run smoothly and every day is a sunny one. By the time we descend to the grubby depths of “implementation” it’s already too late.
  • Our democracy itself still runs on rails laid in Victorian times, as if the population were barely literate onlookers and the parties the houses of a minor public school on a bad-tempered match day.

Everywhere there are gaps. With their 1985 Gaps Model of Service Quality, Parasuraman et al. posited 5 types of them.

gaps model

All 5 gaps are endemic in public service. Design shouldn’t just be used to paper over them: it can eliminate them altogether. As Tom Loosemore said in his Code for America talk last year describing the Government Digital Service’s approach:

“We don’t talk about policy and implementation or policy and then delivery. We don’t think of them as two separate things. Even thinking how you fix the gap is a category error. What we doing here collectively, with policy people in the room, is digital service design.”

(Disclosure: It’s my privilege to work as a contractor for GDS, though like everything on this blog I write this in a personal capacity.)

Let’s look at those gaps again.

  1. Gap between what customers expect and what managers think they expect. We seek and expose user insights, not just at the start or end of the process, but throughout. There’s good evidence that everyone on the team should spend at least 2 hours every 6 weeks observing primary, qualitative research. How about we make that a prerequisite for Permanent Secretaries, council CEO’s, and everyone else not in direct day-to-day contact with service users?
  2. Gap between management perception and service specification. Even when we understand what users need, we have to get better at translating that insight into a vision of the service. We can use powerful formats such as user stories to tie requirements back to users and their goals. The best specifications of all can be real working prototypes. Making prototypes is easier than ever.
  3. Gap between specification and delivery. Alpha and beta versions are what we use to close this gap. They help us understand the ins and outs of delivery even as we refine our designs.
  4. Gap between promise to customers and what’s actually delivered. Ever been sold a Tesla only to find it’s a Sinclair C5? In the words of this tweet, “how could we get Britain voting on prototypes rather than promises?”
  5. Gap between what customers expect of service and how they actually perceive it. This yawning chasm is the cumulative effect of gaps 1 to 4. It is also the main driver of disappointment and distrust in public services. One bad experience loops back round and poisons our expectations of future interactions with government – a downward spiral that we need to disrupt.

How can we make government better? By accepting that first and foremost everyone’s a designer, and that we all need to develop a design thinking sensibility.

Besides relentless people-centricity – intellectually and empathetically understanding users, tasks and environments – service design practice has some distinctive characteristics:

  • Service design is visual. This doesn’t mean you have to be great at drawing – but it does demand working with more than words. When we draw pictures and diagrams we engage a different part of our brains and spot things we would miss through written specification alone. Making those assets visible can feel scary at first. That’s worth it though, because they change the conversation into something much more constructive than any amount of finessing verbal positions and semantics.
  • Service design is multidisciplinary. ISO 9241-210, the international standard for human-centred design acknowledges that no one discipline has a monopoly on design. Rather, “the design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.” This is a challenge to a silo-ed way of working, but small “two-pizza” teams in startups and internet giants like Amazon and Google prove it can be done.
  • Service design is holistic and integrative. Good designers of any stripe look at the big picture – what is the user need? what is the policy intent? – but they don’t stop there. They also dive down into the details and forge novel combinations of components. They hold multiple, potentially contradictory, strands in tension, zooming in and out between the reasons for doing something and the details of delivery that will make it succeed.
  • Service design is iterative. Whenever I read an account of Apple’s development process I am struck by the number of versions and iterations their products and services go through. They create and test many ideas before narrowing down on a handful to develop further. Just at the point when lesser companies would settle and launch they throw all the cards in the air and create yet more new combinations.
  • Finally, service design treats time as a material. There’s a place for thinking and working fast, and one for being slow and considered. A food bank user needs assistance before the next mealtime while a retiree of 60 needs to think what money they might need aged 100. Big service providers get stuck too easily in the middle of Stewart Brand’s pace layers. Service design helps them to be more supple.

Pace Layering

Don’t believe me? Try this stuff out for yourself. In June I’m taking part in the Global GovJam. It’s not a ‘designers’ event, just people designing together. For 48 hours we break down silos between local and national government, the NHS and social care, public, private and third sectors. We challenge people to communicate their ideas through doing, not talking. They make prototypes and take them out to potential users when they still feel incomplete. And the buzz as people realise how much they can achieve in so little time is amazing. Come and join us in Leeds or in dozens of other cities around the world.

Annual Report Number Three

The night we kicked off Leeds Service Jam I sneaked away a little early from the post-theme-reveal dinner to a different pub on the other side of town. There I found an astonishing assortment of former colleagues from my time at PA New Media, Ananova and Orange – some of whom I hadn’t seen for a good 10 years. We were there at the initiative of one of our number who was finally leaving in an umpteenth round of re-orgs and redundancies. Yorkshire ales were consumed; worlds were set to rights. As we chatted, it emerged just how many of us had now made our escapes from the shackles of regular salaries, paid holidays and pension contributions to a more independent, if precarious, employment status.

As it happened at the time, I was part-way through Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman’s classic book ‘Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration’. Their hypothesis was that the world of 1997 was too complex for the “great man” model that still makes up most of our leadership mythology to this day. The qualities of the leader mattered (undoubtedly this was true at PA/Ananova/Orange Multimedia) but mainly so far as they could assemble and defend “great groups,” “free-form organisations more interested in their mission than their hierarchy” who despite seeming to be underdogs “believe they’re bound to succeed.”

Without presuming to place my now middle-aged cohort of late 90s new media colleagues on the same pedestal as Disney’s feature animation studio or the user experience pioneers at Xerox PARC, I think all of us in the pub that night knew that feeling. And once we’d been there, we were spoiled for life. The experience of working as part of that team set a bar so impossibly high that most of what passed for corporate life thereafter would be a disappointment.

So I count myself incredibly lucky that my work in my third year as an independent consultant has allowed me to be a bit player in multiple great groups, and to be present as a trainer and service jam host at the forming, storming and norming stages of even more.


This time last year, I’d just put up my hand to host the first ever Leeds GovJam, part of the global service jamming movement. I knew it would be good because I had such an awesome team of volunteers behind me. They – and the 40 or so jammers who came along – filled the fantastic ODI-Leeds space with 48 hours of joy, creativity and masking tape.

Leeds GovJam 2014 - Some rights reserved Lisa J Jeffery

What happened next was even better. Jammers took their service design and design thinking enthusiasm back into their organisations. One ran a whole day of jamming for her Civil Service Fast Stream colleagues. Another commissioned Kathryn Grace and me to train her NHS team who in turn went on to run workshops involving service users and clinicians in people-centred service redesigns.

This week I met with more potential jammers and volunteers for the 2015 Leeds GovJam. Tickets go on sale on Monday. Leeds GovJam is run by volunteers, and nobody makes a profit from it. Sponsors and supporters help us keep costs down, open up new possibilities, and provide extra treats and prizes to jam participants. If you could be one of those sponsors or supporters, please get in touch.


Among last year’s GovJammers were some of the Department for Work and Pensions team. When I first visited their Digital Academy it was nothing but an empty office space on the ground floor of an anonymous DWP building just south of the River Aire.

The first cohort arrived in the summer of 2014, since when I’ve had the privilege of working with dozens more civil servants committed to making their work more user-centred, more agile and more digital. Among the most rewarding times have been when cohorts leave the academy as a single team, ready to work together on a digital service. Members of the wider Leeds digital community have been very generous with their time as guest speakers in a series of lunchtime talks for the academy – if you’re one of those people, thank you!

Alongside my work for DWP, I’m also still involved with the Government Digital Service’s Service Manager Programme. We hit our target of training 150 service managers from across departments and agencies. For people in other digital roles we created a new Digital Foundation Day which is delivered through Civil Service Learning.

In my report last year, I mentioned teaming up with associates. It’s great to work with Sharon Dale on much of the digital capability stuff that I do. Sharon and I have different skills and experience. I think we make a good team.


This is Phil building the Internet of Things in December and a hard hat…

Phil at Little Kelham

Working for Citu with Tom, Andy, Phil and Paul has been a slow-burning but rewarding project. We’ve launched a beta version of the digital service for people moving into brand new passive houses a Little Kelham in Sheffield. I even got to write it up as a case study for Claire Rowland’s forthcoming book ‘Designing Connected Products: UX for the Consumer Internet of Things’.

Actuate at Little Kelham screenshot

It’s been a fascinating service design and innovation challenge. We had to get to know a full stack of internet of things technology, working across the site as a whole, and be sure all the parts would play nicely together to deliver a good experience to every user.

In construction, some things are literally set in concrete, but IoT services can and should be more malleable than that. Knowing requirements will change over time, we’ve taken a user-centred, agile approach to the design process. I hope we’ll continue to work with Citu to support, learn and further develop the service in partnership with residents as they move in and settle into their new homes.


When looking at new opportunities, I use a little Trello checklist to see if they’re a good fit. Engagements don’t have to tick all the boxes, but it helps, and increasingly the answer is yes to all of them…

  • Is there a service design challenge here?
  • Does it involve digital innovation?
  • Will I be helping to develop capability?
  • Can I do this work mainly in Leeds?

One of my ambitions for year 3 was to spend less time on the train to London. I’m pleased to say, that worked out well. The chart below shows where I spent the days I billed to clients over the past two years. From being mostly London a couple of summers ago, it’s now flipped to being mostly Yorkshire-based. I love working with teams in the capital, but Leeds is home and there are lots of exciting things to do here right now.

The other thing I’ve tried to optimise is how much time I spend with different clients. I like to go deep on a project, but also to keep doing new things across a range of sectors. It’s been a delight to be able to flip from public sector training to an IoT project and back again, and I believe my work on both those things benefits from the broader perspective.

You’ll see there’s a power law distribution – three big engagements that have taken up the lion’s share of my time over the past 12 months, followed by some speculative stuff that may lead to more in the future. I also try to say yes to the little things that come up from time to time, particularly where it’s helping local organisations with digital and service design. Those notches to the right of that chart included:

  • a report on digital healthy lifestyles services for a commissioner in the NHS
  • a workshop on the brown sign application process for the tourism and transport teams at a local authority
  • a training day for a digital agency who wanted to work in a more user-centred, agile way
  • talks to students at Leeds and Leeds Beckett universities.

Please keep asking me to do those things too.


So that was my third year of independent consulting. I’m still having fun, and my children still have shoes.

Want to be part of year 4? I’m at mattedgar.com

I ♥︎ Dots: Why I signed Martha Lane Fox’s petition


I love that the working title of Martha Lane Fox’s proposed new public institution is Dot Everyone.

Yes, the “everyone” bit is like motherhood and apple pie. It’s important, but it’s not a strategy.

But dots (and we all know that @ signs are so last decade, don’t we?), dots are cool.

Dots are a strategy.

Because when people talk about “small pieces loosely joined” they are really talking about dots. Dots between the levels in a domain name make the Internet what it is, a network of networks. “blog dot mattedgar dot com” – speak them softly, but never gloss over them. With dots, we have an infinitely scalable, massively distributed, highly resilient system. Without dots, it would be one big centralised brittle of data.

Lots of things in life besides hypertext pages can be enhanced with this spirit of savage resilience.

So after reading the text of the Dimbleby lecture, I had no hesitation in signing the petition to establish a new public body. In Martha’s words the new institution would “prioritise three areas that best demonstrate the opportunities we should be grabbing with both hands: education, women and ethics.”

These things are all important to me because the people of the world hold the web in common. Yet many in this country and beyond are still not getting their share. Instead we risk enclosure by a monocultural “tech” establishment incapable of imagining the best the web could be.

The Internet should set people free to realise their full potential through learning, work and play. Increasingly that will mean doing all three of those things at the same time.

In David Ogilvy’s words, “diversity turns out to be the mother of invention (not necessity, as the mechanists thought).” Only human diversity can confer legitimacy. Only human inventiveness can create capacity. We’ll need both to do battle with the powerful interests that will otherwise bend our future out of shape.

Everything about this new institution should be considered in the open:

  • the location (not London-by-Default, please)
  • the way it co-creates with users (proven people-centred service design tools are available)
  • the way it delivers (less Gantt, more Git).

Let’s make it an institution that is not just on the web or about the web, but truly of the web. That’s why I ♥︎ Dots.

90% archaeology: my notes and reflections on Service Design in Government 2015

Some rights reserved - Jess McMullin

Some rights reserved – Jess McMullin

There’s never been a more exciting time to be designing services in the public sector. But it can still be a lonely existence – in any organisation, a small number of advocates may find themselves trying to shift a large mass with plenty of inertia. The Service Design in Government conference that I attended last week has an important role to play. It’s a place where people can share their triumphs and frustrations, and form a common view of what we should be aiming for in the design and redesign of public service.

Thanks again to all the speakers, the other participants, and the organisers at Software Acumen. I was delighted to be part of the programme committee. These are my notes and reflections…

Everyone’s a designer.

Jess McMullin and Alex MacLennan have been building service design practice in the government of British Columbia since 2010. Along the way they’ve developed an awe-inspiring array of interventions across the government’s many services, intensively training cross-disciplinary, cross-department teams and moving up the design maturity ladder – from no conscious design, through a focus on style, function and form, up to using design to solve already-identified problems and frame new ones. Recognising that their own team is small (“we are not the official designers for the BC government”) they focus on getting other people to think like designers. Now they have a UX library that all ministries can use.

Those Hogwarts Moments – I love those too…

Anna Whicher and Adrian O’Donoghue carried on the “public servant as designer” theme with the story of the trans-national SPIDER project, and its application in Ireland’s Northern and Western Regional Assembly. An ambitious peer learning platform between local governments across North-western Europe, it covered public service co-ordination, youth unemployment, ageing populations and culture change within authorities. The scale of the capacity building is impressive: 1478 people attending local workshops, working on issues where people will benefit. Stand-out quotes: “Co-production works. It scares the public sector” and “Hero designer is not suitable in this way of working.”

Several other talks picked up the same themes:

  • Housing manager Amanda Pujol worked with designer Kathryn Woolf under the Design Council’s leadership programme to prevent life-threatening trips and falls among older people in Teignbridge (and together they bubble wrapped a whole GP’s reception to dramatise the issue!)
  • Transport for London, with Ben Reason‘s Live|Work, seconded 20 station staff to facilitate workshops, bringing an honesty and credibility that could only come from frontline workers
  • Gavin Bell of the Ministry of Justice told how they seconded a deputy prison governor to work with digital specialists on the Prison Visit Booking exemplar
  • Jean Mutton, an “inside-out service designer” at Derby University, brings students into her team on 12-month paid internships because “we get a much richer picture from students talking to students”
  • The Satori Lab‘s Jo Carter and Esko Reinikainen got housing association staff across Wales into conversation with the world cafe method
  • For sexual health community interest company SH:24, Glyn Parry and Unboxed Consulting‘s Martyn Evans had to create a core team including clinicians, public health professionals, agile project managers, designers and developers.

It’s 90% archaeology.

Louise Downe, service design lead at the Government Digital Service, outlined how  service failure is still one of the biggest costs in government. Time is taken up with unnecessary processing – roughly 40% of people declaring medical conditions to DVLA have a condition they didn’t need to report – user contact, casework, and manual handling of exceptions in policy. Change needs to happen “in hearts and minds of everyone who works in government. It’s not sitting in a room and ideating, it’s finding out why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

  • On the SPIDER project, this became a kind of “double ethnography on the end users and the system to understand how you can make an impact”.
  • Gavin detailed his own learning curve at MoJ – all that paper, printing and cabling! “It’s not done until you follow the transaction all way through the court process… It’s not done until the user has finished paying their fine… Understand the context in which you’re operating, understand how to get all the way to the end.”
  • Jean told us the story of the bicycle books, dutifully filled out and filed for decades even though their purpose in administering wartime rationing was long since redundant.
  • Jess and Alex “unearthing the decisions of the people that came before us”, connecting with the experience and legislation cultures, norms, values and power structures: “There is no more powerful tool than the road trip.”
  • Glyn and Martyn working with NHS trust information governance boards to devise a better way of keeping personal information by anonymising it instead of sending it around the system in the mail.

For TfL, it was about how to improve the customer journey (literally!) in creaking, crowded stations on a 152-year-old network that last saw a full day of good service on all lines in April 2010. (and in heritage buildings to boot – Earl’s Court Station, “beautiful escalator!”)

Change is hard.

TfL used the inspiration of the 2012 Olympics to prove that things were possible. But to put this into practice, they used a design approach to engage staff, build readiness for further change and reduce potential conflict (avert just half a day of Tube strike and the initiative would pay for itself.) Covent Garden station supervisor Pele Bapere told a powerful story about his own role in the “reachback” communications to colleagues at the station: “I’ve worked for the Underground 16 years and I’ve seen many things brought in… This was the first time they’ve gone out in a systematic way and engaged staff.” Sure enough, staff repayed that investment by highlighting priorities and changes that could be put into action quickly, such as modernising the approach to lost property.

And there were loads of other great change tips from presenters:

  • “Make sure you have ‘Do-ers’, not strategists” – Amanda Pujol
  • “Design language to some is really not helpful” – Andrea Siodmok, Cabinet Office Policy Lab
  • “The Gov Whisperer: not a change manager, more empathetic and focused on the needs of government” – Jess and Alex
  • “Intelligent challenge: Can you help us understand?” – Gavin
  • “Epic failure: Using empathy tools with psychopathic organisations” – Jo and Esko

Design is often first to join the dots.

The work of people-centred change frequently starts by helping those who do only a small part of the process to see the whole picture from the end-user’s point of view. Shockingly this often doesn’t happen until designers get involved. That’s what Jean Mutton did at Derby when she issued Flip cameras to new first year students – she helped the university to move from a component process review to the holistic student experience. Her team found departments tripping over each other to send letters, each of which “wanted to be the first” to welcome the student. And they developed a 40-point action plan that covered everything from signage to staff awareness.

Perhaps the most compelling story of joined up service – not just between organisations but across sectors – was the story Pele told from Covent Garden Station. With the opening of Britain’s largest Apple Store just across the road, there was an increase in the number of blind and partially sighted people coming through the station. So tube workers made an arrangement to call Apple, who now send a staff-member to meet people at ground level and escort them through the crowds.

Now shift from actual, physical underground railway platforms to the digital metaphor of the moment, “government as a platform”. Imagine, as Louise is starting to, how we could work when it is easier and quicker to make better, more user-focused public services: “When services are easier to make we’ll probably have more of them, not less.” But they’ll be “made of the internet”, “small pieces loosely joined”. Rather than having one monolithic piece of the benefit system, we can create a customised user journey that meets people’s individual needs. The potential is massive, but we’ll have to up our game. We’ll need a new clarity of thinking, not just “if we can’t fix it with a form, we create a portal.”

Needs are diverse, complex and quirky.

TfL’s Pele: “This is not Singapore, this is not New York, this in London, we’re quirky.”

Here’s a “best of discovering user needs” compilation I jotted down at the conference:

  • A GP decided to go through the front door of his surgery as if a customer – and re-worked his reception area based on what he learned – Amanda
  • Some prisoners have complex love lives – the prison visit booking system can end up being the forum where their rivalries play out – Gavin
  • If the admissions department puts its address on letters, that’s where students will show up on their first day – not the campus 20 miles away – Jean
  • There’s a new digital divide – between people online with basic skills and the “next gen” users for whom internet is interwoven with life – Liz Stevenson of Cambridgeshire County Council
  • Look for the verbs: “Bad services are nouns, good service are verbs.” – Louise

Everyone has tools, but prototyping is where it’s at.

I lost count of the number of toolkits, frameworks, canvases, cards, and variations on a process that showed up during the conference. (Top marks to Satori Labs for their “double diamond with knobs on”.) And there seemed to be general agreement that toolkits have their place.

But meeting up on the Thursday evening with a fifth column of Global Service Jam and Global GovJam hosts from around the world, I was reminded that for all the analysis we need to keep public service design real.

So it was great to hear references to prototyping – including one reportedly by Home Secretary Theresa May. Andrea: “If in a year people are talking about prototyping and they weren’t before, we’ve made an impact.”

  • In British Columbia, Alex runs a Public Services Dragon’s Den with a budget for creating prototypes and pilots
  • In Teignbridge, the bubble-wrapped reception was one of three alternatives tested for real in GP’s waiting rooms before settling on a single direction to raise older people’s awareness of trip and fall risks
  • Smeared and splattered iPhone screens made it bleeding obvious to the SH:24 team that video wasn’t the best way of showing people how to give a blood sample.

What did I miss?

Service Design in Government was a dual-track conference with a line-up so good that I inevitably didn’t get to see all the great presentations, like the one on design patterns by GDS colleagues Caroline Jarrett and Tim Pauland Lesley Thomson‘s reflections on design in the Scottish Government. I’m sure there was more that I missed!

See also: