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:

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mattedgar

Product strategy and design leadership in web and mobile media. Before that I was a newspaper journalist and history student

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