5 x 5 - Service Design In Government, Blair Corcoran de Castillo

interview with Blair Corcoran de Castillo, Design Strategist at The Lab, U.S. Office of Personnel Management

by Aza Damood

In fact, there is a movement emerging in the government currently. More government employees seem to be aware of the spectrum of design and the value it could bring to their work. 

1. What components of service design are most interesting and relevant when working with government and public institutions?

Using visuals to replace talking points and understand ideas is really an exciting and emerging area for service design in government. In particular, mapping is an extremely relevant and useful tool because it brings the ability to visually represent complex systems, processes, and human interactions. Government is already very good at creating and using data visualizations and infographics to tell stories and understand data, but maps are graphic spaces designed to combine information and meaning. At The Lab at OPM, we believe that mapping plays an important role in helping explain, understand, and transform complex human-centered processes. This is because it provides us with a different way to understand the way people live, what they do, and how they do it. Context is extremely important in developing effective solutions in service design, and the subjective and objective nature of maps play an integral role in understanding the realities of those for whom and with whom we design. 

 2. Has the relevance or acceptance of service design changed in government over the last two to three years within the U.S.?

Since The Lab started five years ago, we have seen a tremendous shift in the level of acceptance and understanding of not only service design, but design more generally in government. In the beginning, when we would run our Fundamentals of Human-Centered Design course, most participants would have never heard of HCD before. Now, we are seeing an increasing number of individuals in our classes and working in partner agencies that are very aware of the different areas of design, if not already trained in some form in it. It is very exciting. In fact, there is a movement emerging in the government currently. More government employees seem to be aware of the spectrum of design and the value it could bring to their work. That growing movement has developed into a dialogue that has allowed examples of good service design work in the public sector to be shared through a variety of mediums, including conferences and a number of communities of practice.

3. Do you think there are any specific aspects that make it more difficult for government institutions to adopt a human-centered perspective?

At its core, public service is all about providing quality services to the American people. Thus, human-centered design (HCD) is uniquely suited to the government context. It is a great way for public servants to remain engaged with the realities of the people they are serving in order to design programs and policies that truly meet their needs. The challenge that government employees normally face is figuring out the best ways to apply HCD in their agency, since government institutions are all quite different. At The Lab at OPM, we spend quite a bit of time thinking about where HCD fits and why when we work with partner agencies. We see HCD as a valuable discipline that can be used to complement many existing work structures and processes of offices and agencies. How it can and should be applied varies by the office within a particular agency and its mission. For example, there are many agencies that are quite adept at quantitative research. The value of HCD for those types of institutions may come from the qualitative data that can be gathered through design research to provide a depth of understanding that is not possible with quantitative figures alone. For this reason, when we work with other agencies, we expect to work on a project team that is a mix of Lab staff and staff from that particular agency. This allows us to leverage the expertise of the employees to figure out the most suitable application of HCD.

As government institutions work to embed HCD into the way they work, part of their challenge is the lack of examples that speak to successful application in the public sector. Too often, government employees find themselves trying to translate a large body of literature on how and why HCD should be applied in the private sector to the government context. This is hard work. Over the past five years, The Lab has been doing just that by teaching and using HCD in a variety of government settings. Using the knowledge that we have gained, part of our mission is to help equip government employees with design capacity tailored to the public sector. 

 4. Given that government institutions can be very large and complex, are there specific business units or parts of the organization that you find typically embrace service design first?

In our experience, we have seen very different parts of government agencies embrace design. The reasons for accepting design vary. Sometimes if the work is public-facing and the office is receiving complaints from their stakeholders that will encourage adoption. Other times it is a directive from a respected leader or boss who is able to get a team on board with the idea. More often than not, the places that are more open to accepting HCD are the ones that have already tried everything else and have not yet had success. They are committed to finding solutions to their problems, so they are willing to try something new. However, we often run across early adopters who have learned about it on their own and believe it would be a game-changer for their organization. Still, the movement that was mentioned earlier has given rise to a dialogue and that dialogue has allowed for a larger swath of government employees to know about design and what it can do for services. That has definitely been a driver that has allowed for very different parts of government to become interested in design.

5. How would you like to see the practice of service design evolve in the public sector?

Ultimately, it would be great if design becomes so accepted in the public sector that individuals with design backgrounds were in high demand by hiring managers across the government. Interdisciplinary collaboration is necessary in any type of work environment today, including in government. Having individuals on teams with different expertise and content area knowledge is necessary for the constantly evolving, complex world in which we live and work. Having an individual with a design background provides a different perspective on problems and another set of tools to synthesize data and identify areas for intervention. Engaging with people who think differently from one another is necessary to seeing all of the different angles of a problem and potential solutions. Divergent thinking and seeing barriers as opportunities are skills that most people lost after childhood. Encouraging government employees to embrace these practices or engage with someone on their team who does is important for not only creating environments where truly complex problems can be solved, but increasing empathy and understanding among people. 

Check out other 5 x 5s at the SDN US National Conference Blog