5 x 5 - Service Design In Government, Denis Weil

Interview with Denis Weil, Dean, IIT Institute of Design

by Aza Damood

Public service wants and needs organizational leaders that help bring the best out of others and not experts from the outside that come in and tell people what to do—they have seen too many of those and do not listen to them. 

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

The most relevant one is not in the methods and process but in how we provide the service of service design. The methods are pretty standard and mostly driven by the nature of each specific service project in the sector. The disruptive power of design is not in adding a new user-centered focus but rather in removing the systemic barriers that prevent people in the sector to practice what they came to do in the first place. The barriers are primarily driven by departmental silos and regulations. So, acting as a convener, providing a safe third place for long-standing public servants to discuss the difficult parts with each other and as a team come up with new solutions is key. It has the power to reconnect the staff with their purpose and to recharge them to become public entrepreneurs. The role of the design team in the public sector is to act even more as an enabler and facilitator, or as the innovation team at Los Angeles City Hall told me more like a “Hollywood movie development team.”

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

It is increasing. We are entering the third phase of design in government. The first one started at the federal government with a clear focus on digital transformation (18F, Code for America, NESTA). The second phase then emerged at the other end of the spectrum, at the municipal level, with different foundation and organization “pushing” a broader innovation agenda onto cities (e.g. Bloomberg philanthropies, Living Cities). Now we seem to be entering the third phase, where all levels of government are funding design teams themselves with mostly a broader focus than just digital transformation.

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

There is more motivation for service improvement changes—the incentive and reward of improving service satisfaction is the outcome in itself for public services (in tandem with operational efficiency gains)—it does not also need to lead to other higher-level outcomes like sales. Second, despite a long-standing tradition of citizen/resident engagement through public hearings in the public sector, design research provides powerful new insights to public servant. It enables them to hear from a true cros section of constituents, rather than the narrower,” special interest” segments. What is harder is to remove some of the barriers particularly if they are costly (budget), if they require a vendor change (purchasing process) or if the department mid-level managers are so set in their ways and fear losing power—changing human resource is much more difficult in 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?

I think at the federal and state level design is still closely associated with and connected to digital transformation and hence in many cases not making full use of the power of service design to re-invent government (with the exception of the VA). Dominque Campbell from Future Gov in the U.K. refers to digital as “the Trojan horse for design.” At municipal levels that Trojan horse is less critical. There is much more excitement to use service design to work directly with residents and local businesses as their services are much more at a “retail level.”

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

First of all, we need to embrace “civic design” as a distinct service design practice distinct from design for social innovation for all the reasons I have referred to above. We at the IIT Institute of Design have just created a research partnership with Politecnico in Milan to conduct shared research and demonstration projects with city hall in both cities to help shape, advance, and codify this practice. Second, if we want to win we need to ensure that we do not talk and write about civic designers as having magic power but rather as an important additional ingredient and smart investment next to the other new disciplines being brought into government, i.e., data science and behavioral economics. Public service wants and needs organizational leaders that help bring the best out of others and not experts from the outside that come in and tell people what to do— they have seen too many of those and do not listen to them. We need to be humble and empowering, more like community organizers.

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