by Thomas Brandenburg
The conversation surrounding design in government should move beyond newness, “innovation,” and “toolkits for all” to one of rigor and sustainable practice, answering the question: what is needed to do this work well in the public sector?
1. What components of service design are most interesting and relevant when working with government and public institutions?
Leadership changes every several years in government and employees operate within a staunch hierarchy; if an employee isn’t in a leadership position, their voice is most likely not present at a decision-making table. As a result, the average employee can experience change fatigue or disengage from work. It’s the design process itself that can re-engage disempowered government employees. When service design is performed well, people’s lived experiences are honored through action—research, collaboration, and co-design. Service recipients and service providers (e.g., front-line staff, program managers, nonprofit partners, and leadership) are at the design table.
2. Has the relevance or acceptance of service design changed in government over the last 2-3 years within the U.S.?
Over 5 years ago, my attention turned towards design and government through the work of Sylvia Harris and her Citizen Design team. Around that time, I started working with the Public Policy Lab as a service design fellow. Service designers in government felt new in the United States even though versions of the U.K.’s Government Digital Service, Mindlab in Denmark, and Helsinki Design Lab were flourishing abroad.
Post the healthcare.gov turnaround, it was the former Obama administration that elevated human-centered design through the establishment of 18F, United States Digital Service (USDS), the Lab at OPM, and others. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs specifically hired service designers to make progress on transforming the VA.
While awareness of service design has grown within U.S. governments over the past 2-3 years, it’s still unique to see the creation of leadership positions or teams centered around service design. It’s my hope that will change for the better in another 2-3 years.
3. Do you think there are any specific aspects that make it more difficult for government institutions to adopt a human centered perspective?
There are a variety, but here are three: 1) For older governments in the U.S., like Philadelphia, many policies that drive service delivery were designed in the pre-digital era and echo pre-digital sensibilities. Changing policy and shifting culture to reflect a human-centered perspective can be a long, complicated process. 2) Many officials, policy-makers, and program managers feel they’re already human-centered because they engage with constituents frequently. Convincing leaders that a human-centered perspective should be applied to the design of services and programs—within this context—can be difficult. 3) On a short-term basis, adopting a human-centered perspective can feel like a capacity issue; meaning, there’s not enough people and time to overhaul a service experience from a human-centered perspective. The long view shows otherwise.
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?
Government offices on the front lines of delivering services to people who are systemically disadvantaged tend to embrace service design first. They see first hand how poorly designed policies, programs, and service experiences (and related informational materials, like forms) can negatively impact people’s livelihoods. These offices are constantly seeking ways to improve outreach and delivery, and service designers provide effective methods to spark dignified change incrementally.
5. How would you like to see the practice of service design evolve in the public sector?
Service design is a field of practice with professionals who have honed their craft. Just like accountants are hired to perform accounting work, U.S. governments should invest in service design teams and design leaders who can partner with policy-makers and domain experts to improve public sector policy-making and service delivery from a practiced service design lens.
The conversation surrounding design in government should move beyond newness, “innovation,” and “toolkits for all” to one of rigor and sustainable practice, answering the question: what is needed to do this work well in the public sector? If service designers are in place, then the project infrastructure required to do their work well in government should also be in place—including policies that ensure public sector design research meets ethical standards of practice.
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