5 x 5 - Service Design in Government, Steven Babitch

Interview with Steven Babitch, Presidential Innovation Fellow at The White House

by Aza Damood

Design is about much more than creating great digital services for citizens, which is often how it is talked about. I believe service design, human-centered design, citizen-centric design should be at the policy making table. We need to skillfully demonstrate how design can frame the right problems to solve and deliver more effective solutions. Doing so will drive the creation of profoundly more effective policy, and ultimately legislation.

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

I do think that one aspect of service design—or design generally—that is critically important in the public sector is the idea of engaging multiple stakeholders in the research, synthesis, and development of the product or service (offering), platform, or system. The range of stakeholders depends on the scope and nature of the problem, but there are likely multiple users to engage, both external and internal to government. This notion is nothing new, but with the wave of design crashing into government, it's important to be mindful of those that may be less familiar with its principles, methods, and tools. It's similar to when the private sector did not yet "get design." Back in the day, designers had a lot of work to do in demonstrating why human-centered design even matters at all.

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

Ha... it has always been relevant. But yes, now it is increasingly being accepted that design and being citizen-centric should be incorporated into the work of government, particularly for citizen-facing services, whether access to health benefits, veterans benefits, and much more. And it's happening at Federal, State and local levels. The Presidential Innovation Fellows program which I'm a part of began in 2012 as an experiment by the Obama Administration. Since then, 18F and the U.S. Digital Service have been founded to further drive momentum at the Federal level, with some of the work moving to the State and local levels. Cities are building innovation teams and fellows programs. Austin, Texas has developed its own Design, Technology and Innovation Fellows. A couple of years ago I worked with teams in the city of Detroit, introducing the idea of design thinking and service design. This is no small movement anymore. It's real, and it's been happening over the last three years and more.

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

I might frame this one differently. I think the challenge is less about government's ability to understand and adopt a human-centered perspective and more about the ability of practitioners of design to adapt and translate the value of design into a public and social sector context. Human-centered design can fail miserably if designers do not adapt their methodology to and understand the complex domain of large scale social and societal challenges that government institutions have to grapple with: criminal justice reform, cybersecurity, economic opportunity to name a few. This stuff is different than designing a smartphone (as difficult as that is). Rather than trying to figure out why it's hard for government to understand the value of design, perhaps the framing should be, "How can I understand the specific and challenging context of this government institution and problem so I can best adapt and demonstrate why a human-centered perspective is relevant." Isn't that the empathic approach that designers espouse?  

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

No... it really varies. Putting aside the innovation labs and those that already have experience with service design in government, I think it’s less about the departments or units within a government agency or department and more about the individuals who have the interest, curiosity, and willingness to roll up their sleeves and immerse themselves in what service design is about. In my specific work, we came across a wide variety of departments and individuals all of whom had little to no experience with service design. When looking for people to engage, at least initially, it's not about embracing service design per se. I would abstract it a little more to the foundational notions of curiosity, empathy, and conditioned optimism, which of course service design espouses. The tactics of design can be learned more easily than the foundational tenets (which can also be learned, though it can be a longer arc to build these in).

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

Bring it on. And more of it. We're at the beginning. There's so much opportunity, whether in health care, economic development, security, artificial intelligence, the range of issues facing cities... the list goes on. Beyond this, one thing I will say is that design is about much more than creating great digital services for citizens, which is often how it is talked about. I believe service design, human-centered design, citizen-centric design should be at the policy making table. We need to skillfully demonstrate how design can frame the right problems to solve and deliver more effective solutions. Doing so will drive the creation of profoundly more effective policy, and ultimately legislation.