Design and public services


On 25 June 2013 I was invited to take part in a panel to discuss design and public services at the Scottish Parliament organised by the Design in Action project. Other members of the panel included Lauren Currie of Snook and Jocelyn Bailey of Policy Connect. My short speech for the event is below. All photography by Alina Achiricioaei.

Professionals who work in the public sector face a critical challenge: how can we develop new ways of thinking to transform public services? And this isn’t just a question for public sector professionals. It’s a question for those who receive these services – for individuals and communities often know far more about what’s needed than the professionals do. And it’s a question for the voluntary sector which increasingly provides these services. Frankly, it’s a question for us all.

As a society we have to do more with less. And do it better. But it would be a mistake to see our current financial hard times and the sole, or even the main driver of change. The whole point of public services is to improve the quality of life for the people: to reduce dependency, to increase resilience and independence and, over time, to reduce the inequalities that perpetuate poverty, ill health and unemployment.

So, do they work?

Between 1999 and 2010 spending on public services in Scotland grew by an unprecedented 5% each year. But inequalities over that period either increased or stayed the same. Figures released today from the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland reveal that more than one in every four children in my home city of Dundee are living in poverty, while one in five children across Scotland are living in poverty.

Something wasn’t working in public services even before the financial crisis.

Hugely committed and highly capable public sector professionals have been trying to deliver services that in too many cases are simply unfit for purpose. This is the context described thoroughly by Restarting Britain 2 and of course our own Christie Commission reports. Both advance the idea that what we need is design.

Service design is a new approach that applies the kind of creative thinking companies like Apple have used to develop their products, to the creation of services in commerce and – most crucially for us – in the public sector. Design puts people first: it is about both understanding their needs, and involving them creatively. It is solution oriented. It is a creative approach to problem solving. It is about low risk prototyping not high risk piloting. We try things out, quickly, learn what doesn’t work, apply what does. It is visual and engaging. It is physical. People understand it. And it is something that in the UK we are outstanding at. It is one of our national strengths. British designers are in demand all over the world. So it makes sense to use design’s full power to address these critical challenges.

But in what ways can design improve public services?

In Dundee there’s a brilliant new third sector project – Skill Share. It provides opportunities for people to share, learn and teach skills. It addresses issues of community development, of adult learning, of sustainable futures. And set up by one of our fantastically talented design graduates. It is a well designed, highly cost effective way of sharing passions and skills, bringing people together and encouraging volunteering.

I’m sharing the platform with another one of our graduates who set up Snook precisely to embed design thinking into policy making and public services. In the audience, my colleagues from Taylor Haig are actively using design to enable innovation in the voluntary sector. In Cornwall design has been used to raise citizen engagement with local government policy making. In Lambeth design has led to some major and highly effective changes in mental health services. In Sunderland, services for the unemployed have become far more joined up through design. We CAN transform the public services we provide and the experience of enjoying them through design.

And let me be clear – public services should be enjoyed. Not tolerated. We provide them not to create dependence, or confusion, or frustration. We don’t consume them. We enjoy them as a mark of the civilised values that we hold dear: that define us. We should enjoy our education, it should fill us with fulfilment, inspiration and a sense of wonder. We should enjoy our healthcare, it should improve the quality of our life and reduce our worries. We should enjoy the support given when we are out of work. It should help us focus on our strengths, help us find new direction and put us back in control of our lives.

So what stands in the way of us using design to transform public services?

First, there are key deficiencies in the political process that prevents long term reform and leads to disjointed incrementalism. Tackling this requires that Scotland develops and adopts a national design strategy.

Secondly, the public sector needs to significantly raise its design capabilities and literacy. Scotland already has some of the world’s best postgraduate service design provision both at the University of Dundee and Glasgow School of Art. It has amazing companies like Snook. So we need an alliance of these partners to collaborate more and provide the high level education and training that the public sector needs. Our new MSc in Leadership and Innovation at the University of Dundee shows what can be achieved when collaboration links our expertise in both design and the public sector. The first professional masters course in the world that provides design-led innovation for public sector professionals is a collaboration between our art school and school of education and social work.

Third we need to develop some key national priorities, focus our creative resources on them, and develop effective evaluation tools to quantify their impact. Design led transformation in public services must be evidence based.

So – strategy, education & training and evaluated national priority projects could represent a way of accelerating change.

Let me finish by referring to the Christie Commission report. Calling for the redesign of Scotland’s public services it said that “form must follow function. We must build communities around people and communities.” In the two years since the report’s publication we have already achieved much. But we have a way to go. Scotland has a history of a committed and passionate public service ethos. We have hugely capable professionals at all levels in our public sector. And we have a history of design-led innovation and design education that is the envy of the world. It is about time that we brought these remarkable national strengths together. To transform services.

And, more importantly, to transform lives.








2 thoughts on “Design and public services

  1. I attended 2015 Youth Work Conference held in Dundee. Listening and participating at the “outcomes for young people” discussion table. After listening to the “speaker/ guest from a very well known Youth Organisation ( National/ Policy/ Decision makers)and analysing his pretty outcome sheet I asked how impact will be measured and also asked what the quality
    indicators were. I was speechless when his response was “We don’t need them for these outcomes “. If that is the level of understanding from decision makers in high positions…….. I do worry for our young people of today and their future.


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