Service design is for everyone

There’s a lot about service design that’s good and powerful and exciting for the public sector, but as interest starts to grow there’s perhaps also a risk of some unintended consequences – particularly for smaller or less well funded organisations.

What’s in a name?

To begin with there’s a lot packed into the term service design, so it’s potentially open to misinterpretation or even abuse.

My personal take is that there are three main things going on. I’m not suggesting that this is the definitive way to view it (far from it!) I’m just breaking it down in the hope that it helps to make more of the good stuff happen. I’ve also hugely simplified things in the interest of brevity.

1. Culture

Firstly – there’s a mindset that can be applied to improving services and which involves understanding things from a user’s perspective, end to end (from trigger to goal), in a pleasingly holistic way (internal, public facing, partners etc).  Let’s call this first thing ‘service design mentality’. It’s about culture and attitude.  Even starting to achieve this in a deeply siloed, process or policy driven organisation can be hard work.  

(As an aside… ideally this mindset shouldn’t even be limited to services, but should instead start by looking at an area of need or a desired outcome and asking how those needs or that outcome can best be met. So success might actually involve designing the service out of existence altogether.)

2. Tools

Secondly – there are tools, activities and techniques that can help people with a service design mentality to make improvements to services and outcomes. Many of these are highly visual and collaborative, and draw on various kinds of research. Some of them have been around for a while (like empathy maps and user journey maps) but they’re starting to be brought together in more joined up and powerful way.  There are a lot of tools and toolkits out there – some of them are more helpful than others. None of them will be very helpful if you haven’t already got a service design mentality.

3. People

Thirdly – there is a relatively new (to government) professional design discipline called Service Design (I’m going to capitalise it from now on). The Royal College of Art now offers a MA in it. There are an increasing number of people out there who describe themselves as Service Designers and places like GDS and FutureGov have been hiring them.  In very simple terms a Service Designer could be described as a professional designer who is employed to have a service design mentality and use service design tools to improve services/outcomes.

However, I strongly believe that you don’t have to be a Service Designer or hire Service Designers in order for you and your users to benefit from service design.

As Matt Edgar very eloquently noted last year – most of government is mostly service design most of the time.  And, as he also says, it ‘can and should be everyone’s business’.

Don’t make it too exclusive

In an ideal world everyone who works in public service should have a service design mentality, and should be able to access, understand and confidently use service design tools.

I don’t think this should be a specialism, I think it should be a defining characteristic of the public sector.

That’s not to say that the Service Designers don’t have an important role to play, particularly in these early days. We need them to lead the charge, show us how it’s done, and develop even better tools.  But we also need to guard against the perception that service design belongs to them alone, particularly as there are large swathes of the public sector that probably won’t be able to find or afford them.

Here are a couple of other things that I think we need to watch out for:

Don’t make it too Kool

There’s a fine line between creating a buzz and creating a cult.

We need to guard against a cult of Service Design just as we still need to guard against the cult (or tyranny) of Agile. (I’m a big fan of both, but not of the dogma that can sometimes come with them.)

As summed up nicely by Lindsey Keighley on behalf of GDS the important thing is to ‘be agile, not do Agile’. Similarly, let’s get on with delivering successful services and outcomes using the best means possible, rather than on ‘doing Service Design’.

It’s useful to create a buzz about something new and powerful, and to have a hashtag and a conference or two, but let’s do it in a way that’s accessible to everyone who might want to give it a go. More common sense than dark art.

Don’t forget about delivery!

In her post on what GDS mean by service design Louise Downe is very clear that

‘For us, service design isn’t about mental models or double diamonds. It’s about working with users and delivering services.’

A sentiment very much brought to life by Harry Trimble, one of the Service Designers in her team.  

This is definitely reassuring, and I don’t doubt that where GDS are involved the services that are designed will also be deliverable and delivered.

However, amongst the less determined I think there’s always a risk that design activities might become dislocated from delivery.  The world is already full enough of dysfunctional teams where designers (or policy makers!)  hand over beautiful but unrealistic designs to baffled developers or front line staff. One of the major benefits of the agile ways of working championed by GDS and others is that a multidisciplinary team work together on delivering working solutions, one iteration at a time. I know it’s not intended that Service Design should become an up front idealised design activity – but in the wrong hands it could.

This toolkit poster, for example, seems to imply that service design stops after feasibility, but if that’s the case you’re walking away before anything has actually changed for the end user. Service design isn’t just a phase of work – it actually needs to deliver outcomes! 

What next?

So how do we make sure that everyone who works on or uses public services can benefit from good service design?

Some teams will be privileged enough to work with professional Service Designers – but not all.  How do we enthuse and support the rest? (Including, of course, people in local government.)

Teams that have already had experience and success sharing honest and quantifiable stories is a good start – which is where the blogs, hashtags and conferences come in handy. But this does need to reach the people who commission and run services – not just the people who follow the latest design or digital trends.

Sharing tools and techniques will also be useful – although in context rather than in a vacuum. The right tools applied with the wrong mentality can be definitely lead to unintended consequences, and can also start to really muddy the waters (I’ve seen that a lot with the use of agile).

And how to you foster a potential ‘community of practice‘ for service design if that community could potentially involve… everyone?! Particularly if the people who need the info and support don’t see themselves as service designers.

This post is already long enough… and I don’t have tidy answers.  But I do believe that service design in its broadest sense has the potential to unlock so many benefits for the public sector that it needs to be owned and embraced by everyone.



Could the devolution of power to cities and regions help super-charge the work on local digital services?

As I write this post the debate around the devolution of powers to UK cities and regions is

Bristol at night
With thanks to

hotting up. No doubt by the time you read it the details will have changed – but it seems highly likely that whoever is running the country after May 2015 they’ll be conceding some powers and funding, or fundraising opportunities, to some of our larger cities and regions (“metros” as the City Growth Commission calls them).

Much has already been said about the approaches or models that might help deliver high quality digital services across local government – with “one site to rule them all” at one end of the spectrum, and voluntary standards at the other.

Much as I admire and support the great work being done by practitioners like LocalGovDigtal, my view is that bottom-up voluntary best practice isn’t going to be enough. Even if I believed that this alone would get us to consistently good and affordable services eventually (which I don’t), we simply don’t have the time to find out – the funding situation is too acute, and the expectations of citizens accustomed to interacting 24/7 online are already raised too high.

There are also far too many chief execs, service directors and elected members who don’t yet understand the need for digitally enabled service redesign (including assisted digital), or the scale of the opportunity, or the extent of culture change required to bring it about.

We need to get their attention.

Even amongst the more engaged there seems to be a leadership vacuum. At events I’ve been to with representation from DCLG, the LGA, and Solace as well as execs and councillors from local authorities, everyone has been happy to agree that standards need to be raised, skills developed, opportunities seized, and that some leadership is needed… But no one has been prepared to step forward to lead, or even to suggest who might.

In central government, when GDS was created, it wasn’t enough to have a team of experienced people, or to say what good looked like, or even to show it via Alphas and exemplars – the new digital standards had to be made mandatory, and tied to access to funding (specifically spend controls). Yes, there’s a nice juicy carrot in positive user feedback and improved performance indicators (including savings), and ideally this would be enough to incentivise change, but I don’t think this alone will bring about the shift needed. I suspect we also need some stick.

I believe we need a new mandate or settlement or hard incentive to accelerate the pace of digitally-enabled change across local government – and that perhaps the devolution of powers to cities and regions might provide that opportunity.

Imagine a devolution deal which insisted that x% should be spent on digitally enabled service redesign, to an agreed set of standards and even a timetable. Or, if that degree of ring-fencing is too strong, how about mandating standards or expectations with targets and metrics attached, regardless of spend? In July Ed Miliband suggested that his version of devolution would come with “checks and balances”, with the introduction of local public accounts committees and the requirement to publish performance data. If this approach gets developed I’d want to see digital and service design standards as part of it.

Sticks aside, stronger cities and regions could also lead the development and sharing of digital expertise. Some commentators and practitioners are, probably rightly, sceptical of a central (London based) digital team for local government – but what if there were centres of excellence in each of the large cities, each perhaps running digital academies or events for council staff in the surrounding authorities?  Would it also be more acceptable if the guardians of digital standards were up the road, rather than inside the M25?

So, do I think we need national standards for service design and digital? Yes I do. Do I think these need to be mandated in order to be truly effective? Yes. Does this mean a central team in London taking control? No, it needn’t. I think we need many centres of excellence, not just one, and I’m hoping that if we get devolved cities they might help lead the way.

GDS for local? A shopping list, not a monolith.

There’s been a lot of renewed chat recently (see below) about  “a GDS for local government’ or “GOV.UK for local goverment” but I’m curious about what people really mean when they use these terms. What is it that “GDS” represents in these conversations – a central team of specialists? A set of standards? A publishing platform? A mandate? All of the above?

I’ve only spent a few months looking into and working with local government, so my thoughts are still forming and I still have much to learn and observe. However, even with that caveat, I’m already convinced that the current approach – where over 300 authorities spend their increasingly scarce resources independently trying to meet the same set of needs and solve the same set of problems – is fairly bonkers. Particularly when in many cases the solutions they end up with are way more expensive and less flexible than they should be. Oh, and not great for their customers either.

This isn’t sensible, and it isn’t sustainable. It’s also not fair on the amazing people in local government who know it isn’t ideal but who don’t have the tools, or support, or budgets to change things. It’s one of the things that got me out of GDS and involved with this in the first place.

Being a user-centred agile kinda girl I’m not comfortable jumping to solutions before I fully understand the problem, but I’m also not comfortable with the way that “a local GDS” and “GOV.UK” are being used – sometimes interchangeably – as shorthand for some kind of fairly abstract all powerful centralised solution, something “monolithic“. (With apologies for Rob for singling this out!)

It may well be that some of the approaches GDS have taken, and some of the things they have delivered, should form part of how local government delivers information and services in the future. But that covers a lot of different activities and products. Maybe we should think about which of those might be useful in the context of local government – to move from the abstract concept of “a GDS” into the constituent parts.

So as a starter for ten – if there were a shopping list based on the types of things GDS is currently providing for central government, which would you be buying into for local government? And who might be providing them?  That list might include these kinds of things (illustrated with central gov examples for now):

This isn’t a complete list, but the point I’m trying to make is that GDS represents many things, some of which would be more difficult or controversial than others to apply across local government.

I’m interested in having a more practical conversation – one based on the needs to be met and the opportunities to be realised, and only then the models and structures and teams and technologies that might best deliver against those.  If you start by talking about the governance and politics you may end up in an unhappy place. If  you start with the problem you are trying to solve, and think about it in manageable chunks, you can end up achieving something extraordinary.

(Some notable recent contributions from Ben Welby, DXW, Phil Rumens, Rob Miller and Socitm. Also interesting to see the programme of events, training etc that DCLG are offering this year.)


We, the people

As I type, and one week in, the 42nd most popular petition on the government’s new epetitions site asks that our parliamentarians “Don’t listen to idiots signing e-petitions“. Joseph Blurton who posted it states:

We, the people, are idiots. Please, for pity’s sake, ignore us more often.

Currently 117 people agree with him.  I, for one, am not planning to join them, as I happen to think democracy is probably for the best (particularly given the violent alternatives playing out around the world at the moment). However, a scan of the 41 petitions currently more popular than Joseph’s doesn’t seem to be a particularly encouraging demonstration of e-democracy in action – or not yet anyway.

Regardless of the subject matter, it seems that we, the people, are not very organised. In the top 40 there are currently 5 separate petitions calling for a return of capital punishment, and 5 against it. There are 2 petitions calling for F1 to be free to view in the UK, and 2 asking for the legalisation of cannabis/recreational drugs. And there are many more on all of these subjects further down the list.

OK, so it’s only the first week, and the numbers are fairly small (10,621 against capital punishment, and 7,555 for… and only when you add them all up), but it’s a shame that none of the larger more organised campaign groups or charities seem to have taken advantage of the early publicity. Admittedly the Speaker only announced the launch of the site a week ago, but there’s been talk of it for a while, with government giving the project the go ahead back in December.  I would have thought a big campaign group or charity could have galvanised its supporters, particularly those they already engage with online, and made a bit of a splash in this first week.

Daily Mail front page 4th August 2011
Daily Mail front page 4th August 2011

Instead we’ve had a rather hysterical press reaction to the capital punishment petitions – in spite of the fact that the numbers are relatively small, there are repetitions and inconsistencies, and there are actually more people (currently) in favour of maintaining the status quo rather than reintroducing the death penalty.  It’s been given a fair bit of coverage on the BBC over the last couple of days, including on Newsnight (42.30 in), and several papers gave it a lot of prominence (including the Daily Mail yesterday which lead with the front page headline “MPs to vote on death penalty”.)

Regardless of whether you think epetitions, and the UK government’s latest initiative, are a bit of a gimmick, or a genuine evolution of democracy in the digital age, this week has shown that it’s possible to use these tools to grab the headlines and push the debate off the web and onto the front page.  We don’t yet know whether petitions from this site will influence government policy, or change laws, but we have seen that they can raise awareness and spark a debate.

I’m sure there will be more organised and larger scale use of the epetitions site over time, just as there have been on Avaaz. It’s just a shame that none of them were on hand to take advantage of the press hype around the launch.