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Transforming public services
Lewisham’s emergency housing service is very busy and the people using the service can’t always find out whether or not they are entitled to support quickly and easily enough.
The Design Council’s Public Services by Design support programme partnered frontline staff from the Housing Options Centre and service managers from the London Borough of Lewisham’s policy, strategy and transformation department with a Design Associate, who has shown them how to use a design approach to improve the experiences of people using emergency housing services and to deliver a more efficient service.
'Design is not something that you need to be scared about as an approach,' says Justine Roberts, London Borough of Lewisham Service Transformation Officer, who took worked closely with Design Associate Sean Miller on the Housing Options Centre service design project. 'It doesn’t need to be about radical innovation or taking everything out and starting all over again. It can be that, but in some cases, and indeed in a lot of the cases we found, it’s about quite small changes that would have a big impact. And everyone wants to find that really. Things that don’t cost a lot that will really improve the experience of people with relatively little effort.'
Design isn’t something to be scared of. It’s just a new way of looking at things Lindsey Craig, London Borough of Lewisham Policy and Strategy Officer
Through expert design mentoring
Design Associate Sean Miller has helped Lewisham staff to begin using design thinking and techniques to analyse their current service and create ways to improve it. He introduced them to how a designer’s people-centred approach could help them deliver a better service by running workshop with staff to identify the sorts of people who used emergency housing services in Lewisham.
Staff began conducting their own design research to help understand how different sorts of people felt about the Housing Options service. They were trained in ethnographic research techniques by social design agency thinkpublic.
The staff used video cameras to record conversations with more than 20 people who were using the Housing Options Centre. They also observed people as they waited in the reception area and, with the help of thinkpublic, they analysed the recordings and edited a short insights film which showed some key themes and areas for improvement.
Using design techniques
thinkpublic Head of Media Ivo Gormley explains how video is a useful format for designers and people looking to transform their service to use: ‘It transferred more insight than would have found its way into a research report. Furthermore, the interesting twist was that those filming the consultations and interviews were the council employees themselves. The advantage of equipping staff with these skills and involving them in a co-design process, is that it fosters empathy between staff and service users.’
Ethnographic research being conducted by thinkpublic
Lindsey Craig, Policy and Strategy Officer at London Borough of Lewisham says that film has proved to be a very powerful medium for the service to use: ‘We have found it’s a really good way to get staff bought in. They reflect on their own part in the service and it’s much more difficult to argue against than a report. Film also allows customers to tell the story in their own words, using the language they are comfortable with. What really interested me was the amount of short videos our team captured. People obviously feel comfortable with being filmed, and I didn’t expect that.’
According to Peter Gadsdon, Lewisham’s Head of Strategy and Performance, using the design research techniques has brought about significant cultural change within the Housing Options Centre. ‘In order to improve, you need to admit that you get things wrong,’ he says.
So at a strategic level I think design can be helpful to a council, or the public sector, and at a practical level with the staff, it also is very useful in empowering them to make changes to the way they work Peter Gadsdon, London Borough of Lewisham Head of Strategy and Performance
Next, design mentor Sean Miller ran ideas generation session with Lewisham staff to show they how they could use the problems identified in the film to come up with ideas for improving their centre.
100 ideas for transforming the service were generated by this brainstorming session, says Craig who with Miller’s help refined this list down to four opportunities that could use design.
‘We chose the quick wins that we could prototype quickly,’ says Craig. They were:
Right first time
A project to improve the first interaction customers have with the service by ensuring staff know what questions to ask and what information to give
What next doc?
Information design prototypes to help housing advisors give customers a document explaining what happens after their first interview
Clearly and accurately presenting details of the housing options service in a series of fact sheets that can be used by staff and customers
Showing customers what to expect while they wait to see an advisor by illustrating various scenarios and placing story boards around the reception area
Illustrations of the four ideas Lewisham Council is pursuing
‘The idea that’s moved on furthest is the one around storyboards,’ says Craig. ‘We have commissioned cartoonists Cognitive Media to create cartoon-style storyboards on four topics that are key to how we run the service at the minute. They were about things like our rent incentive scheme, mortgage rescue and 16-17 year-olds using the centre. We wanted to make them really informative. We needed them to get some key messages across too, like the fact that you can’t just use the service to get a council house.’
Storyboard prototypes with graphics by Cognitive Media
Cognitive Media worked with Lewisham staff to identify four key stories to tell. Craig says: ‘Cognitive media brought a very fresh and different approach that really made people think about the information we are providing. The characters in the storyboards are based on real customers, and in the prototyping phase we did talk about whether to use real people and photographs of them, but realised this could be difficult if another customer saw them in the street. Still, with the cartoon representations, you have to be careful about not presenting stereotypes.’
Craig says there is a lasting design legacy in Lewisham. ‘Design will be integrated into our methodology as another tool for transformation. Sketching is a great engagement tool, it gives everyone a chance to have their say and using film has helped us change our culture around being more customer focused. The design approach has certainly got us much more buy-in from staff. Things like prototyping transform how we work. It’s not just about jumping to a pilot phase. We can refine things to make sure it’s right before we start investing.’
The impact of design
Staff morale has improved, staff absence levels have reduced, money has been saved and customers are enjoying using a more efficient and appealing housing options service in Lewisham. It is anticipated that the changes brought about by the Public Services by Design programme will deliver £368,000 efficiency savings per year.
Gadsdon says this is down to how the staff and customers were engaged in the design process and how Design Associate Sean Miller and design agencies thinkpublic and Cognitive Media have engaged the staff and taught them to use design techniques and manage design projects.
Public Services by Design has transformed his opinion of what design can offer a public sector organization says Gadsdon: ‘When you think of design you think about plastic cups, shapes of chairs or the next big innovation - however design in public services is more than that. Design provided a dialogue to shape social policy and to interact and engage with customers and staff to deliver change.’
‘What has been best for us is the practical nature of the support,’ says Craig. ‘Even though it’s labelled design, Sean talked in a way that was aligned to what we were doing. More and more, the work we do has to be a bit different. It’s not just about writing reports.
Public Services by Design has opened our eyes to how to try and do things in a quick way. It has shown us how to integrate design into our business and make our core business better rather than just doing new things. We have now established a working group with design at the heart. To make the design approach sustainable and not just a one-off we want to involve a rolling selection of staff who deliver the housing service in looking for new ideas to improve it. They will look back at the 100 ideas we generated with Sean and maybe do their own ideas generation. Design may seem an upfront cost, but if you engage with it and work with people who do it well, you develop lasting skills to take forward in to other projects Lindsey Craig, London Borough of Lewisham Policy and Strategy Officer