This article is part of The Design Economy series.

Manufacturer Dyson tested 5,127 versions of their ‘Cyclone’ vacuum cleaner before it reached production.  How many times has government tried to refine our policies?

These are challenging times for all levels of government in the UK given the tough financial climate.

The recently elected majority Conservative administration is looking for value for money and scrutinising the cost of public services as it aims to pay off the deficit, while the main opposition Labour party is in the midst of a closely related debate over its stance on spending – which could be characterised as how to get more public service bang for the taxpayer’s buck.

Given this context, it might appear to be a controversial or unseemly moment for designers to get involved in government reform.

Yet many experts suggest it is actually during times of austerity that design comes to the fore. Places and spaces, products and services – indeed, public services, too – work more efficiently when they’re better designed.

Open policy making – “being open to new ideas, new ways of working, new insights, new evidence and experts” – is picking up steam within governments around the world, the UK included, to reshape their public services. It embraces user-centred design thinking and internet age tools such as iteration, prototyping and co-design (or designing with service users) – experimental techniques more associated with business than government.

Innovation entails failure along the way, which begs the question: Is it ethical for governments to experiment with the important public services they provide – from supporting the mentally ill and homeless to caregivers and families?

Companies like Dyson, Google and Apple might be able to sink money into developing products and services that never see the light of day – but is it acceptable for governments to do the same with public funds?

Will our unforgiving media machine allow policy makers room to experiment and fail safely?

Marketers and designers use rapid A/B testing to discover which solutions are effective. Should government do the same?  Who’s in the control group? And who decides?

Perhaps the main question is: can government afford to experiment with our citizens – or can it afford not to? 


Policy Lab, embedded in the UK Cabinet Office, practices open policy making. It uses design methods – like prototyping, personas, role playing and collaborative workshops – combined with big data and digital technology to trial new and emergent ways of creating services.

Experimenting isn’t as risky as it sounds

In an article titled ‘Dangerous ideas’ can lead to better results, published last year in the Australian journal Public Administration Today, Chris Vanstone writes: “Manufacturer Dyson made 5,127 versions of their ‘Cyclone’ vacuum cleaner before it reached production. Each prototype tested the assumptions of the designers, each version helped them refine their assumptions and improve the product… Can you think of a policy or program that was tested and improved 5,000, 200, 50 times? Even twice?”

Design-led companies like Dyson drive product and service development through gathering insight into customers’ lives and making and testing prototypes with actual users. The investment in design techniques helps them avoid producing products and services that disappoint the public, saving them money in the long haul.

The Design Commission’s 2013 report Restarting Britain 2: Design and Public Services shows that design thinking in public services works similarly – helping to reduce cost and make services more relevant to current needs. In Design Council's project to reduce violence and aggression in A&E departments, for example, £3 was generated in benefits for every £1 spent on the design solutions, and threatening body language and aggressive behaviour fell by 50% post-implementation. 

Vanstone, Director of Co-design at The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI), writes: “Imagine the public outrage if an untested medicine reached pharmacies or hospitals. The culture and expectation of the public sector is quite different. Guesses are free to run wild and untested. In this laissez faire innovation culture, many guesses become policy or programs without any experiment. Poor guesses can waste money, cause harm and create costs.”

Rigorous social innovation can’t be done in a petri dish or lab. It also can’t happen in the office. It takes small-scale experimentation on the ground.

Chris Vanstone, Director of Co-design, TACSI

GDS: bringing government into the digital era

The Government Digital Service (GDS), which launched GOV.UK in 2012, advocates for design within public service with verve – and is unafraid to criticise past practice.

Its stated mission is to “help government make digital services and information simpler, clearer and faster. We put users’ needs before the needs of government.”

GDS’ work on Carer’s Allowance, for instance, allows citizens looking after someone with substantial care needs to claim for the benefit online. Since the digital service went into public beta in October 2013, GDS reports that 160,000 digital claims have been submitted, with user satisfaction rates of around 90%. The intimidatingly long paper form to claim Carer’s Allowance took around 45 minutes to fill out; the online form takes 20.

In a post last year on GDS’ blog, Mike Bracken, the now former Executive Director of Digital in the Cabinet Office and head of GDS, demonstrated the need for such service transformation by pointing to a traditional letter sent to some elderly people claiming for Carer’s Allowance.

The letter confusingly states: "We have decided that you meet the conditions for entitlement to Carer’s Allowance. However, as you are getting State Pension, we cannot pay you Carer’s Allowance.”

Writes Bracken of the letter: “No-one thinks it’s a good thing. No-one at the Carer’s Allowance office. No-one who writes policy. No-one working at GDS or in any government department. But it still goes out, day after day.

“Why? Because it’s hard-wired into the system - an old fashioned, inflexible system, built up over decades. Somewhere behind the scenes there’s an outdated mainframe computer that churns these things out the same way it was designed to churn them out years ago. The result is something that makes perfect sense to civil servants, but no sense at all to the people it gets sent to.

“The rules on benefits say that you can’t get two benefits that cover the same aspect of entitlement… But the letter isn’t clear enough about this. Those contradictory opening sentences simply end up confusing and upsetting already vulnerable people. Too often, they resort to calling up the Carer’s Allowance team to ask for help.

“This is an example of failure waste, and it’s endemic in public services. It leads to a huge amount of inefficiency and cost to government, and an unknowable amount of problems for users...The policy team is hands-on with this project, and they’re working to help us phase out that letter.”


GDS' mission is to “help government make digital services and information simpler, clearer and faster. We put users' needs before the needs of government.”

GDS’ honest and open approach has inspired others. Devon County Council, for example, overhauled its communications strategy with GDS’ design principles in mind. 

Carl Haggerty, Digital Communications Manager at Devon County Council, says: “GDS arrived and what was so different was their publication approach with their design principles, the blogging of their journey and the relentless narrative. It gave their approach credibility and it legitimised a service design approach.”

Haggerty's team is now participating in Design in the Public Sector, Design Council's accelerator programme helping public service professionals in local authorities gain the design skills required to manage service transformation. He explains that Devon City Council is in particular working “to find engaging and innovative low or no cost solutions for our employees to become highly immersed in the aims of the organisation, self-directed in their learning and willing to change their thinking and behaviours.” 

Dot Everyone: creating digital services you can trust

In the 2015 Richard Dimbleby lecture, Dot Everyone – power, the internet and you, Martha Lane Fox applauded the cost-saving, transformative work of GDS: “In just the last three years the team there and the people they work with in departments have helped save over a billion pounds. They’ve done it by building digital services that make life easier for everyone.”

Yet she insisted that progress must go much faster, and reach much further.


Internet pioneer Martha Lane Fox's CV runs long: she is chancellor of Open University, chair of digital skills charity Go ON UK, crossbencher in the House of Lords and, now, founder of Dot Everyone.

She said: “We need a new national institution to lead an ambitious charge – to make us the most digital nation on the planet. I don’t say this because I’m a fan of institutions. I say this because the values of the internet have always been a dialogue between private companies and public bodies.

“And right now the civic, public, non-commercial side of the equation needs a boost. It needs more weight. We’re going too slow, being too incremental. We need to be much bolder. A new institution could be the catalyst we need to shape the world we want to live in and Britain’s role in that world.

“…What digital is about, what the internet allows, is a radical redesign of services. Cheaper, better, faster. This frees up money, resources and attention to put into the really important work, the work on the frontline…”

“We created some of the greatest institutions of the 20th century - the BBC, the Open University and the NHS. We must be able to do the same for the 21st century.”

In November, Fox will launch Dot Everyone, the national institution she called for in her speech, with a mandate from the UK Government and support from the BBC, Open University and Wellcome Trust. According to its website, Dot Everyone “will be both an authoritative public voice on the new digital networked world and also deliver things, showing how to transform services from the bottom up – sometimes prototyping and delivering new services.” It will also help navigate ethical issues presented by the internet, particularly in regards to data.

Its vision? “To make Britain the leader in the networked world: empowering UK citizens to be leaders, creators, makers, thinkers and full participants in the digital transformation we are undergoing.”

Policy Lab: co-designing in the Cabinet Office

Internationally, the pioneer for innovation within central government is considered to be Denmark’s MindLab, launched in 2001. A cross-governmental innovation unit, it involves citizens and businesses in creating new solutions for society.

The UK Cabinet Office set up its own version, Policy Lab, in April last year.

Dr Andrea Siodmok, head of Policy Lab and previously at the Design Council for many years, describes herself as a “design entrepreneur in government”. She says she was able to launch Policy Lab on a more-or-less blank page, establishing what the lab might do, who it might work with and its potential impact.


Dr Andrea Siodmok, head of Policy Lab, says: “We talk about three Ds: design, digital and data. We know they each have a potential to transform the way things are done."

She sees a logic to taking design methods into government: “Originally I trained as an industrial designer. I have looked at how you can take techniques and approaches and move them into addressing social problems and then policy problems. There is a kind of DNA to this. Our core approach is a design-led one, though one that sits in a policy context.”

Policy Lab allows a safe space within government to trial new and emergent ways of creating services. While government, of course, exists to give a certain stability to society, the lab breaks from the culture of non-failure within government that often obscures learning.

Says Siodmok: “We talk about three Ds: design, digital and data. We know they each have a potential to transform the way things are done, and so depending on the project, everything is bespoke. We may bring together data science experts, or experts in ethnography. We subscribe to a kind of agile model working collaboratively and iteratively and testing in a way very similar to design.”

Policy Lab has a community of around 20,000 policymakers it aims to work with, she says, but last year about 1,000 “got their hands dirty”.

“This is ‘next practice’ not ‘best practice’. Next practice is what has never been tried before. A hallmark of the Lab will be firsts for government, and we have seen a number of firsts already.”

Policy Lab’s inaugural project involved working with the Home Office and Sussex and Surrey police to improve the victim’s experience of reporting crime.

The idea to develop a prototype for people to report non-emergency crime online emerged out of ethnographic research with police and victims of crime. The research was presented at a co-design workshop with around 40 people from different backgrounds, including service designers, chief constables and neighbourhood watch members.

Following the workshop, Policy Lab worked with RCA students and users to develop online crime reporting service prototypes. Surrey and Sussex police were then ready to build a prototype, which will continue to be improved on a local level before it’s deployed nationally. Not only can prototyping reduce early design flaws that can be costly, it also serves to engage stakeholders and users.

The Home Secretary announced this January that, besides giving citizens greater choice about how they report crime, the service has the potential to save the police an estimated 180,000 officer hours a year – or around £3.7 million.

Another success story from Policy Lab is its support of Northern Futures, a project that launched last summer to gather ideas on ways to create an economic hub in the north of England. Policy Lab coordinated Open Ideas Days, policy jams held in eight cities including Newcastle and Manchester. According to Policy Lab’s blog, “A policy jam is an ideas generation event: like a govcamp or hackathon, but for policy. We will aim to create a buzz while also exploring a highly condensed, rapid process of development.”

At each event, Policy Lab brought together around 20 people from a variety of backgrounds – leaders and opinion formers in their areas as well as technologists, designers, young people, entrepreneurs and innovation leads – along with facilitators to generate ideas about local growth.

We bring a collaborative approach. We don’t provide solutions or come in as consultants; we enable others to do the work to co-design.

Dr Andrea Siodmok

She adds: “We applied principles of open policy making, bringing in expert views and making it more transparent. It makes the point that Whitehall doesn’t have all the answers. Opening it up can bring insights, innovation and more clarity on what the problem is we are trying to tackle.”

Siodmok estimates that each policy jam created 1,200 hours of ideas, with the best being considered for incorporation into policy.

“Our research keeps us real,” she says. “We put in checks and measures. We are also building a market model, as we move from proof of interest to demonstration of impact, which is down to whether it will be seen as valuable enough to commission. This is especially true at the moment, where you only invest where you can make a difference.”

Design Council, Innovation Unit and TACSI: rethinking “the grittiest, gnarliest bits of government”

TACSI

Several independent organisations are working with governments using techniques similar to Policy Lab’s.

Vanstone of The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI), which helps “develop, test and spread innovations that change lives”, reports an increase in government interest in service design during the current belt-tightening climate.

One project where TACSI made meaningful change was with the Department of Family and Community Services in New South Wales, by embedding a co-design capability into their child protection department.

Vanstone says: “That is happening because they have impressive leaders across the board who are willing to take a risk, because they know the traditional waterfall approach has not worked… They are trying to draw on all sorts of expertise including their workers to see what that new model might be. But they are doing that while running a child protection system, which is clearly one of the grittiest, gnarliest bits of government to run.”

Through ethnographic research and service co-design, TACSI’s work has included improving contact between children and parents after children have been removed their homes and designing foster care “to work to get kids back to their parents”. It has also worked to spread existing models that have proven successful, such as family group conferencing. “This is a form of family decision making to keep decisions out of court – which is good for families, good for government and good for kids.”

Indeed, Vanstone believes the area of child protection is one where it is too risky not to innovate.

He adds: “At the end of the day with child protection, there aren’t absolutely happy people, but hopefully co-design leads to better outcomes. People appreciate being listened to, being able to tell their story, and we hear people saying ‘I don’t want others people to go through the same things that I did.’”

Design Council

In another tough case, the London Borough of Lewisham’s Housing Options Service, which provides information and advice for people in need of emergency housing, found itself faced with challenging rises in demand and reductions in budget. It turned to the Design Council in 2010 for help.

Over the course of a year, a Design Associate, Sean Miller, worked with Lewisham’s Emergency Housing Service to help improve their service. In particular, he wanted to create processes that would help staff ask the right questions while ensuring customers were aware of what was expected of them.

Social design agency thinkpublic and cartoonists Cognitive Media were appointed to help the team visualise the issues and communicate the solutions to the public in a user-friendly way. Together they created storyboards and films that covered the service areas, such as the rent incentive scheme and mortgage rescue.

Justine Roberts, then Service Transformation Officer for London Borough of Lewisham, says: “I had always thought about design as buildings, dresses, things that were done by other people, and particularly things that were done in the private sector, really. So I’d never really thought about it as an approach that could work for a local government organisation in a homelessness service.”


Through Design Council support, staff at the London Borough of Lewisham’s Housing Options Service, including Justine Roberts (pictured here, centre), learned design methods like video ethnography and prototyping to help them face challenging rises in demand and reductions in budget.

Yet the programme proved enormously helpful: staff morale has improved, staff absence levels have reduced and customers enjoy using a more efficient and appealing housing service in Lewisham. Staff also feel empowered to make changes in the way they work, and those who were taught design methods like video ethnography and prototyping are now training colleagues.

The design-led model has proven sustainable: the council predicts that the changes will continue to deliver a saving of £386,000 per year.  

Innovation Unit

Joseph Harrington is co-head of service design at Innovation Unit, a social enterprise that began life as part of the Department for Education before going independent in 2006. It partners with public services to “develop different, better, lower cost solutions to social challenges”.

For three years Innovation Unit has been working with Lambeth Clinical Commissioning Group (“responsible for commissioning or ‘buying’ healthcare services for the people who live and work in the borough”) to transform its mental health services.


Co-head of service design at Innovation Unit, Joseph Harrington takes part in a co-design session with health professionals and people who use services, to develop a collaborative model for commissioning.

Innovation Unit reports that “Lambeth is one of the most deprived areas in the UK with a mental healthcare system struggling to handle high levels of referrals and people stuck in secondary care. Like many other healthcare systems around the UK, it has seen its funding cut significantly in recent years.”

Early in the process, Innovation Unit helped the Commissioning Group design a collaborative commissioning model that is at the heart of the transformation work.  The Lambeth Living Well Collaborative is a group of service users, GPs, providers and commissioners who “show an appetite for change, are open to collaboration and most importantly are eager to overcome the risk aversion that all too often holds back radical innovation”. The Collaborative is based on co-production, “the idea that people’s needs are better met when they are involved in an equal and reciprocal relationship with professionals”.

The collaborative commissioning model is being tested in a few of Lambeth’s hospitals. According to Innovation Unit, “After refinement and further development, this model will be applied on a larger scale to make Lambeth’s mental healthcare system genuinely and entirely co-productive. Ultimately, this will greatly improve outcomes for a wide range of patients, which will dramatically transform the quality of life for a large number of Lambeth’s inhabitants and reduce the burden on its healthcare services.”

Harrington says that the model for co-producing services “works at a process level but also at an impact level. It is reducing admissions into hospitals and reducing costs dramatically.”

Even small changes can lead to dramatic results

Says Roberts, the Service Transformation Officer in Lewisham, of design: “It’s not something that I think that you need to be scared about as an approach. 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 a lot of the cases that we found when we did this project, it is actually quite small changes that can have a big impact. And everyone wants to find things like that really.”

Harrington believes service design is at a crossroads, with huge potential to transform public services. Like TACSI, Innovation Unit reports an increasing demand at national and local levels among commissioners of services. In a time of austerity, Harrington says, design can shape the agenda to make services more accurately meet need.

“Design has an opportunity to take an asset-based approach to identify what are the latent assets, the unused resources that we can tap into in a different way. Design is very good at identifying and activating those assets, within the need to cut funding. If a cut has to happen, we can ask, ‘Are there other assets we can engage with?’, and show that we can create more value.” 

However, he adds that the right kind of government buy-in is essential: “It can be about nice shiny personas, a few customer journey maps, but that is a very traditional design process, and it won’t afford the opportunity of creating a user-centred process situating citizens at its heart.”

Using design to develop services that meet the needs of real people — in other words, developing them with users, from the bottom up — makes for services that are more efficient, both in terms of cost and, most importantly, quality. While the design approaches aren’t new, they can offer major benefits to public services and the people who use them. Writes Vanstone of TACSI: “The tools to do the work have their origins in product development and business innovation — tools that companies like Kodak and Gillette have been using for years.” 

Other articles in The Design Economy series:

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