Investment in public services has increased dramatically over the last decade, but today’s services must respond to new challenges including a low carbon economy, an ageing population and the rising demands of service users. These pressures make innovation essential – public services must be designed to meet the complex needs of users while delivering cost efficiencies.
Recent evidence shows that design methodologies can drive innovation in public services. Rapid prototyping creates efficiencies by designing out problems early, and the collaborative nature of many design projects can engage public sector workers, frontline staff and users in the development and delivery of new services.
However, research also shows many public service providers lack the knowledge and skills to use design as a strategic approach to innovation. Developing this capacity would help public sector organisations manage their creative processes and find innovative solutions for service delivery
Design is responding to new social challenges
The public sector faces new challenges
The public sector is facing increasingly complex and competing challenges. The global economic downturn is exacerbating existing pressures such as climate change, demographic change and the rapid pace of technological advances. The range of services now available has made communication and collaboration between departments more important – as has meeting demands for personalised services (1). Local authorities are responding to these societal changes while striving to deliver cost efficiencies (2).
Unsurprisingly, these pressures are driving major changes in public service delivery. Design Council research found 89 per cent of local authorities have partially or fundamentally redesigned their service delivery in the past two years, and a recent survey by the Audit Commission found efficiency to be the main driver of service innovation among 22 per cent of authorities (3). Government policy on public services is now informed by these new challenges (4), and some central government departments are taking increasingly innovative approaches to service delivery (5).
Design is enabling innovative solutions
Over the last four years the Design Council has piloted a range of live public sector projects, with the aim of developing practical design solutions to some of the most complex problems. For example, a design team worked with Gateshead Primary Care Trust on design-led approaches to improving sexual health screening and treatment services (6). The Move Me project in Northumberland improved transport systems in a small rural community by creating a toolkit for service providers (7). And an in-school design technology laboratory at Walker Technology College involved the entire school community in the process of redesigning the school before an architect was commissioned (8).
Design has a key role in public services
Design thinking can be applied across the spectrum of innovation
Among the dozens of definitions of public sector innovation (9), the simplest is ‘new ideas that work at creating public value’ (10). The National Audit Office has described innovation as ‘having new ideas, developing the best ones, and implementing them in such a way that there is a good chance they will improve the ways your organisation operates or performs’ (11).
Design is the practical tool that links creativity and innovation – a discipline which shapes ideas to become practical and attractive propositions for users and customers (12). While design techniques can be effectively used in isolation, there is growing recognition that ‘design thinking’ can successfully apply a human-centred design ethos across the full spectrum of innovation activities (13).
Design methodologies enable service innovation
Recent examples across the public and private sectors demonstrate that design methodologies can improve service delivery in five keys ways:
- Developing more personalised services
Design techniques play a critical role in identifying users’ needs and designing the right services around them. BUPA uses design techniques to visually map the end-to-end patient journey, based on the experiences of a small group of patients. These insights have enabled several service improvements. For example, customer care-line operators are now able to suggest a range of potential issues that a patient might want to discuss – which they might not consider spontaneously – based on the experiences of those in similar situations (14).
- Harnessing the knowledge of frontline staff
Collaborative design techniques can harness the knowledge of frontline staff in improving services. The NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement facilitated creative workshops for frontline teams at Luton and Dunstable NHS Trust, allowing staff to apply design approaches to service improvements. The sessions were facilitated by designers which helped staff to understand how their ideas might work in a service design context. Some ideas have already been implemented: wards have been redesigned so equipment and drugs can be found more easily, which has since reduced errors in administering drugs (15).
- Managing risk by prototyping new ideas
The design technique of prototyping manages risk by starting small and designing out problems early – before significant public finances are committed and media attention is attracted (16). As part of the Designs of the time (Dott) project, designers explored ways of reducing energy consumption in a Northumberland household. Many of the solutions are now being prototyped for wider use, including a TV based dashboard to help people monitor their energy use, and a scheme to help pay for energy efficient home improvements. The energy dashboard has already helped one local street cut its energy use by up to 60 per cent (17).
- Improving efficiency and value for money
Design-led approaches to service innovation can improve value for money by identifying inefficiencies. Sunderland City Council’s Northern Way Worklessness Pilot used service design methods to map the public services needed to help disadvantaged individuals out of long-term unemployment. The resulting framework allowed services to be commissioned more efficiently by designing out elements which did not meet users’ needs. The combined framework of services costs an average £5,000 per person to move them towards employment (18). The Department for Work and Pensions currently estimates the cost of helping a person out of long-term unemployment at £62,000 (19).
- Giving service users more control
The Open Health project in Bolton encouraged people with diabetes to take control of managing their own condition. The Design Council led a team of designers, policy thinkers and social scientists aiming to harness design principles and focus on the user – in this case, the diabetes sufferer – to help transform diabetes care. This approach encouraged people to take control of their own condition management, as well as helping to develop more effective communication channels between patients and their healthcare providers (20).
Service design is a growing part of the UK design industry
The emerging discipline of service design has seen designers developing tools to support the creation of better services. Its practitioners take a human-centred approach that focuses on customer experience and quality of encounter, identifying and improving the individual ‘touch-points’ where a user experiences a service. The process is systematic, iterative and driven by interdisciplinary teams. The UK is regarded as a pioneer of service design and new agencies are starting up regularly (21).
The public sector faces barriers to design-led innovation
Design techniques are used informally – not strategically
Design Council research among public sector organisations found that service providers are often unfamiliar with strategic approaches to service design. Some individual design techniques were regularly used (59 per cent used creative techniques for problem solving; the same proportion involved users in service design). But others were less common: only 43 per cent regularly used piloting and less than a quarter (23 per cent) used the more design-led technique of prototyping.
Procurement processes disadvantage small design agencies
Design Council research also found that small, innovative design agencies felt strongly that government procurement processes were an obstacle to working with public sector clients. Many agencies said processes appeared better suited to products than services. Designers agreed that government procurement prohibited small early-stage projects in which relationships could be established and ideas tested before larger initiatives are launched. Local authorities also made frequent references to inflexible budgets which cannot be released for small but innovative design projects.
The structure of public sector organisations restricts creativity
Despite recent evidence many public sector innovations happen despite – rather than because of – the organisational culture around them (22). Public sector organisations tend to work in silos, meaning new ideas cannot flow around organisations or cut across departmental boundaries (23). The impact of design on public sector organisations has been largely neglected; but recent work has shown that strategic use of collaborative design techniques helps innovations to be implemented around and across organisations (24).
The Design Council is developing a public sector innovation programme
The Design Council and DIUS are developing Public Services by Design
In the 2008 Innovation Nation white paper, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) recognised the role of design in public sector innovation and acknowledged that it increasingly results from collaboration with the private and third sectors (25). Acting on recommendations made in the white paper, the Design Council will develop and trial design-led innovation programme for practitioners in the public sector, along the lines of its existing private sector model, Designing Demand (26).
The Design Council will be co-developing Public Services by Design with public sector practitioners and designers over the next 2 years – the programme will be rolled out in autumn 2009.
For up to date information please visit: www.designcouncil.org.uk/psbd
For evidence and discussion of the impact of design on business innovation read the following Design Council briefing: www.designcouncil.org.uk/briefing01
You can always find this briefing with this shortcut: www.designcouncil.org.uk/briefing02
Research and Knowledge Team
34 Bow Street
London WC2E 7DL
The Design Council is the national strategic body for design. We aim to build the UK’s capacity to innovate by supporting the effective use of design in business and the public sector.
The Design Council develops solutions to UK challenges by involving communities in design local services. We are also boosting skills in design to support a competitive creative economy and thriving design sector.
1 Varney, D. (2006) ‘Service Transformation: A better service for citizens and businesses, a better deal for the taxpayer.’ London: HM Treasury
2 The Gershon Review (2004/5) has led to authorities making year-on-year efficiency gains.
3 Audit Commission (2007) ‘Seeing the Light: Innovation in local public services.’ London: Audit Commission
4 Cabinet Office (2008) ‘Excellence and Fairness: Achieving world class public services.’ London: Cabinet Office; DIUS (2008) ‘Innovation Nation.’ London: DIUS
5 The most common form of public sector innovation is now the effort across government agencies to improve service delivery. (National Audit Office (2006) ‘Achieving innovation in central government organisations.’ London: National Audit Office)
6 Case study available at: www.dott07.com/go/dashconclusion
7 Case study available at: www.dott07.com/go/public-commissions/move-me
8 Case study available at: www.dott07.com/go/ournewschool
9 Twenty definitions are given in: Osborne, S. (1998) ‘Naming the Beast: Delivering and classifying service innovations in social policy.’ Human Relations, 51, 1133-1154. For a discussion of the difference between private and public sector innovation see: LSE Public Policy Group (2008) ‘Innovation Index Working Paper: Innovation in government organisations, public sector agencies and public service NGOs.’ London: NESTA
10 Mulgan, G. (2007) ‘Ready or Not? Taking innovation in the public sector seriously.’ London: NESTA
11 National Audit Office (2006) ‘Achieving innovation in central government organisations.’ London: National Audit Office
12 HM Treasury (2005) ‘The Cox Review of Creativity in Business: building on the UK’s strengths.’ London: HM Treasury
13 For further discussion of this topic see: Tim Brown, ‘Design Thinking’, Harvard Business Review, 1 June 2008; ‘Innovation by Design in Public Services.’ The Guardian, 5 November 2008; ‘Using Design to Solve Society’s Problems’, Fast Company, 130, November 2008; Cottam, H. and Leadbetter, C. (2004) ‘Red Paper 01. Health: co-creating services.’ London: Design Council
14 Parker, S., and Heapy, J. (2006) ‘Journey to the Interface: How public service design can connect users to reform.’ London: DEMOS
15 'Why encouraging NHS staff to think differently is good for the nation’s health.’ Design Council Magazine, 4, Summer 2008. Available online at: www.designcouncil.org.uk/dcm
16 Prototyping is the design technique of developing mock-ups on a small scale in the research phase of a project. It is distinct from piloting, where a larger-scale test version is rolled out over a longer period. For a discussion of design’s role in risk management in public services see: Jones, M., and Samalionis, F. ‘Radical service innovation.’ Business Week, 20 October 2008
17 Dott 07 was a year of community projects, events and exhibitions in north-east England which involved local people, businesses and public service providers in design projects as active participants. Information and case studies are available at: www.dott07.com Detailed Northumberland case study available at: www.dott07.com/go/lowcarblane
18 Case study available at: www.livework.co.uk/case-studies/sunderland-make-it-work
19 Freud, D. (2007) ‘Reducing dependency, increasing opportunity: options for the future of welfare to work. An independent report to the Department for Work and Pensions.’ London: DWP
20 Case study available at: www.designcouncil.org.uk/en/Case-Studies/All-Case-Studies/RED---Diabetes-/Taking-a-new-approach
21 Saco, R., and Goncalves, A. (2008) ‘Service Design: An Appraisal.’ Design Management Review, Vol.19 No.1
22 Mulgan, G. (2007) ‘Ready or Not? Taking innovation in the public sector seriously.’ London: NESTA
23 Bichard, M. ‘Overcoming Obstacles.’ Innovation by Design in Public Services, The Guardian, 5 November 2008; Mulgan, G. (2007) ‘Ready or Not? Taking innovation in the public sector seriously.’ London: NESTA; Lekhi, Rohit (2007) ‘Public Service Innovation: A research report for the Work Foundation’s knowledge economy programme.’ London: The Work Foundation
24 Acha, V. (2008) ‘Open by Design: The Role of Design in Open Innovation.’ London: DIUS
25 DIUS (2008)’ Innovation Nation.’ London: DIUS