Warwickshire County Council needed to meet government requirements to provide digital and online services. In 2013, it worked with Design Council to understand how best to embed the necessary skills across its whole organisation.
The government’s ‘Digital by Default’ programme is intended to ensure more local public services are delivered digitally, and well enough that people will prefer to use them. The challenge for councils is to do so locally, with limited resources and expertise.
Like local councils throughout England and Wales, Warwickshire County Council was already working to address these challenges. Kate Sahota, Commissioning and Performance Lead, Health Improvement, explained: “We’d made some progress. But what we found was that digital was often tacked onto an existing service with little thought as to whether the existing service was fit for purpose.”
The danger was that such an approach would lower uptake of the digital service. What was needed was an improved approach to service design and development which would take digital into account from the outset. The council sought Design Council’s help to find the best solution.
What we did
Working visually makes things simpler and easier to communicate, and this, in turn, is the key to developing good ideas and innovating quickly and successfully.Gavin Pryke, Design Associate
Design Council assigned Design Associate Gavin Pryke to work with Warwickshire. His first step was to organise an initial workshop at which he guided the council team through an exploration of the principles and potential of digital service design.
Good service experience was discussed and participants explored how designers solve problems. The team considered the importance of basing service development on observation of customer needs and behaviour and the value of visualising service experiences to identify problems and initial ideas. In addition, the workshops highlighted how designers manage risk by prototyping new ideas quickly and cheaply ahead of the procurement and investment in the development of digital services.
Pryke explained the method: “Working visually makes things simpler and easier to communicate, and this, in turn, is the key to developing good ideas and innovating quickly and successfully.”
Warwickshire agreed to invest in a project that would allow it to learn and implement the structures, skills and approaches it would need for future digital service design and development. The plan was that it would then build a method to disseminate the skills learned throughout the organisation.
Pryke helped the council team brainstorm ideas for digital projects to develop around its existing services. Two areas were identified - County Highways and the services the council provides to young people leaving care homes. With Pryke’s help, the team looked into the prospective users of these services. User journeys and service needs were mapped and ideas were refined.
Workshop exploration of digital service design
This process highlighted where the council team lacked certain skills and expertise. “It showed our weakness was not in service delivery but in how to take the step back needed to determine just what it is we should be doing. One thing that was clear, for example, was that we needed to learn how to conduct user research properly,” explained Sahota. “Until this point, the council’s approach to service design involved the relevant council division approaching the council’s central development team with a pre-chosen solution already in mind. As a result, some projects had under-delivered, mainly due to poor understanding of our users’ needs.”
It was agreed that two ‘demonstrator’ projects would be undertaken to develop prototypes of new digital services to prove the value of developing a more user-centric approach to service design. Each would also provide a case study in best practice for council-wide digital service development.
The first project chosen was an upgrade of Warwickshire County Highways’ paper-based skip licensing process. An opportunity was identified to build a digital dashboard to manage this process, showing the precise location of skips and highlighting which licences were closest to their expiry date. This would reduce unnecessary contact and resolve public enquiries faster, streamlining and reducing time and cost.
The second was to upgrade the paper-based system the council used to stay in touch with young people leaving full-time care by creating an electronic self-completion questionnaire which could be accessed and monitored more easily by care-leaver and social worker alike.
Pryke helped the team write a design brief and introduced them to a number of specialist research and design agencies. ESRO, an expert in ethnographic research and service design specialist LeapSTONE were appointed. The two agencies worked closely with Warwickshire’s skip licensing and care leavers’ teams to train and mentor them in how to conduct the user-centred research.
Being user-centred and using design methods unlocked new concepts by challenging the way the council was delivering services for local communities.Neal Stone, LeapSTONE founder
LeapSTONE founder Neal Stone observed: “Being user-centred and using design methods unlocked new concepts by challenging the way the council was delivering services for local communities. Some of the concepts have been prototyped and initial feedback was positive from users.”
Under the agencies’ guidance, Warwickshire’s skip licensing and care leavers’ teams designed their own materials, led fieldwork and then analysed the results before creating the two new digital service prototypes.
“It was a natural partnership having ethnography led by ethnographic research specialists and the service design aspects led by a service design specialist, rather than commissioning a generalist to do the whole lot,” said ESRO Managing Director, Becky Rowe. “It meant that the team could benefit from a different perspective and voice at different parts of the process which added new impetus and fresh ideas.”
The agencies also helped the first wave of participants develop an approach to effectively embed and transfer skills to their colleagues that could be repeated by other council teams in the future.
Work on Warwickshire County Council’s digital design prototypes was completed in late 2014, and best practice case study material from both projects was created to be made available organisation-wide via the council’s intranet.
Moving forward, the true test of this project’s success will be the extent to which we can embed the approaches and expertise learned for digital service development.Kate Sahota, Commissioning and Performance Lead, Health Improvement
Though still early days in the project, Sahota describes Design Council’s support as “extremely beneficial”.
“The most significant benefit was our Design Associate’s contacts and the access this gave us to the external expertise we needed. Moving forward, the true test of this project’s success will be the extent to which we can embed the approaches and expertise learned for digital service development.”
The next step will be to undertake a further digital service design project on a larger scale task. This will then be used to secure the investment in central resources the council will require to support future digital service development.