Matt Clack is a Public Health Strategist at Hackney Council. His team are taking part in Design Council’s Design in the Public Sector programme, which is run in partnership with the Local Government Association (LGA). In this first blog of a new series, Matt talks about his initial thoughts and the surprises the programme has thrown up. And our big chair.

It’s probably the biggest chair I’ve ever seen, and certainly the pointiest. Standing in the middle of the Angel Building atrium as we arrive for our first training day, Ian McChesney’s work felt like the most fitting welcome. I’ve long been convinced that when people think about design, they think about chairs. But we’re not here to talk about furniture, we’re talking about services. Specifically, we’re learning how to use design thinking to improve public services.

Following a challenging application process, Hackney has joined five other councils on a programme run by Design Council and the LGA to help address a service challenge – ours is looking to shape a new collaboration between public health and private housing services. I’d say more about this now, but it’s hard. More on this later.


The "big chair" in the atrium of the Angel building .

The first day introduced us to a range of key techniques to do this, like customer user mapping, ideation and visioning. We worked through the Double Diamond which allows you to discover your problem discover, define it, develop solutions, and deliver them.

All of this felt so refreshing, and relevant. I’d had a few introductions to design thinking before, so working through issues with colleagues on a project we will deliver was exciting. But the point that Design Associates Jonathan and David – the experts running the session – kept pressing us on: what is the problem you’re addressing?


The Design Council's Double Diamond.

I won’t repeat the stats and headlines about London’s housing crisis here, or about the rising rents and poor housing conditions that some in the Private Rented Sector (PRS) have to endure. Every day, staff from a broad range of public services, from fire fighters to social workers, walk through front doors and witness these conditions, which is hugely valuable intelligence that could be used to proactively help tenants. 

One of the problems is that they're all time-pressured services who are focused on their own 'red flags' during home visits. What we want to do is ultimately improve the tenants' health and safety by bringing together these public service professionals to share the red flags, and their concerns about housing conditions, with other agencies when they arise. 

So, to put this into terms from the course  -  our design challenge (and this is probably already version four) is: 
How do we build an active network of staff who visit  PRS tenants to provide better info and support?

I won’t repeat the stats and headlines about London’s housing crisis here, or about the rising rents and poor housing conditions that some in the private rented sector have to endure.

Matt Clack, Hackney council

Towards the end of the first day we were asked to pitch this to the other council teams, and to seek positive criticism from peers. I was struck by how difficult some found it to grasp what we were trying to achieve. 

Health outcomes differ greatly in the PRS, and I'm convinced that getting agencies to work closer together will help us identify tenants who need more support. I’ve been pitching this for a couple of years, while we sought the budget, consulted with stakeholders, and recruited to the post. On the day I realised how difficult it is to actually articulate this challenge, and that perhaps that accounted for the difficulty others had in fully understanding the concept (no doubt exacerbated on all fronts by the glass of wine the Design Council provided us just before the pitch exercise).

It’s clear we have lots of questions still to answer, like how to make this extra work attractive to already-busy services and whether we focus on particular unhealthy housing conditions. There are broader questions, such as whether we’re being paternalistic in the way we’re thinking around tenants, not with them.

The one thing I can now be sure of is that design thinking is about so much more than chairs. Design Council talks about ‘design from the pixel to the city’, and our journey is just getting started.

Matt will continue to blog throughout his journey through the programme. In the meantime, you can read blogs from previous programme participants Devon County Council and Cambridgeshire County Council.

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