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Designing public services that work for all of us

Designing public services that work for all of us

29 October 2014 Written by By Barry Quirk CBE Chief Executive of Lewisham Council

Lewisham Council’s Barry Quirk shares his thoughts on how design can make public services more efficient, highlighting the success of the Love Lewisham mobile app in tackling environmental problems in his borough.

On 16 October I took to the stage at Solace Summit 2014 in Liverpool. It was my pleasure to chair a session on public service redesign, with a panel made up of David McNulty, Michael Mousdale and Design Council’s own Helen Lazarus and Gavin Pryke. The lively debate in front of over 160 local authority executives centred on the transformation of public services, and specifically on how design-led thinking can help make them more effective and, importantly, efficient.

Over a year ago, the Design Commission released its findings of an eight month study of design services in the public, private and design sectors, Restarting Britain 2. It showed that the best of design thinking can help to make services more relevant to existing needs and reduce cost. 

The report called upon government to tackle the dual challenges of making public services both better and more cost-effective through the strategic employment of design in every step of deployment and delivery.

Whereas the first Restarting Britain set out the strategic importance of design education as a driver of economic growth, this report was a direct call to local authority leaders to use design as a tool on every programme they started. So, where are we today? 

Design can find solutions to complex problems - and save money

I believe that the future for public services can be bright. Useful, intelligent design can find solutions to very complex problems. Indeed, I’ve seen it happen in my own Borough, Lewisham, where just one example saves nearly £400k a year. This is because design naturally starts with the end user, rather than with the product itself. This means we need to redesign services to work completely differently, altering the fundamentals of how they work and how they are organised. 

An inspiring illustration of this can be seen in Design Council’s work with Lambeth and Southwark Councils on the Knee High Challenge programme which has transformed the way we can look at delivering early years services.

This requires asking a series of questions to the customers – or in design terms, end-users – of the services themselves. Is this service necessary? Is our local authority the best organisation to deliver it? Is an organisation necessary to deliver it at all? Or, in other words, can this service be accessed and served by residents themselves? 

If the costs of public services are to be reduced dramatically, they need substantial redesign that reshapes services rather than simply revamps them. If we are to substantially reduce the cost of local government, this will be achievable only if we can get residents to serve themselves. 

Public services must be redesigned for the customer

Not all services can be delivered online, of course, but many can. Another good example of how this can be achieved was when Lewisham developed Love Lewisham - a mobile phone application that enables residents to photograph environmental problems. They can then send us the photo with an embedded geocode direct from their mobile phone. 

Once our environmental maintenance staff have fixed the problem, they send the resident a new photo of the problem fixed. This technique has dramatically altered public reporting and radically lowered the cost of the service. 

We showed that local government managers not only can but must redesign services from the perspective of the customer. Residents are at once public service users and taxpayers who finance these services. As taxpayers, residents want cheaper local government services; and as service users, residents want their services to be better and quicker. Design-led thinking and a user-centred approach are integral to transforming our public services into successful, sustainable services. 

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