It’s time for public sector organizations around the world to re-think how they design their services – and put the citizen at the heart of everything.

Advances in technology over the last 10-15 years have presented numerous opportunities for public bodies to re-design their services, but the standard response from many has been to automate what already exists.

These organizations need to take a step back and re-think many services from scratch. Now that connectivity has improved along with the data available to inform decision-making, simple automation is not enough. A radical, blank-slate approach is needed to build offerings around the end user.

Service design must be universal and inclusive. Too often, assumptions are made about the ability of older people and those with disabilities to use technology that don’t reflect reality. In order to design truly accessible services, it’s important to engage more broadly with the different sectors of society. If this is done well, adoption rates can improve, reducing the demand on more labour-intensive services.  It requires significant upfront investment in design.

In updating their approach to service provision, four principles are key:

  1. Use design thinking methodologies
  2. Consult iteratively with citizens
  3. It’s never too early to think about design
  4. Learn from best practice – both from the public and private sectors

Use design thinking methodologies

Design thinking has a history dating back to the 1950s. It’s an approach that emphasizes creativity and collaborative techniques such as co-creation. It encourages government teams to tackle service design from a fresh perspective, challenge existing assumptions, and explore multiple possibilities. It can be applied to everything from how to lay out parks and public buildings to how to design a digital service for social welfare benefits.

Design thinking encourages planners and policy-makers to design around user need, rather than be constrained by existing ways of working and legislation. It’s easy to say ‘no’ to an idea, but it’s more beneficial to end users for teams to work with government and law-makers to advocate for policies that bring the flexibility and coordination needed for efficient, user-centric services. In doing this they need to consider the changing profile and demography of the people they serve.

An example of this is establishing data-sharing frameworks and interoperability between different agencies, with clear and transparent citizen consent at its heart.

Consult iteratively with citizens

Citizens have increasingly varying and complex needs – but also heightened expectations of public services. In order to meet them, government bodies need to take the time to understand behaviors, choices, motivations and attitudes which influence interactions with services.

The only way to achieve this detailed understanding is to consult and collaborate extensively with end users before, during and after the service design process. This represents a radical shift from traditional public sector service design, in which services are planned in a close room, aligned to regulatory and legislative frameworks, with little interaction with end users. 

An NGO that provides services to people with intellectual disabilities recently reviewed their governance model. The review included processes to consult with and seek feedback from their service users. Through consultation with this group, the NGO gained valuable insights into the design of communications materials and the use of imagery in communications.

By reorienting their services around citizens’ needs, public sector teams are able to re-imagine and transform their relationship with civil society. They can use digital technologies to deliver social and economic benefits for all, while also running a more streamlined and efficient working environment for their own employees.

It’s never too early to think about design

Embedding design thinking is a long term project that requires sustained efforts to shift the organizational mindset along with a change management process.

An example of early design intervention is the work done by the Regional Transport Authority in Aix-Marseille-Provence in France. They redesigned the organisation of public transport in the metropolitan area, with the aid of an exploratory study and a collaborative approach involving all stakeholders in the area.

In our extensive work with public sector teams across the world, it’s apparent that aversion to risk can be a significant obstacle. Maintaining the status quo is safer than transforming it. But across our lives, other sectors have radically shifted how they engage with citizens – often reaping significant benefits.

 What’s needed for many public sector teams is more than just new methodologies – it’s a new way of thinking. Teams must break away from the tendency to maintain services around existing bureaucracy, and switch to focusing on what citizens really want and need. They must also break out of internal silos that inhibit cross-body collaboration and service development and that create a fragmented, frustrating experience for the citizen.

Strong leadership and effective change management are instrumental to this process. Public sector leaders need to champion fresh service design (particularly when it comes to digitization), communicate the vision and create a culture of innovation. Change management strategies will address employee concerns, nurture buy-in, and provide support mechanisms to ensure a smooth transition to new ways of working.

Learn from best practice

Public sector organizations are sometimes reluctant to learn from other bodies around the world when designing and re-designing services. The most successful service-delivery organizations have strong ecosystems of suppliers and partners, but public sector procurement structures have not been designed to support these partnership models to provide scalability and agility.

There’s a frequent assumption that the challenges public bodies face are unique. In fact, the challenges of delivering services to cohorts of citizens share much in common between nations and sectors. Teams achieve the best possible results when learning from other examples – what works and what doesn’t. The obvious benchmarks are the equivalent bodies in other countries with a similar level of digital maturity in their populace.

Public bodies can even learn a great deal from the private sector. Businesses in the last decade or two have tilted very much towards treating the customer as sovereign, and building services around them. Public sector bodies need to do exactly the same thing in many cases.

Reaping the benefits of a fresh approach

New technologies present both an opportunity and a direct challenge to existing public sector organizations. The temptation to do things as they’ve always been done can be comforting.

A radical change in culture and approach towards citizen-centricity is not easy, but brings significant rewards. It translates into cheaper, more effective, more streamlined services, along with improved satisfaction levels from the citizens that use them.

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