Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Designing public services

Spent the day at the Government Computing Exhibition, just to wander round the stands, see who are consultants, what services they offer: legal, data, management, IT, training. The talks were interesting. One was on
What if public services were designed the way users want them?
The speakers included:
  • David Brindle, the Guardian, Public Services Editor
  • Alexis Cleveland, Director General Transformational Government, Cabinet Office
  • Joan Saddler, National Director for Patient and Public Affairs, Department of Health
  • Sir Michael Bichard, Chair of the Design Council and Director, the Institute for Government
Sir Michael Bichard started by pointing out how bad the UK public sector is at designing services. At service design in the private sector the UK is a world leader. Design drives innovation, provides tools to create, which leads to profits in the private sector, where we are good at design. These techniques can transfer to the public sector. We need to work collaboratively across bureaucratic boundaries, and integrate IT. He gave an example of LiveWork, which explored and mapped barriers to work. IT found a confused offering from different groups that was rarely understood by the client. Redesign was required.

Alexis Cleveland talked about the cost of error and failure, agreed there was a need for innovation and gave some examples of best practice, empowering citizens. For example, they redesigned a system for receiving phone calls to 18 numbers, thereby reduced calls, but the system meant that funding went down because there were fewer calls. They also noticed that demand peaked on Monday, and discovered it was a reaction to sending letters on Thursdays. So they redesigned when letters went out. The redesign meant a reduction of nearly 50% of staff, the number of compliments went up and complaints went down. Another example was setting up a web site Show Us a Better Way to ask the question. It sounds great, but how do the inarticulate articulate a better way?

What would you create with public information?

They got the public to suggest web sites that would be useful to them, such as how to find a school near where you live. Data mashing produced a school map. The public got a lot of value, and it cost the government nothing because it was designed by those who wanted the information.

Joan Sadler required design to listen to patients and staff. Communication is part of good leadership. For example, Obama referred to "mutual interest and mutual respect" without presuming what is best. She wants to check what staff use, without imposing a solution, but recognising a right to engage effectively with a system, designing around a person. Again though how do those too humble and quiet express what they want?

Questions came from people at Thames Communication, Alexoria, Berkshire Consultancy.

I hadn't thought of design in the context of services, but then I'm neither a designer nor a provider of services. This was an illuminating talk that merited the time and further discussion.

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