England & Wales Personal and organisational development

How I learned to stop worrying and love service design


Image by William Iven from Pixabay

I’ve just spent the past two days at the Service Design in Government Conference. An excellent couple of days.  Jonathan and I ran a workshop on service design and commissioning process.

I want to start out by saying that I truly believe that service design is an important way forward in changing public services for the better.  Why wouldn’t you want to have a thorough understanding of users’ needs, motivations and improve delivery and reduce friction and cost in service provision?  I also believe that all services are designed it’s just that many services are designed without the purpose or intent of designing well.

But I also think that where service design is being implemented it’s quite patchy. It fits well with the world of digital because delivery can be fast and very visible and iterative changes to the final product are relatively low cost and need not be disruptive to existing services.   But it’s less easy to fit in with the world of ‘analog’ services – though it can, and probably should be done.

What often stops it happening is that government is slow, and risk averse and cash strapped. If cashable savings can’t be demonstrated or at the very least strongly anticipated then in today’s fiscal climate – nothing will get a look in.  This might be right or wrong, but it’s the reality.

The other reality is that local government is delivering less and less of its high spend services.  Social care represents a vast chunk of spend for most councils and much of that (at least in adult social care) is delivered by non-state actors – the providers.  Councils serve a commissioning role – looking for the best outcomes – after finding someone to deliver at or near the lowest possible cost.  They have to make these savings because commissioners who have been working with budgets of X this year next year have to deliver the same or more with perhaps 90% of X and even less the year after.

A bunch of funky service designers coming in promising an open ended, design-led, user focused process to help improve services for users is probably going to create a lot of anxiety in many public sector commissioners.  While the service designer is focused on the user, the commissioner has to be focused on a bottom line. They are speaking different languages.   Yet, this is where the opportunity for radically reshaping services, managing demand, improving experience and reducing costs could come from.

In our workshop session, we asked participants to think from the perspective of commissioners and identify the key questions that would help commissioners sleep at night if they turned a bunch of service designers loose on a statutory service. We asked them to think within the framework of home care (because that’s the project I’m working on and I’m a big believer in getting other people to help me out)  and to think about people, process and performance.  Here’s what they came up with:

  • What is the process of service design and how will you do it?
  • How does your approach differ to traditional providers?
  • What reassurance have you got that we can fix this if it doesn’t work?
  • How will you build in our statutory obligations?
  • How and at what points will I know project savings and when we start to actually cash them?
  • Will you measure the same KPI’s we do now?
  • How do we decide who gets what and why?
  • How does this approach reduce risk? for the organisation and for the service users?
  • How can we make commissioning service design projects scale, be cost-effective and fair?
  • How can we help people themselves?
  • Will people be happier? Will it work? When? How?
  • How can we build distributed community support for people?
  • How will we help people cope with change?
  • How can we join this up from ‘Mrs Jones’ point of view?

I’m not sure that commissioners would ask these questions – and I think they might struggle to get past the cost question given the real financial constraints that councils are facing, but I think they should ask these questions.  And some of the service designers in the room were uncomfortable with some of these questions, arguing that perhaps some people couldn’t quite understand the brilliance of what they were offering. I’d counter that service designers need to understand that they too are providing a service and they better design that service around understanding their users. A perhaps unfair characterisation of service design  is that it currently inhabits the world of hipster chic. It could be seen as faddish. I sincerely hope it’s not.

If service designers are serious about wanting to get to the really meaty public service questions, then they need to be prepared to answer these questions before they’re asked. They need to be realistic about finance, about the political climate of local government and about the statutory constraints on delivery and procurement.  But if commissioners of services and service designers can start to work on these answers for the better, we could have a serious crack at radical transformation of government services.