Design and Public Services


Last night saw the Design and Public Services event hosted by Design in Action and held within the Scottish Parliament.

The purpose of the event was to debate some of the themes raised by the Design Commission in their recent publication, Restarting Britain 2. The report explores the potential contribution of design to the creation of cost-effective public services for the 21st century.  The report is the culmination of a nine-month inquiry, and the Commission’s response to a substantially increased appetite for more information on the use of design in public service delivery.

We believe significant rewards – in terms of maximising policy effectiveness and lowering overall costs – could be reaped by the public sector taking a proactive, deliberate and professional approach to ‘designing’ what it does for its citizens.
— Baroness Kingsmill and Barry Quirk - Inquiry Co-chairs

This event was particularly of interest for me as the subject is paramount to the approach the Learner Journey Project is taking and defines my role within the Scottish Government. My role is in fact mentioned fleetingly within the report during Snook’s case study highlighted as a ‘great example’ of using design within the public sector.

Three speakers opened the discussion; Jocelyn Bailey, co-Author of the Report, Lauren Currie, co-Director of Snook, and Mike Press, Chair of Design Policy at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. Each had their own take on the subject, asking questions such as “What can design do for government?”, “What does good commissioning of design in the public sector look like?” and “How can we educate the masses about design?”.

The discussion that followed was expansive so I will just touch upon the points I feel were most significant.

The collective agreement of design’s success in the creation and development of public services is the fact that it starts not with the service provider, but the end user. This is something you hear time and again, and seems so simple and yet unfortunately is something that is so often over looked.

Other benefits that were mentioned include the way it limits risk through low-cost prototyping (something we trailed through our Learner Journey Data Jam in April), it’s inclusive by working visually and that it promotes cross-discipline collaboration.

One audience member made the point that the very language of service ‘delivery’ implies that the receiver of said service is passive throughout the interaction, which is never (and should never be) the case.

During her speech, Currie described the need to change the preconceptions of design as something ‘pretty’, ‘risky’ or ‘funky’ and instead bring it into the very DNA of public services.

Bailey hit the nail on the head when she said that, to be able to do this we need ‘to change the very mentality of problem solving.’

Jenny Marra, MSP, chaired the discussion and made the point that something standing in the way of including design within government is the line of accountability. I see her point, and until people realise that adopting the design process could actually reduce the risks of producing expensive services that people don’t engage with, this could be one of the greatest barriers.

A final point raised was the need for improved feedback loops within public services. The idea of asking the public’s opinion can make providers (or the government!) run a mile, expecting to be inundated with complaints. However, if you can do so in a constructive way services can be developed and improved resulting in people taking pride and ownership in the services they are using.

As Mike Press declared;

Public Services should be enjoyed, not tolerated!
— Mike Press, Chair of Design Policy , DJCAD