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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Laird

Public service entrepreneurship: get prototyping

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

Fail early and cheaply – in the second article in our public service entrepreneurship series, Andrew Laird says it’s time for public services to embrace the principles of prototyping commonly used in the traditional design and manufacturing sector.

Trial and error is not a problem solving method favoured by the public sector. In fact, the idea of prototyping, which can mean repeated, varied attempts which are as likely to fail as work, will fill many with horror. The overriding culture is to avoid failure at all costs rather than chasing the next big idea.

Whilst this short-term risk aversion will feel safer and more comfortable, it has the effect of storing up problems for the future, as services become stagnant, and threatens long-term sustainability.

We can learn a lot from the traditional design and manufacturing sector. An excellent article in the RSA Journal by John Mathers of the Design Council talked about how design principles are extending beyond the “traditional categories” that we normally associate with design (e.g. car or furniture design).

The concept of prototyping has long been a part of traditional design and manufacture and is a key tool of the entrepreneur. Can you imagine Dyson drawing up the plans for a new product and then going straight into large scale production in the hope that there will be no faults or adjustments needed? Of course not – yet that is what we do with public services all the time. The system simply isn’t designed for the prototyping that has become the norm in the private sector.

I can think of quite a few large scale government programmes (most involving spending years putting into place an expensive IT system) that would have benefited from the key prototyping principle of “failing early and cheaply”. Trying it out on a micro scale first will show up any fundamental issues which can be addressed before wider testing.

You may say “surely the public sector pilots things all the time?” That is true – but these pilots are usually on a large scale, usually more normative (based on theory) than empirical (based on collecting facts) and often end up taking as long as a full scale roll out would take anyway. By the time it’s rolled out and any lessons are learned, the variables have often completely changed. As such, piloting is rarely of any benefit to the design process.

This approach contributes to the feeling that those who devise public service are too distant from the public. It’s critical that service users and indeed the staff who deliver services are much more closely involved in the development process. The first step in the entrepreneurial process is to come up with the ideas in the first place and front line staff and service users are an often untapped resource.

We have worked with a wide range of public services to help them support staff and service users to play a full role in the development and testing of new ideas. Key areas to consider when devising a new approach are: strategic & ethical fit, customers (who will pay?), resources required to develop and run the service, charging model (e.g. block contract or spot purchase etc.), market accessibility and competition, routes to market and service growth potential. If there are good responses on these areas then the next step could be to prototype. This approach is possible to implement within the public sector – but many will only consider it after moving to a more independent model such as a public service mutual.

There is little doubt in our minds that we need to employ proper design principles and approaches to the development and maintenance of public services. Only by embedding a culture of experimenting efficiently, learning from any failures/issues and then moving forward swiftly with an improved idea, will we ensure our public services are sustainable.


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