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The fix? Improving public services through design thinking

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

Sneh Jani argues that public service providers need to embrace ‘design thinking’ to improve experiences, outcomes and make services more efficient.

Traditional approaches to designing services have failed to achieve the step-change in outcomes demanded by the public. Taking a more radical approach to design, borrowing from the creative industry’s fascination with ‘user experience’, could pay dividends across the public sector.

Last month BBC Radio 4 broadcast a new series called The Fix. The purpose of the series was to tackle a number of intractable social issues, such as reducing reoffending, by bringing together twelve of the country’s brightest creative minds with people with first-hand ‘lived experience’ of the issues.

At the beginning of the day, the group discussed how they would spend the £46 grant given to ex-prisoners on their release. Most of the participants thought that the best way to spend the budget was to buy a mobile phone. This was critiqued by an ex-offender as failing to acknowledge how far away offenders can often be imprisoned from their hometown and therefore the importance of the grant for travel.

This illustrates the chasm that often exists between how services are designed and the reality of the first-hand service user requirements.

So, how can design thinking help? Design agency IDEO describe it as ‘a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success’.

Participants of a workout class run by The Hard Yard, a fitness brand employing ex-prisoners to design and lead tough bodyweight workouts across London

New social enterprises are demonstrating the importance of design thinking in public services. The Hard Yard is a fitness organisation that employs ex-prisoners to design and lead tough bodyweight workouts across London. The founder Frankie Bennett was inspired to build the brand from insight gained when mentoring offenders while she was studying at University: “Many people leave prison in peak physical condition and gain fitness qualifications on the inside. Banged up for hours in a small cell with no equipment, they’ve learned to train relying solely on the power of their own body weight and a focused mind.”

The Hard Yard works in a context where reoffending rates are 59% within 12 months and helps ex-prisoners build a new life using the skills they have gained in prison. The opportunity for ex-offenders to design the curriculum increases their chances of staying committed to the role and not going back through the revolving door of prison.

The public service reform programme to establish regionalised adoption agencies (RAAs) integrates the voice of the adopter throughout the design process. Its aims include creating a system where children are matched with a suitable adopter quickly and creating a pool of ‘adoption ready’ adopters to meet population needs at a regional level. Adopters sit on the Strategic Partnership Board of the RAAs and contribute to their development from the outset. The ACE (Adoption Central England) RAA works with the national charity Adoption UK that has an Adopter Advisory Board. The board serves as a mechanism for the voice of the adopter to be heard and fed into the ongoing design and development of the service.

Designing services to cater for a wide range of users at scale is complex– and a challenge that will only become more difficult as budgets continue to be cut. The insights from design thinking can both improve the experience of public services and make money go further.

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