The following interview was done by Diseño Público to Benjamin Brown, Policy Adviser at the Design Council, who works with the UK government to explore how design can support sustainable economic growth and create better public services to improve people’s lives. He also contributes to the Design for Europe platform.
Previously he worked at Social Enterprise UK, working on policy across social innovation and ethical business, as well as managed their research programme. Before that he worked at the BBC and spent four years doing policy at Arts Council England, including co-writing their 10-year strategy.
Its Spanish translation can be found here.
“The public sector has always used design to some extent, because they have to shape services and, of course, design spaces, infrastructure, architecture and so forth.”
How did Design Council end up working in the public sector?
Design Council has been around for 70 years, since 1944, and it was set up with a very specific private sector focus. Over those 70 years, the role of design has changed quite drastically however, as the use of design has expanded to different territories. The application of design for public sector outcomes was a natural evolution of design, and Design Council has just responded to that.
The public sector has always used design to some extent, because they have to shape services and, of course, design spaces, infrastructure, architecture and so forth. So the discipline has been around much longer than the idea of “service design” in public services, and there has always been an element of design in public services outcomes – it’s just not been explicit, which means a lot of it is bad design. What we are seen now is a much more deliberate focus on user experience and design disciplines as a way of reshaping the entire system of public service delivery.
What do you think is the role of design in the public sector?
Fundamentally you can’t avoid design in the public sector; you can’t escape the need to make design decisions. The crucial thing is to get good design rather than bad design. Certainly in the UK, historically speaking, we’ve created a public sector (at both local and central level) that has been essentially bureaucratic, been paper pushing. Whereas the reality is they are still designing services, but without the necessary skills or frameworks.
The most important thing is that the public sector creates services around users’ needs rather than the system’s needs. It is such an important thing because it creates better lives for everyone; not just for the people that use that service, but also for public workers, and communities that benefit from its existence, even if they don’t use it. There’s also a huge potential to save money as well because by designing services that meet users’ needs you stop paying for the elements that the users don’t need, and you can design away inefficiencies and redundancies.
“Why can’t the government design as well as Apple? Our argument is that they can.”
When you think about how design operates in the private sector to bring to life such beautiful usable products, you have to ask why isn’t this the case for the things that we rely the most – for public services such as healthcare, welfare, etc.? Why can’t the government design as well as Apple? Our argument is that they can.
Could you recall a successful case where design has impact the public sector?
One of my favourite examples is a project that Design Council led on last year, which aimed to reduce violence and aggression in Accident and Emergency (A&E) departments in hospitals, which is a big problem in the UK. The case can be found in the following link.
The most important step, which was counter intuitive for some, was realising that you don’t get aggression in these places because aggressive people go there, but that aggression is born of people’s frustration with the service, and can be designed away.
When one goes into A&E, it can be an incredible alienating and frightening experience; it is usually quite disempowering, because people don’t know what they are supposed to do next, how they are going to be there, when they’ll be treated, etc. People lash out, in that situation.
“Ideas that improve lives and save money don’t come around very often.”
We lead a project that used design to try to solve this issue. By improving the user experience through better service design – even simple things like better signage – we were able to decrease instances of violence and aggression in some cases as much as 50%, which is an amazing reduction in such a short time. It’s a great achievement, not just in making people’s lives better – both patients and doctors – but also it saves a lot of taxpayers’ money too, through staff taking less sick days and so forth. Ideas that improve lives and save money don’t come around very often.
What are your suggestions for South America to promote this way of thinking and working in the public sector?
The reality is that this kind of initiative needs high level support from the very top. It’s very difficult to achieve otherwise, and probably even more so in countries that are quite centralised in terms of the power, like many South American countries. Local governments and people in charge of service delivery are naturally risk averse – so getting them to adopt this creative, risky approach is often too challenging without top down support.
“Let’s not forget that this is a relatively new discipline that it is not well understood by many people that are at senior levels inside the public sector.”
There are some opportunities for users to do this themselves, to do this bottom-up, inside the institutions, and that’s always very exciting. That’s a whole conversation in itself. But the cold reality is that these projects are much more successful when it has senior leaders buying into the idea.
With that in mind, one of the most useful things to do right now is just basic awareness raising. Let’s not forget that this is a relatively new discipline that it is not well understood by many people that are at senior levels inside the public sector. Certainly very few, if any of them will have studied design. They might have studied politics or economics or business, but they are very unlikely to have studied or even be aware of service design.
We are not yet at the point where this type of work has been mainstreamed or systematized or even well discussed in academia. It’s still early days, and we need to find ways to scale this type of work up.