More, better, faster: the potential of service design to transform public services

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For government at all levels – national, regional and local – the year ahead promises even greater challenges.  The need to provide more, better and faster services, using fewer resources, while responding to unprecedented levels of technological, demographic, and social change is greater than ever.

Increasingly, public sector organisations are taking an interest in the concept of service design as a means of responding to these challenges and developing better public services.

In this blog post, we provide an overview of service design and consider how it can contribute to public service innovation.

What is ‘service design’? 

Initially a private sector concept, ‘service design’ is an innovative approach that has successfully been applied to the public sector in order to ‘do more with less’.

The Service Design Network defines it as:

“the activity of planning and organising people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers”

Some of service design’s key principles include:

  • the creation of services that are useful, useable, desirable, efficient, and effective;
  • the use of a human-centred approach that focuses on customer experience and the quality of the service encounter;
  •  the use of a holistic approach that considers in an integrated way strategic, system, process, and ‘touch-point’ (customer interaction) design decisions;
  • an implicit assumption of co-crafting services with users (e.g. co-production).

Approaching service design in this manner has a number of advantages, including improved knowledge of user requirements, lower development costs, improved service experience, and improved user satisfaction.

Indeed, in 2012, the UK Design Council has estimated that for every £1 invested in the design of innovative services, their public sector clients have achieved more than £26 of social return.

Service design in the public sector

How should service design be applied within the public sector?

A report by the Service Design Network, drawing on research by public service designers around the world, identified five areas of the public sector that are particularly relevant for service design:

  • policy making
  • cultural and organisational change
  • training and capacity building
  • citizen engagement
  • digitisation

The report presents a number of examples of the successful application of service design in the public sector.  Two such examples are highlighted below.

Case study: Transforming mental health services in Lambeth

The London borough of Lambeth was under pressure to cut mental health budgets by more than 20%, at the same time as experiencing double the average rate of prevalence of mental health issues in England. In response, it employed a service design approach to transform its model of care for people suffering mental health problems.

The transformation was achieved over several years. Lambeth incorporated the use of service design by introducing a social networking site called Connect&Do, employing in-house service designers and prototyping new services through a multi-agency hub for community-based wellbeing.

These have all contributed to making Lambeth an award-winning pioneer in participation and innovative, collaborative commissioning.

Case study: Transforming services for vulnerable people in Brent

Brent Council worked with a design partner to support the review of three areas: employment support and welfare reform; housing for vulnerable people; and regeneration.

The council also wanted to strengthen its internal capacity by developing an innovation hub and training a cohort of managers and officers in service design methods.

Three reviews were conducted in parallel by a multidisciplinary team of designers, researchers and managers. They conducted extensive research, including ethnographic interviews, observations, focus groups, pop-up community events, expert interviews, data analysis and visualisation. At key points, the teams came together to share insights and critique each other’s work as they progressed from research into idea-generation and prototyping.

The new innovation hub aimed to build staff capability, hold idea-generation events and provide an accepting environment for rule-breaking experimentation. It also included leadership development for innovation through specialist guidance of the senior management team.

Thinking outside the box

Service design encourages people to get alternative perspectives and develop creative solutions that go beyond their usual comfort zones. By doing so, it has the potential to positively transform public sector service delivery and improve efficiency. In effect, service design is all about viewing things from a different angle, which – as Albert Einstein observed – can often open up new possibilities:

“The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them”


If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our previous blog on service design.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

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