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Service Design in Government 2021: Conference themes and highlights

Service Design in Government (SD in Gov) is a two-day annual conference bringing together service design experts, practitioners and enthusiasts to share their work and thinking.


In the UX and Digital Consultancy team, we have applied service design principles (in projects like Learn Foundations), and recognise its value in making the University’s digital services as good as they can be.

A service design approach to Learn Foundations (blog by Duncan Stephen)

SD in Gov 2021 was an opportunity to broaden my knowledge of service design. I was interested to learn more about its scope and potential, discover examples of how to apply it and pick up some practical tools and techniques from people in the public sector. I attended as much as I could of the two-day programme, which included more than 30 case studies, workshops and talks, and have summarised some of the themes and highlights.

SD in Gov programme

Inspiring keynotes: KA McKercher and Cyd Harrell

Two keynote talks stood out – not only because they were about pioneering, innovative pieces of service design work, but also because the concepts they covered  – like applying service design to achieve long term change, design ethics and co-design – resonated throughout the conference.

Moving towards co-design

KA McKercher’s talk ‘From designing for, to designing with: lessons from Australasia’ was a thought-provoking session which encouraged looking at the social movement of design to re-imagine universal design practices and tools. Comparing conventions of human-centred design with co-design counterparts it became clear how ‘partners’ could be preferable to ‘participants’, how ‘supporting’ could develop better services than ‘leading’ and how those with lived experience were more fitting experts than design professionals. Acknowledging the challenges of shifting towards co-design, KA ran an engaging group activity centred around a game of snakes and ladders to encourage us to think about proponents and hindrances to implementing co-design.

Further reading: Beyond Sticky Notes: What is co-design? – KA McKercher’s website

Game design concepts applied to improve services in the California courts

In her keynote, ‘From service to infrastructure’, Cyd Harrell described her work with the California court system which aimed to improve access to justice by digital means and to make the court system easier to use for those without legal representation. She explained how ethnographic research had shown that people frequently didn’t know where they were in the court process which prevented them from completing actions required of them, leading to delays and other problems. Service mapping played an important role in helping to uncover the steps in the process, but more was needed to address the wider issue of lack of understanding.

Drawing on concepts from game design (cited from an article by Stephen P. Anderson), Cyd described how the court process was re-imagined as a series of ‘arcs’ and ‘loops’ which played out in a ‘terrain’. The arcs and loops (representing actions and responses) had been designed to work together to deliver the service, but how effectively this happened depended on the underlying ‘terrain’ (the infrastructure of the courts) which had been built and shaped by ‘institutional memory’ – in other words – events and occurrences from years before. When it came to making the process tangible for the non-legally minded, it was important to make the ‘terrain’ in which the process occurred more accessible to all. Language was a key focus – in particular re-thinking what it meant to be linguistically accurate. Legal professionals were versed in comprehensive and precise terminology, but use of complex legal terms risked alienating people without legal representation. By shifting to using plainer language, a more universal understanding was achieved – for the benefit of all concerned. This shift was an example of changes in one level of a system impacting other layers – a strategic use of service design referred to as ‘pace layering’.

Further reading:

When Customer Journeys Don’t Work: Arcs, Loops, & Terrain (Blog by Stephen P. Anderson on Medium, 2021)

Pace Layering: How Complex Systems Learn and Keep Learning (Article by Stewart Brand, 2018)

Strategic applications of service design

Several sessions picked up the theme of applying service design in a strategic context, outside of the realm of specific products and services.

Long loop learning for longer term service design

Elizabeth Ayer from 18F (part of the US Federal Government’s Technology Transformation Services), gave a talk advocating for ‘long loop learning’ in service design. Recognising the relationship between changes made to services (outputs), results stakeholders care about (outcomes) and longer term effects (impacts), she introduced feedback loops, proxy metrics and laddered bets as ways to help make decisions about services in the short term to set them up for longer term success.

Feedback loops were defined as ‘systems where an output is an input for future behaviour’. Applied to services, Elizabeth described feedback loops as ‘all the things that happen between making a decision and using the result of that decision to make a new decision’. It was clear to understand how for some services, only iterating within feedback loops could result in services quickly becoming outdated, especially if the service was one where the ‘result of a decision’ – in other words, the impact of a change on end users – may not be seen for years. In these situations, proxy metrics indicative of service impact could be used to make informed assumptions in a series (laddered bets) to guide decisions about iterating the service. When choosing proxy metrics – recognising that over time, a service may be shaped and designed by many different teams and individuals within an organisation – it was important to ensure these had longevity, were clearly relevant and were easily and accurately measurable by all.

Further reading: Seventh Generation Thinking – A Replacement for SWOT (Blog by Dr Kathleen Allen, 2018)

Ecosystem to enable service design

Malcolm Beattie from the Innovation Lab of the Northern Ireland Executive spoke of the challenges driving innovative change in public services within highly-structured, bureaucratic systems with what seemed like an ‘immune response’ to change.

Linking concepts from service design, systems thinking and behavioural science, he outlined different types of elements which could affect the achievement of an ‘enabling ecosystem’ within a public sector institution. These included factors specific to the institution (financial, organisational and operational) but also wider political and societal influences – such as the whether the public understood and supported reasons behind changes. ‘Personal’ was another important type of factor underpinning attainment of an enabling ecosystem. Malcolm highlighted traits like staying power to champion change through design practices, ambition to be a ‘public entrepreneur’, and ability to recognise and counter cognitive biases as being crucial to build a culture of innovation within public services.

Further reading:  Beyond ideas – Enabling a culture of innovation for improved public services (September 2019) (Northern Ireland Executive)

Adapting service design tools to apply strategically

In ‘Pivoting into strategic design: how to see the cascading impacts of service design on organisational strategy’, Howard Tam and Nate Gerber from the ThinkFresh Group, and Ankita Verma from the City of Toronto described how service design tools were applied at an enterprise level, wider than the scope of the ‘experience domain’. In a project originally intended to build a digital portal for planning applications, user research indicated that technology alone would not solve the problems identified. Service design tools were used to reveal the interdependencies, uncertainties and evolution opportunities underpinning organisational change.

A mapping tool encompassing the wider ecosystem (‘holomap’) was used to identify linkages between the organisation, customers, suppliers, and the wider market. A service canvas was used to show service value flow and dynamics, and the ways different parts of the organisation depended on each other. Details of situational uncertainties in parts of the service were captured using a SCAN (Simple, Complicated, Ambiguous and Not-known) model – and having sight of these risks helped make reasoned decisions. Bringing everything together to highlight how the service could evolve, a Wardley map was used, plotting customer need and service composition against the direction of the relevant market.

Further reading: Learn Wardley mapping web resource

Changing perceptions of service design

Applying service design strategically meant that stakeholders previously unfamiliar with service design became acquainted with it and saw its potential. Communicating about service design and educating others about the usefulness of its processes and frameworks was another theme of SD in GOV 2021, with various talks about endorsing service design thinking in new fields.

Communicating design in the public sector

In a talk ‘Lessons for communicating design in the public sector’, Angela Fernandez Orviz described her doctoral research working with different public sector professionals across various projects to understand what affected their adoption of design methodologies and frameworks. In each project, public sector professionals worked with design communicators, who educated and guided them in the design process. The research assessed the impacts of this design communication by examining the public professionals’ changing perceptions and understanding of design through stages in the projects, from initial awareness to conceptual exploration, practical application and ultimate adoption.

At the ‘initial awareness’ stage, the research showed while it was common for designers to feel they came into projects too late, the public sector professionals perceived designers would contribute in later stages. They expected designers to take away information and come back with solutions. At the ‘conceptual exploration’ stage design communicators worked with the public sector professionals to assess design strategies and methods to use in the project. Public sector professionals were most likely to engage in this stage if they could make sense of the strategies and methods available by comparing with other trusted methods in their field, and if there were examples to showcase design’s value relevant to the specific context. When it came to practising design, and particularly applying design discovery techniques, the research revealed public sector professionals tended to feel this was a ‘step backwards’, to be frustrated that a solution was not being reached quickly, and to be sceptical about stakeholders and designers being able to work in close complex collaboration.

Overall, the research highlighted some challenges for achieving successful adoption of design methodologies and frameworks by public sector professionals. These included: the need to provide robust evidence behind design (going beyond case studies and other evidence considered anecdotal, and away from abstract notions of design’s value), the need for data comparing design methods to other methodologies and the need to identify and record more scenarios and contexts where design thinking could be used.

Viewing policy as a service

Another piece of work advocating for service design thinking was the topic of a talk by Alice Whitehead and Jessica Riley from the UK Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). They described how they had helped a policy-focused central government department to view their work as a service. The aim was to address the question ‘How do policy and services relate to one another?’ by understanding what the department did in terms of real-world outcomes instead of the more traditional policy outputs.

Using service mapping techniques – in particular a grid which mapped different roles of government departments against internal influences and powers – they demonstrated that ‘delivery’ was a key aspect connecting policy to service outcomes. Development of a ‘language of delivery’ followed, to help policy teams understand the chain of events following policy publication, so they could visualise the people the policy was serving (in other words – those receiving the service). This work highlighted how adopting a service-oriented approach had the potential to improve value for money and efficiency, and therefore to revolutionise how government functioned.

Practical tools, tips and techniques

SD in Gov 2021 was a welcome source of advice and guidance about service design methods. Some presenters shared tools and tips  – reflecting on ways they had completed specific pieces of service design work, while others offered in-depth, expert synopses of specific techniques, with best practice guidance.

Design experiments to improve a complex process

Liam Hawkes and Charlotte Moore from the Home Office Policy & Innovation Lab (CoLab) described how they used design experiments to test ideas for improving a complex and lengthy loan application process. Having mapped out the existing process, the team identified 12 types of problem associated with it, and ran ideation workshops with stakeholders to generate a shortlist of ideas that could make the system better. Design experiments were used to test three of these ideas.

For each idea, preparation for the design experiment began by stating the problem it addressed. Next, the riskiest assumption associated with the idea was identified – this was what would be tested in the experiment. A key next step was to identify what a ‘minimal viable experiment’ would be – in other words, to define the simplest artefact that could be used to run a test to affirm if the assumption was correct or not, and to pinpoint what parameter could be measured to provide supporting evidence for or against the assumption. With experiments defined for each idea, it was important to structure and sequence the design experiments so that, as far as was possible, each idea was tested independently.

Survey masterclass

In her session ‘How to improve the inevitable survey’, Caroline Jarrett shared concepts and techniques for running accurate, efficient and effective surveys, from her book ‘Surveys that work’.  She began the talk with a definition which framed precisely the goal of a survey:

“The survey is a process for getting answers to questions from (a sample of) people for the purpose of getting numbers that you can use to make decisions.”

Her ‘Survey Octopus’ included eight steps (or octopus ‘legs’) to address when running a survey: goals, sample, questions, questionnaire, fieldwork (invitation and follow up), responses received, responses desired and reports. Acknowledging the challenge of defining survey goals, Caroline offered a helpful series of questions to ask: ‘What do you want to know?’, ‘Why do you want to know?’, ‘What decision will you make based on these answers?’, ‘What number do you need for the decision?’ She also offered tips on creating survey questions such as running cognitive testing and imposing character limits on free text boxes to facilitate easier analysis of responses.

Further reading: Resources for better forms and surveys (Effortmark website)

Concluding thoughts

SD in GOV 2021 provided an excellent introduction to service design and showcased the potential of service design. I felt inspired by the speakers and eager to read more to expand my knowledge in areas like co-design, systems thinking and pace-layering. I was able to draw parallels with UX and content design, but also to see how a consideration of service design can complement and enhance UX and content design practices.

Going forward, I am excited to look for opportunities to apply what I have learned, and especially to use service design principles, methodologies and techniques in the context of the Web Publishing Platform and Design System projects, as we make the transition from project to service delivery.

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