Thursday, June 12, 2014

Modelling Public Sector Reform

As the external consultant to European House of Design Management (EHDM) EU project’s Partner Consortium, I had the opportunity to speak at the beginning of May in Copenhagen about design’s journey towards public sector relevance. Invited by EHDM conference organiser Steinar Valade-Amland of Three Point Zero and Dorrit Bøilerehauge, CEO of Danish Designers (before it merged into Design Denmark in April), I was able to build on a shorter presentation I gave in Tallinn in 2013 at one of the EHDM’s four, public sector insight workshops organised in different European countries for specific public sector disciplines.

The European project is one of six receiving funding from the EU Commission under the European Design Innovation Initiative supported by the Commission’s Design Action Plan.

In any case, the Copenhagen conference was most successful with great presentations by Christian Bason of MindLab and others finding ways to bring design methods and approaches to the public sector. The premise of the EHDM project, is that in embracing design – or at least exploring its potential - the public sector could benefit from lessons learned and knowledge gained in the private sector.

The private sector already has established methods and processes and some simple tools for understanding a commercial company’s relationship to design. One of these is the Danish Design ladder which, over time, has been supplemented by the Design Management Staircase. In its report on design and the public Sector (Design for Public Good), the Design Council also published a design ladder for the public sector.

These simplified ‘mental models’ are very helpful and I felt that a more generic ‘ladder’, (none of them, by the way, look at all like ladders), that could reveal a journey from material to the intangible and from ‘no design sensibility’ or process, to embedded day-to-day behaviour and practice, might be interesting.

Trying to use very simple language that people who have neither interest nor expertise in design, (but who do have language for business or organisational change), I felt that the following distinctions might be helpful:

Design as ‘objects’ : beautiful, functional, commercial
Design as ‘services’ : user-centred, efficient, cost effective
Design as ‘systems’ : holistic, interconnected, synergetic
Design as ‘strategy’ : embedded behaviour and practice

Building on the previous ladders stemming from the Danish Design Ladder, this led to the following diagram:

The Danish Design Ladder is a deceptively simple and powerful tool. But is it enough nowadays to represent this construct as a ‘single-pathway’, upward journey? Is that not limiting? Is it not counter-intuitive, given that we seek to map a fundamental behavioural change in the culture of businesses and organisations? What if we were to say, that rather than going up, we were instead to indicate depth by going downwards, with design embedded as a fundamental aspect of a culture? We need to go to the basement where the foundations are, not climb to the roof.

That thought produced this diagram:

Needless to say, this diagram also falls into the trap of predicating a linear construct which is not perhaps the best way to reveal interconnected states that can be achieved or aspired to, especially as these can exist in parallel with blurred boundaries and overlap.

The design of objects, services and systems remains, and will remain, interconnected and vital to society. But perhaps now, as we look ahead, the most important design journey - the journey with the most potential - will be a deeper engagement of design with the domain of behaviour change. That is, in understanding where individuals are in their specific situations and contexts and supporting them in organisations, local authorities, municipalities to take a journey - to becoming aware of what design has to offer, experiencing its process and benefits, promulgating it and hopefully embedding in day-today behaviour and practice. As well, I should say, as becoming more open to using professional designers and design strategists.

However, like taking horses to water (not to mention lightbulbs and psychologists*), for change to happen, people need to want to change. This is where the most need lies and it is why the EHDM’s tool to support the integration of design-based approaches into public sector organisations across Europe will be a useful resource when it launches in the first half of next year. It will help people feel the benefits of design as a complementary approach, supporting them in meeting the objectives of their daily work.

As design moves towards public sector relevance, the most intriguing aspect of the evolution unfolding before our eyes, is the shift of perception about where the drivers of change can lie and what methods are available to create the change that is needed. In particular, for the public sector, (and with especial regard to public sector reform), where design is not currently a known, never mind recognised, companion.

We are already seeing many small examples of changes in perception and practice of design’s role as an enabler of change in the public sector. I believe this trickle of emerging behaviour will grow exponentially across the next five years. Simple, visualised models that speak to decision makers without literacy in design approaches and process can be helpful tools in supporting change.

Nevertheless, I am still left with the feeling that we now need to get beyond the construct of ‘ladders’. We are not rescuing cats from trees nor painting the ceiling. The journey is more sophisticated and iterative than that. Bertrand Russell wrote about civilisation as ‘some kind of struggling emergence of mind’. Perhaps we are witnessing the struggling emergence of the design mind on a broader scale than ever before. How exciting is that.
But for now, back to the drawing board.

*Q: How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Only one. But the lightbulb has to want to change.

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