Design and public sector innovation – sharing perspectives from different countries

[Originally published on Australian Government DesignGov under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

Recently Jane Treadwell and I were invited by the United Nations Development Programme’s Global Centre for Public Service Excellence to participate in a “Consultation on the Co-Design of Public Policy and Services”.

It was a gathering of people from a wide range of countries and different organisational settings, talking about improving public services. It was a fascinating discussion and I found it very enlightening. The following is my attempt to capture some of the key aspects of this very rich dialogue.

Social Innovation Camp Asia

The event (for us) kicked off on the afternoon of Sunday the 1st of December with our attendance at the final “show and tell” session of the Social Innovation Camp Asia Regional Summit.

Over the previous two days, teams from different countries in the region had been refining some great ideas about how to fix all sorts of problems. We go to hear about ideas ranging from:

  • Aidnesia – an app to help ensure aid is best distributed in emergency situations
  • Desa doso – a platform for helping boost tourism to rural villages
  • CrowdCities – a means to empower citizens to undertake community development and improvement projects
  • Dr Care – an app that helps patients keep track of healthcare appointments and prescriptions
  • Snap ‘n Bite – an app to track the salt, sugar and fat content of people’s diets.

You can read all about these ideas and more. There was some fantastic creativity and some excellent presentations about ideas that could make a real difference to people’s lives, in all sorts of ways. It was a good scene setter for the next two days because it reinforced that innovation and design aren’t abstract concepts, they are tools that can make a big impact, and the role of government is as a partner or enabler, not controller.

The workshop

The first day of the formal proceedings of the consultation was begun by Max Everest-Phillips, Director of the Centre for Public Service Excellence. Max used Homer’s The Iliad to reflect that design is an idea with a long history and to ask what is new and different about design thinking and social innovation. Max set out three important questions for the group (made up of people from innovation labs, other public servants, and innovation consultants):

  • What practical results can we offer?
  • How legitimate is the process?
  • How do we prove that these approaches really make any difference?

Following this thought provoking start there was a panel discussion involving DesignGov CEO Jane Treadwell, Kit Lykketoft from MindLab, and Leon Voon from the Human Experience Lab of Singapore. The discussion was about the case for design thinking and innovation in the public service. Some of the many points raised included:

  • The current ways aren’t working or delivering satisfactorily
  • We are currently making solutions that are fitted for the system, rather than systems that fit the citizen
  • Design thinking is not new, but there is a new awareness that we should be systematic about it and that we should test our assumptions and solutions before rolling them out
  • Common sense is not common practice – in doing their jobs, public servants can lose sense of what the citizen wants/needs
  • Design thinking can help focus efforts on what is really needed and what works
  • In a perfect world public services might not need innovation/design labs, they would have all of the needed skills within their existing organisations. But that isn’t how things are now, and so labs are needed
  • None of this practice is rocket science, it is a matter of speaking with citizens and recognising their experiences – empathy and discovering meaning behind the ‘evidence’ distinguishes design from other problem-solving techniques
  • Design adds value because it helps answer the ‘why’, not just the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ that the public service usually concentrates on
  • You should start with where there is trust, energy and enthusiasm.

Next was a presentation from Simon Tucker of SCOPE Group about his draft policy note on social innovation, and one from Lorenzo Allio of allio|rodrigo Consulting on his draft policy note on design thinking. I won’t go into too much detail as I will link to the policy notes when they are finalised, but some points worth noting in particular:

  • Simon identified that social innovation should be seen as a movement rather than a specific methodology
  • In the face of big challenges that we will not address through small tweaks, we need to let go of the idea that public strategies can or should be entirely coherent. We need to try lots of different things at once to find what works
  • Social innovation represents moving from hierarchy to collaboration. Social innovators can be from anywhere, but tend to be on the margins and those that span boundaries (rather than perhaps those safely ensconced in the centres of the public service)
  • Social innovation is redefining the relationship between citizens and the state
  • Social innovation involves design thinking, but also systems thinking and entrepreneurial action
  • Social innovation requires an ecosystem, it cannot happen in isolation
  • We have to be careful that we don’t ask for more evidence about how new things perform than we do for things that already exist – it can be easy to ask for a higher standard of proof for an innovation than for what it might replace
  • Innovations will always start out as flawed – you have to give them time to develop
  • Design thinking is about putting end users at the centre
  • Design helps link creativity and innovation
  • Design assumes a propensity to accept/be accepting of uncertainty (and failure)
  • Design works especially well in defining the problem.

In the discussion following these presentations there was strong  agreement about the need for the public sector to start talking about/sharing failures. It was also noted that it was important to make a distinction between known risk and uncertainty/unknown risks. And it was recognised that social innovation does not always involve co-creation or co-design.

In the afternoon Jane and I participated as part of an expert practitioner session which shared examples and insights about the direction of social/public sector innovation and design. It included a stimulating discussion about the balance between the individual as entrepreneur and the process/systems/models/context. Both sides need to be considered, without too much focus on the one. The discussion also highlighted that design thinking is a process and a mindset whereas social innovation is more a set of values.

Simultaneous with the practitioner session there was a familiarisation session run for those with less experience in design. At the shared report-back session the participants for that session made some great points, including:

  • However smart you think you are or whatever your position, you need to test what you are doing at each stage before you roll it out into people’s lives. Design thinking is a good reminder of this
  • Design is about team work and bringing different ideas together
  • We (public servants) have to be accountable for public monies – prototyping and fast failure can help reduce potential future costs. You are using resources to fail temporarily in order to succeed longer term.

The overall summary from these sessions was that to make innovation and design work, you need to have:

  • The right language
  • The right platforms for collaboration
  • The right skills
  • The right rigour to make sure it works
  • The right players involved
  • The right toolkits
  • Shared intent.

The next day involved looking at the state of play in some of the participating countries – Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, Moldova and India. It was fascinating to hear about what was being done in each. I won’ t be able to do justice with a summary of each so I will not attempt to reflect it here.

The two days also involved some other quick presentations, including from the Kafka Brigade and MindLab, as well as some great examples shared from our Singapore hosts.


It was very interesting to consider that despite the different geographic, institutional and cultural contexts there was a lot in common. The underlying issues in our home settings seemed to be the same:

  • Risk aversion and discomfort with uncertainty
  • The challenges being faced require new approaches but the acceptance of those new approaches does not come easily
  • Prototyping and design are powerful, but it takes work to translate them into the public sector context.

It was also apparent that design and innovation are needed strategies, but that countries are still finding their way as to how to best embrace them.

Jane and I would like to give a big thanks to the UNDP team for their efforts in organising this event (and for covering our travel). Working in DesignGov has allowed me to more fully appreciate the difficulties of working across government departments and dealing with important but intangible/abstract elements of complex systems. I can only imagine the next level of abstraction that occurs when doing such work across countries. I’m not sure that we got to definitive answers for all of Max’s questions, but this was a great discussion for helping us edge closer to some answers.

I look forward to seeing what innovations will come from the other countries that were represented there. It was promising to see the potential, the appetite and the enthusiasm and to know that it will result in some big things.

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