January 20, 2013

Reflections on design thinking for government: empowering policy makers and stakeholders


Yesterday I came across a post on The World Bank's blog, "Design Thinking for Government Services: What happens when the past limits our vision of the future?" Given that I'm in the process of writing a report on the role that human centered design can play in government, that too for a developed nation, I'd like to take this timely opportunity to deconstruct the concept and reflect upon it further.

There have been numerous ways that design thinking has been explained to the general public in the past decade or so since the phrase gained notoriety. The most common understanding is that as introduced by the author of the blogpost linked to above:
We can either: (a) use statistics, trends, quantitative surveys, and historical data to produce reliable results; or (b) develop a deep understanding of the basic needs of end users for the specific problem that needs to be tackled and propose a valid solution that would satisfy these needs. The author makes a very good case for validity, which is usually forgotten by companies that prefer reliable results that keep most companies’ top executives and stock analysts at ease.

This call for a change on how to tackle innovation has originally been directed to businesses, and takes the concept of design thinking (that is, borrowing the thinking process of designers) to services and companies in general. However, I believe it should also be applied to governments, more specifically on how governments should take advantage of ICTs to improve service provision internally (within government entities) and to citizens.
[...]
So what is design thinking for governments anyway? It is not that much different than its private sector equivalent. It is about going back to the basics. And I mean the basics, trying to understand what citizens need from their governments (yes, that far back) and then answering the question: how could governments (hopefully, leveraging the new set of technologies and devices that exist today – and their spread among the general population) be able to satisfy these needs? Then, it is all about building prototypes, testing, trial and error, and of course a good set of evaluation and feedback mechanisms
While the author has indeed noted in the footnotes that the design process has been simplified, imho the situation as framed is not as simple as that. I'd like to take a step even further back into the basics and look upon the system holistically in order to frame my own thinking on this topic.


Jay Doblin first introduced the concept of separating the act of design (giving tangible form) from the planning of design (what, how, when, why) in his seminal paper "A short, grandiose theory of design". In seven pages, Doblin presents a straightforward and persuasive argument for design as a systematic process. He described the emerging landscape of systematic design so:
  •  For large complex projects, it "would be irresponsible to attempt them without analytical methods" and rallied against an "adolescent reliance on overly intuitive practices." 
  • He separated "direct design" in which a craftsperson works on the artifact to "indirect design" in which a design first creates a representation of the artifact, separating design from production in more complex situations.
Doblin and others were responding to the increased specialization of design and the complexity of managing large design programs for corporations. It was a natural process to begin to discuss how design should move upstream to be involved with the specifications of problems, not only in the traditional mode of production which design had been practiced. 
Government is by virtue of its nature a large and complex system. To leap forward into the intuitive, empathetic mind state of a human centered designer without a rigorous methodology for analysis, synthesis and subsequent planning would be far riskier indeed than to offer stakeholders the tools to empower their decision making for more impactful outcomes.

Going back to Roger Martin's words quoted by The World Bank author, develop a deep understanding of the basic needs of end users for the specific problem that needs to be tackled and propose a valid solution that would satisfy these needs, the critical part missing in this proposed embedding of design thinking is the answer to the question How to tackle and propose a valid solution? 

And it is this How? that the steps undertaken prior to the design and development of a solution can offer the tools to answer, for they begin first by attempting to understand the complexity of the situation in order to identify and frame the problem to be solved by the design processes and methods.

Until then, the concept as currently articulated will remain the purview of professional designers applying their approach to problem solving on the behalf of governments and international institutions such as The World Bank. That may fit in within the author's articulation of "borrowing" the thinking but in real world terms, the steps of the process are not within any government's ability to execute. They are not Nokia, to quote on of our interviewees, able to field a team of user researchers each time they seek to craft a programme for end-users (citizens).

What government actually needs is a set of tools that empower policy makers, advisors and planners to identify the correct problems where intervention is required and then to craft programmes that meet these needs. This aligns the intent with the actions undertaken and thus improves the impact of the outcomes. 

In the jargon of business and design, that could be said to be improving the success rate of an innovative product or a service in the market by lowering the barriers to adoption by the end users by offering them a clearly realized value or meeting an unmet need.

And, that is the fundamental premise of the human centered design approach to solution development.

4 comments:

  1. That WB blog post that you quote sets them on a path to making more out of design thinking, by way of setting up design labs or innovation funds. Do you know how far the World Bank has come till now?

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  2. How can we demonstrate the value of design? In the recent article in The Guardian on design thinking for public services one of the great barriers is that the design process does not provide any space for explorative problem searching exercises. The Design Council's research asks for evidence of application of the design process, and thereby hopes to make the case for a more systemic adoption of design thinking. This is a smart approach. The design process can only prove its worth through demonstration and actual real lief results. I'm keen to learn what kind of cases their report will show. They're only just closing their submission deadline for cases. Analysis is yet to follow.
    Just a thought to affirm that we're on the right timing and track

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