Three Reasons Design Matters

Posted by Public Policy Lab

Not long ago, the idea of using design to improve public services was virtually unknown. Even today, there’s limited public understanding of how designers and policymakers can work together to better services.

That’s why we were so excited to read “What does it mean to design public services?”, a piece by Philip Colligan, executive director of Nesta’s public services lab, on the Guardian Professional Public Leaders Network. It’s a concise and very helpful guide to three important lessons about the design/policy relationship.

First, he says, “there is no such thing as neutral design… the way that public services are organized inevitably influences the outcomes they achieve.” Policymakers who want good results need methodologies that help them consciously shape how services are designed and delivered.

Second, Colligan points out that good design, in a public-service context, must start with the day-to-day experiences of service users, both citizens and front-line providers. The problem is that information about personal user experiences, and analysis of what it means in terms of creating a better service, isn’t something typically that accessible to policymakers. By engaging in a service-design process, however, public leaders can work with specialists in collecting and interpreting user needs.

Colligan’s final lesson is that “innovation comes from deliberate and planned processes” — and those processes typically involve “trying lots of things, failing quickly at low cost, iterating and learning.” This innovation methodology is widely accepted in technical, manufacturing, and (yes) design professions, but hasn’t yet been fully embraced in public-policy circles. But, he concludes, “it’s possible for public servants to learn those techniques and that has got to be a priority for any organization trying to find innovative solutions to big social challenges.”

We concur! That’s our mission here at the Public Policy Lab — to help public agencies get access to designers and technical assistance that will help them create great services. See more of Nesta’s similarly motivated work on public-service design in the U.K.