Service Design in Government Conference 2022

Notes from #SDinGov: let’s not talk about trains eh?

Sam Villis
9 min readOct 6, 2022


This marks my 4th SDinGov conference, the 3rd in person. An overarching theme was isn’t it great to see one another again but also, remember what we all just went through? How hard it was? How weird it was?

This year felt much more diverse in it’s attendance, it felt like there were less central government people there and more from third sector and agencies. I’m not sure if this is right or 100% accurate but it felt nice to see new faces, make new connections, and to catch up with old friends and colleagues.

Day 1:

The ethical use of friction in services — A Homes for Ukraine Case Study, Jess Kyriacou, Georgia Hill and Millie Devereux, Social Finance

I travelled up to Edinburgh to arrive at the conference at about 2.30pm, which meant that I was there in good time to see my colleagues speak about their experiences of delivering a matching service ‘Homes for Ukraine’ which enabled people needing homes to be matched with those willing to provide a home for a refugee for 6 months.

The talk covered three main areas:

  • Designing for safety
  • Designing in the dark, and
  • Designing for change

And reflected on the need to build an urgent service in a short time and with a constantly changing policy context. The use of ‘ethical friction’ was a really interesting one and something we don’t talk about enough I don’t think when it comes to making services equitable and prioritising the needs of one group over the needs of another.

After that I was feeling pretty tired and did not go to another session, instead seeing and chatting with a few people before walking back in the direction of my hotel, losing phone battery, and then eating dinner somewhere warm and dry where I could charge up and work out the rest of my route.

Day 2:

Inclusive design: luxury or must have? Shabira Papain, CEO of Democracy Club

“We make our living on public money, it is a moral imperative that we ensure we are inclusive. Start with the people who are most at risk of being left behind.”

Shabira was not only a really compelling speaker but provided lots of thought, expertise and practical tips which I’m sure inspired many of us to try to do better.

I found it particularly useful to think about the role of ‘community researchers’ people within the community who can be upskilled and supported to do research with people and who can truly understand the language, context and motivations of people in those communities.

Shabira talked about her time in supporting with the Covid tracking app and her understanding of working with communities and health inequalities meant she was able to spot a problem with the approach, design further research and bring about a u-turn on tracking users.

She also gave some practical steps for inclusive practice:

  • Give voice (ask questions, listening, evaluating)
  • Embed understanding (good practice, diversity, action)
  • Show we heard (feed back, explain action, SHOW!)
  • Build agency (listen, act, feed back)
  • Build trust (listen, act, feed back)

I particularly liked the ‘show we heard’ part of this as it’s something I’m increasingly trying to build into my work.

Going beyond planting seeds — practical advice on impacting design maturity, Martha Edwards, Government of British Columbia.

“Maybe all we can do is plant seeds and hope for the best.”

Martha is an ex-colleague of mine and I was so pleased to see her let alone see her up there talking, it made me so proud to see her growth and progress.

Martha was mainly speaking about design maturity in the Government of British Columbia where she now works, but inadvertently told us not just about this, but about the work and perspectives of people tying to make changes and improvements on the ground.

The thing I loved most of all was the pragmatism that flowed through Martha’s talk, how by using the structure “I can’t… but I can…” she was able to throw light on the power we all hold to make small changes, some of which we wont see the outcome of immediately, but that these things add up. It reminded me of the pragmatism of our One Team Gov microactions and how important it is that we continue to remind one another that we do have power to make change.

Martha stands in front of a slide which reads “I cant… But I can…”

Speculative design for product decisions in anti-social behaviour reporting, Bekki Leaver, SocietyWorks

I learned a lot about Anti-social behaviour orders in this short talk by Bekki and a little about her discovery and speculative work to understand if these could be used as a means to oppress the already opressed.

I learned a little about future-casting and how she had used this, and how Headlines from the Future is a good tool to get people thinking and imagining into the future (something I’ve previously observed that people struggle with).

Aside from this I also got to sit with both Amanda and Coco and we had a lot of fun considering the implications of giving a 78 year old woman an asbo for wearing a bikini in her own home (yes this is real, I’ve since googled it so you don’t have to, oh and she was 81).

Reforming design through equity seeking approaches, Soh-yon Park (Institute of Global Health Innovation, Imperial College London) and Claudia Hopkins (Health Designer)

I loved this session by Soh-yon and Claudia, partly because it was absolutely crammed full of useful or interesting practical information (and all presented in a really straightforward and clear way) but also because this talk included a real example of where one of the speakers tried something that didn’t work.

It was a great example of #FailCamp — of getting something wrong, but learning from it, and not only learning but sharing that with others so that we can also do better. I loved it.

Image: my notes from the session showing where different activities should take place in delivery, and how to view these activities on a personal, organisational, and system level.

Soh-yon shared an email she had sent to a community leader and then took us step by step through that leader’s response (a polite no) the response enabled her to see exactly what steps she hadn’t given enough thought to beforehand, which were:

  • Acknowledge and reflect on power and biases
  • Understand context and history
  • Be invited in (to the community)

It was useful to reflect here on how even when we have good intentions we can sometimes fall short of considering the needs and lives of the people we are reaching out to. A call to slow down. To act in a considered and deliberate way. It was so useful.

If you build it, they won’t come: how can psychology of behaviour change shape service design, Katie French and Jude Webb, Department for Education

In this talk Katie and Jude talked about how they were brought in to understand how to increase the uptake of a service that was already live. The service was a set of procurement frameworks that schools could use in order to be able to procure goods and services (schools do this A LOT).

They talked about how as this was already in place they used a combination of COM-B and user research.

They talked about how by using this model in particular that they were able to split user needs from behaviours and understand how to overcome behavioural barriers.

It was a good reminder of how, often, more often than not, service design isn’t based in greenfield but in a space where design decisions have already been made.

Lightning talks, Caroline Jarrett, Effortmark Ltd

This was one of the highlights (IMHO) of this year’s conference.

Caroline platformed 4 other speakers in a series of lightning talks and it was upbeat, energetic and honestly quite emotional for me. it reminded me of Lauren Currie’s Upfront work, particularly how when one of the participants wasn’t sure about speaking (and had never done this before) she supported them to speak by doing this as an interview style conversation. I loved it, I loved it so much. Thank you Caroline.

  1. Catherine Reader, Product Manager at NHS Digital. Her talk was “We never get any complaints about this!”

Catherine spoke about her experiences wit disability and about how using government and other services made her feel when she was unsuccessful, she said:

“When I encountered issues I believed it was a problem with me, not with the service.”

Catherine talked about how she would not have the confidence to come forward and complain about a service or make people aware of her issues. It was a call to action for people to redouble their efforts to understand who they aren’t hearing from and seek them out.

2. Ozzy Anwar, Policy Advisor at MoJ, Interview.

As I mentioned above this was a masterclass in platforming someone who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity or ability (yet) to speak at an event like this.

Ozzy spoke compellingly about his history of being in and out of prison and about the opportunities he has had through being a person with lived experience working in policy delivery.

He spoke about how we can be better at welcoming in this experience, and about what value it adds. It was really great and Ozzy got the biggest round of applause I’ve ever heard at a conference. I hope he continues to thrive.

3. Building Sustainable Communities, Imran Hussain

I love hearing Imran talk about communities because I always learn a lot and also come away with several soundbites that I can steal!

I particularly liked the point above “Communities are an organisational hack” which I will definitely be using more in the next few weeks.

4. Quick consultation, Andrew Knight

Finally Andrew ran a consultation with attendees about a framework for policy design skills. We only had a few minutes to add thoughts and questions to large printouts and it was all a bit rushed, but looking around I saw lots of people participating an I’m sure Andrew came away with a lot of useful info.

Day 3:

Towards the next decade of digital public service reform, Paul Maltby, Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities

I previously worked with Paul so it was interesting to hear his talk here, it covered a lot of examples of work that’s been happening either within DLUHC or in the sector, and even included examples that we funded as part of the Local Digital Fund (shoutout to Local Gov Drupal).

The thing that people seemed to pick up on was Paul’s ‘agile manifesto’ for the future of public service digital reform. While there are some things here that I agree with, others are a little more problematic.

  • Horizontal community building over Broadcasting — YES.
  • Services that enable others to build services over Services for end users- Yes, maybe, I can see this.
  • Machine learning service improvements over Dashboards — Ah, now I’m not so sure.

I’m not advocating for dashboards here (because honestly for the most part dashboards are UGH) but the wording here isn’t necessarily clear and there is the possibility that this places the emphasis on efficiency rather than insight to improve outcomes for users. Machine learning to shortcut insight and free others up to do more analysis? Yes. Machine learning to make services more efficient and save money or reduce headcount (particularly thinking about Local Government colleagues here) probably not.

Rehearsing sustainable futures: using critical service design to tackle highly complex challenges with local actors, Dr Lara Salinas (Service Futures Lab), Tom Taylor (Southwark Council), Marion Lagedamont, (University of the Arts London)

This was my first workshop of the conference and it was a really interesting (if whistlestop) walk through using participatory methodology. It was fun, creative and thought provoking and I got to work with some entirely new people to build a response to a particular challenge around food availability.

Images from the workshop mentioned above. Sketches on a desk, Annotated designs and the workshop presenters presenting to participants in a very grand looking room (Part of Edinburgh University)

Design Culture that delivers, Martin Jordan (German Digital Dervice) and Kara Kane (incoming Head of Profession, Design, GDS)

“The big thing is supported by the tiniest thing… we need a range of building blocks.”

Another workshop! In this session we talked trough what is needed to make organisations a great place for design to thrive. It was useful to go through some actual scenarios and there was a good structure to help us think through this.

Our table had a little difficulty understanding the differences between barriers/challenges and symptoms which meant we fell a little behind, but it was good to reflect on this more after the session.

The team also provided examples of things you can do to build an inclusive design culture, sized as building blocks which was great (and it included things like stickers and posters as well as assurance practices — small to very large blocks) which was useful to see.



Sam Villis

Now: @socialfinanceuk Prev:@ldgovuk, Head of Digital at National Leadership Centre. GDS. Proud to be @OneTeamGov.