Service Design in Government, where do we influence the system?

A screenshot of our assignment

I recently completed Module 1 of a Systems Thinking course with Design Dissolve and Franklin University.

As part of this I got to meet people working in a variety of roles in different organisations around the world which was an utter privilege.

I also met Ben, a public servant in New Zealand and we hit it off immediately with our experiences of working within government organisations. We each had similar questions about the role of service design within government and the affect it is able to have. We had questions about how organisations prevent change through inadvertent blockers, and to what extent service design is able to influence wider systemic change.

We had conversations and dumped thoughts and diagrams and ideas into a google document, sense-making about our individual experiences or pressing questions. My starting point was a query about service design and its place in the system — is it “veneer” and could it cause unwelcome side-effects elsewhere? I didn’t necessarily think that, but I found the provocation useful when I was struggling to see where it would create change and where it wouldn’t. I also saw, wrapped up in the terminology of “Good Services” (to borrow the title of Lou Downe’s book on Service Design), the often invisible power and privilege wielded by those who do this thing we call design.

A sketch from our early conversations

Ben comes from an organisation with an explicit mandate to work with and support Māori (Aotearoa’s native people) and was interested in similar issues about how we work better with people to truly co-design, to listen and to improve things. So we came together to work on our final assignment.

Using Miro — which is surprisingly good for this — we created causal loop diagrams of the systems we could imagine and felt we worked inside. We started with the same initial sets of post it’s across two canvasses to see where our thoughts aligned or differed.

I found the whole process really useful for developing what I felt might be a story about service design in government, what I felt was missing or detached from my understanding and where it might be possible to intervene. I found a process of bricolage or intertextuality useful, collecting and bringing together pieces to add to the narrative, using blog posts and resources and tweets and more — it became quite cathartic.

So, I wanted to share it with others to find out your thoughts. What’s missing? What would you change?

You can access the Miro board below and the introduction to our loops is included below:

My causal loop.

Intro — Ben Briggs and Sam Villis

A screenshot from our assignment

The government needs to provide services to the people, whether these be transactional services like getting a passport or dealing with more complex issues like family violence. Given all of the other activities of government, Service design could be seen as a thin layer that describes the main interface between government and the public. Similarly it could be thought of as the “rendering of policy intent” (Audree Fletcher’s words), the shaping of policy into a deliverable that enables members of the public to complete an action. Service design, and co-design, require the ability to collaborate with the people the service is being designed for. With different but similar perspectives from the UK and New Zealand government, we will take a systems thinking approach to show how the current government systems do not always support a co-design approach.

An effective (co)design approach means being able to explore a problem together and not start with a solution in mind. Those involved in the design process want to have a sense of ownership of the outcome and, most importantly, for there to be a balance of power, but existing government departments that are siloed and hierarchical often do not support collaborative ways of working.

In order for service/co-design to work well, there needs to be genuine engagement and intent. People want to know what is being asked of them and feel they have a say in the outcome. A lack of genuine engagement can drive further disengagement with a service and, by extension, with government as a whole. If people do not feel they have been heard, then any future engagement may be greeted with cynicism or even rejected. There may also be meaningful work already happening “unseen” by government institutions who are removed from the activity. For example grassroots organisations and initiatives, civil society groups or civic tech are often left out of commissioning or procurement activities, or several steps removed where they could offer significant insight and understanding.

In Aotearoa/New Zealand, there are additional responsibilities for the government when working with Māori (Aotearoa’s native people). The Treaty of Waitangi is recognised under legislation and has three guiding principles — participation, partnership and protection. These principles should be demonstrated in how the Crown works with Māori and, ideally, all people. When looking to solve, or even structure, complex social problems often associated with these communities, government decision-makers may not have the lived experience or ability to understand. The organisational structures that are established, understood and in place act to impose the vision because the power within them is exerted in often invisible ways. They still aim to preserve, as far as possible, the status quo and maintain existing power structures.

Systems thinking offers service designers a way to dissolve the problem by redesigning the system so that the problem no longer exists, or at least, to understand the system as a whole to understand and communicate to others where gaps or opportunities exist.

In order for Sam and I to explore and structure the problem, we first went through a sense-making activity. We simultaneously acted through our experiences with our own public sector work, inspiration from articles, and conversations with others working in this space. We “dumped” ideas and provocation questions into a shared Google Doc and held a couple of sessions to talk through our ideas, thoughts and findings. We set up a Miro board and populated it with the same starting post-it notes and with a particular focus on the initial provocation of “Good” services (taken from Lou Downe’s book of the same name). From this we individually developed causal loop diagrams representing our thoughts and the stories we wanted to tell.

The coloured post it notes enabled us to think more of TASCOI (Naming Systems, Espejo & Reyes) and has enabled us to see different perspectives by looking at the roles the actors are taking. We also attempted an iceberg model to demonstrate what are the systems and, more importantly, the mental models that keep the existing system in place. In this case, where the event is people feeling disengaged from the design process — potentially resulting in services that won’t meet people’s needs.

What’s interesting throughout this process is that we’ve identified different takes and approaches to the same activities and in creating the causal loop diagrams we have been able to draw out some of the stories that each of us wish to tell. Similarly our cultural contexts, though different, have shown that some of the mental models across our organisations, designers within those organisations, and members of the public remain broadly the same.

Ben’s causal loop



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Sam Villis

Sam Villis

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