Design Thinking

Design-Led Innovation in Government

One of 16 special essays on how the field of social innovation has evolved and what challenges remain ahead.

What does it feel like to start a new business and encounter government red tape and bureaucracy? What will it take to design a digital platform to help the unemployed rapidly find a voluntary mentor to coach them in finding a job? How can education reform be made tangible enough to spur real change in schools across an entire nation? And, not least, how do you systematically prototype, test, and scale up public sector policy and service responses to such challenges? These are some of the questions that the Danish government’s innovation unit, MindLab, has taken on during the last decade. Based in Copenhagen and part of the ministries of Business and Growth, Employment, and Children and Education, MindLab was established in 2002. A small team of ethnographers, designers, and public policy specialists accepted the mission of involving citizens and business in co-designing new public solutions.

In Denmark, design has already been applied in a wide range of public sector settings, from rethinking waste management in Copenhagen, to reducing tensions between inmates and guards in Danish prisons, to transforming services for mentally disabled adults in the city of Odense. The design methods used are typically ethnographic-inspired user research, creative ideation processes, and visualization and modeling of service prototypes.

Denmark is in the forefront of design-led innovation in the public sector, but this approach is increasingly being adopted around the world. In the United Kingdom, for example, service design has grown rapidly over the last decade, driven by consultancies such as LiveWork, Engine, Participle, and Think Public, and by the establishment of public or semi-public bodies such as NESTA’s Public Services Lab, the National Health Service’s Institute for Innovation and Improvement, and the UK Design Council’s Public Services by Design program. Even in 10 Downing Street, the Behavioural Insights Team (“nudge unit”) is looking to design for a more experimental approach to understanding user needs and prototype interventions (such as rewriting tax forms).

In the United States a broader design agenda for local and federal governments is emerging. What began as a focus on using technology to increase transparency (so-called Open Government) has shifted to focus on citizen participation, participatory democracy, service delivery, leadership practices, and organizational change. Central actors include for-profit companies such as IDEO and Local Projects, nonprofits such as Bloomberg Philanthropies and Code for America, and government initiatives such as Boston’s New Urban Mechanics and the US Office of Personnel Management’s new Innovation Lab.

In Denmark, design has already been applied in a wide range of public sector settings, from rethinking waste management to reducing tensions between inmates and guards in prisons.

The Asia-Pacific region is playing catch-up, fast. In Singapore, the Prime Minister’s Public Service Division established the Design Thinking Unit, with the mission to involve users in redesigning policies and services. And Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower is working with IDEO and the UK government’s nudge unit to redesign the work permit experience for expats.

It might sound as if design-led innovation is sweeping into governments around the world, at least in the Western cultural sphere. But at least three major challenges stand out.

Creating authorizing environments | Although new entities (“labs,” “centers,” and “spaces”) are created to help design take root, there is still a formidable challenge in embedding this approach within government. Ensuring funding, anchoring change in the organization, getting management buy-in, and actually executing the new ideas and solutions are all difficult. Many of the initiatives are still struggling to find their place as a legitimate part of the policy-making infrastructure.

Building and accessing capacity | Public sector organizations cannot rely solely on internal expertise for design-led innovation; they simply do not possess enough people (if any) with those skills. The market for consultancy services for public sector design, however, is still immature, and in some countries even declining (the UK is a case in point). In Denmark—a country with a proud architecture and design heritage—there is a growing service design industry, but no design consultancy has yet singled out the public sector as its main client; most are small and still working mainly for corporate clients, and many are still focusing on product design. Meanwhile, design education has yet to catch up with the growing need for service and systems design, and designers need to learn how to interact more effectively with government.

Opening up bureaucracy to co-production | When public sector organizations start taking a more user- or citizen-centric approach to innovation, they invariably discover that many other organizations play critical roles in people’s lives. Human-centered design forces organizations to take a much broader, collaborative, and inclusive view of who needs to be part of the process of co-creating initiatives that will actually work in the real world. But social and public innovation that takes a citizen-centered and value-oriented approach is ultimately disruptive to the existing public governance paradigm. It is severely challenging to the command-and-control logic of hierarchical organizations and to the linear (if unrealistic) logic of the policy-making process.

Where does this leave us? In spite of the very tangible challenges, I believe the glass is more than half full. It is still early days, but public sector design is on the rise.

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  • BY Alice Yitian Wang

    ON March 5, 2013 04:09 PM

    Thanks for the list of design consultancies! This is something I have been interested in getting involved with for a while.

    I would also be interested in learning more about what testing prototypes, when the prototype is a public service, looks like.

  • BY Christian Bason

    ON April 19, 2013 02:55 AM

    Thanks Alice for your comment and your interest—and apologies for my late reply. I suggest you take a look at for a range of case examples of design-led innovation projects for government services, many of which have included service prototyping. A prototype of a service can take many forms, such as a graphical user scenario (a storyboard), a film, a play or enactment, a mockup of a web interface, and so on.

  • BY Dr Nina Terrey

    ON April 20, 2013 10:03 PM

    This is an informative article. Just to add to this dialogue about pubic sector design there is a lot of work being done in Australia. I am a partner of design firm ThinkPlace and we have been working with the Australian Centre for Excellence in Public Sector Design (DesignGov). We have many live consultancy projects prototyping new public services, be happy to share with those who are interested. I have also completed my PhD, one of the first in-depth case studies on a public organisation adopting and adapting design practices. This field is very fertile and a global coalescence is certainly observable.

  • BY Simon Vagn Larsen

    ON May 14, 2013 08:35 PM

    Thank you, Christian, for another inspiring piece and for sharing your experience and perspectives.

    As someone who travels between my native Denmark and my home in New Zealand and work in the field of design thinking/service design/[social] design innovation, I can testify to the fact -and corroborate Nina’s sentiment - that plenty of excellent work is being carried out on both sides of the Tasman Sea (that’s Australia and New Zealand for the global audience:-). I know that Christian is fully aware of this.

    The public sectors here, in particular, have embraced the underlying tenets of design thinking as ways of not only changing the ways the sectors are currently structured and operate, but also as a means of achieving better outcomes in an era of [spending] restraint and increased demand/societal pressures.  This is done in tandem with more traditional continuous improvement efforts.

    Challenges remain of course. As Christian points out they’re primarily around design capability (availability and even basic understanding), the transition to a different mind-set, which takes a more holistic, system-wide (‘ecosystem’) approach, as well as the long-standing issues around executive decision-making in an ambiguous and politicised environment (the ‘authorising environment’ where ‘risk’ has reigned supreme for decades). But the ball is rolling and I agree with Nina that a global current seems to be ever-expanding. The movement fits in nicely with other mega-trends around ‘social’, big data, citizen & customer centricity etc. Game on. Exciting times:-)

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