Design in policy and politics

Human-centered design programs and practices—from the likes of d.School and IDEO—are making their way into politics. Exploring what came out of the highly revered UK Government Digital Service (GDS) program.

Design-led perspectives are working their way into politics. Steve Hilton—a former director of strategy for David Cameron—completed a stint at Stanford d.School—the design school founded by David Kelley of IDEO. His 2015 book, More Human, applies the lens of human-centred design to public policy. From a profile in The Economist (“Back in bare feet”):

Freed from the constraints of government, the book is a cri de coeur about the dehumanisation of modern government and the corrupting of the ruling class. America, he says, has become a “donocracy” steered by wealthy donors, the EU a “stinking cesspit of corporate corruption gussied up in the garb of idealistic internationalism”. Britain is a democracy in name only, “operating on behalf of a tiny elite no matter the electoral outcome”. He wants to change all this by making politics more human, putting “people at the centre”.

But his greatest ire is reserved for anything that resembles a factory: hospitals, for instance, which he says are run by bureaucracies in league with drug companies. Schools, too. Instead of treating our children like the factory workers we once trained them to be, he suggests, “let’s treat them like the knowledge workers we hope they will become”.

The novelty here is not so much the perspective that he's speaking from, but the audience that he is presumably speaking to—policy wonks. Human-centered design programs and practices—like d.School and IDEO—are composed of teams with widely varying interdisciplinary backgrounds, including those in government and politics. Returning to this world with the message and methods of human-centered design is something different entirely.

The UK Government Digital Service (GDS) has approached the boundary of this territory, but are necessarily limited (and usefully focused) as their responsibility is toward the delivery of public services, not policy. GDS is focused on the ongoing development of, the citizen-facing online platform for a wide variety of government services in the UK.. The impact of the GDS was scrutinized by Labour Party as part of their Digital Government Review, which culminated in the release of an independently written report in November 2014 titled Making Digital Government Work for Everyone. This report was commissioned with an ambitious list of “key areas” to explore:

  • Ways in which technology can empower citizens in their relationship with government
  • People’s awareness, experience, concerns and expectations of how the public and private sector stores and uses information regarding themselves
  • Emerging data and information usage models, particularly in the areas of value creation, consent, trust and privacy
  • Characteristics of the technology requirements of the public and private sector, including how and where those requirements may vary between sectors
  • Differing digital delivery and procurement models and how they are used in both the private and public sector
  • Ways in which digital services can improve quality, reduce costs and support the evolution of public services
  • Technology enablers that can support rapid and cost-effective deployment or change to public services

There is a lot to digest—35 recommendations in support of five desired outcomes—but the comments on the GDS are especially interesting. The report echoes the generally positive reactions garnered from professional peers in User Experience (UX) and Service Design, with even higher hopes and expectations for the future of GDS:

Twenty-five services, ranging from voter registration to patent renewals and prison visit bookings, were selected as “exemplars” for redesigning and rebuilding [by the GDS]. The selection was based on the volume of existing central government transactions and hence the potential cost savings for central government by transferring those transactions to digital. This is a methodology called “channel shift” and its focus on these transactions – while understandable – meant neglecting other, key questions. What is actually most important, creates the most value, or best meets people’s needs?

In short, the fantastic delivery machine was not focused on the best possible targets. In particular, the current approach to digital services has failed to consider significant contextual issues such as the cost of housing, the difficulties of getting back into work, or the cost of living. It has barely touched upon local government or the NHS. And it has neglected those without basic online skills or those who lack the ability to use and benefit from online transactions.

GDS has been building concrete evidence of how design can help government in small but powerful ways. The report neglects the impact of the GDS that is evident in the report’s own conclusions: the popular acceptance of a design-led approach to government services Rather than confining themselves to an isolated conversation among like-minded designers, the GDS has joined and facilitated the ongoing conversation between citizens and government regarding the nature of public services.

Making Digital Government Work for Everyone presents a view of “digital” that is much more in tune with the pervasive reality of these technologies than the initial web-based mandate of GDS. GDS designers would likely welcome the expanded scope of responsibility that is suggested in the report. In the meantime, like many in the world of Service Design and UX, they continue to demonstrate the value of their design-led approach within whatever scope of project they are afforded.

Even The White House has taken notice. They have established their own equivalent, the U.S. Digital Service, and released a playbook that echoes many of the principles outlined by their UK counterparts. From the U.S. Digital Service launch announcement, in August 2014:

To help the Digital Service achieve its mission, today the Administration is releasing the initial version of a Digital Services Playbook that lays out best practices for building effective digital services like web and mobile applications and will serve as a guide for agencies across government. To increase the success of government digital service projects, this playbook outlines 13 key “plays” drawn from private and public-sector best practices that, if followed together, will help federal agencies deliver services that work well for users and require less time and money to develop and operate.

The technologies used to create digital services are changing rapidly. The Playbook is designed to encourage the government to adopt the best of these advances into our own work. To further strengthen this important tool, we encourage folks across the public and private sectors to provide feedback on the Playbook, so we can strengthen this important tool.

The playbook advises an approach that starts with user needs, takes a holistic experiential / service perspective, and prioritizes openness in both products and process. There is already evidence of this guide in action. In the spirit of the final item–“default to open”–anyone can propose and discuss changes on GitHub. They’ve also included an accompanying handbook ”for Procuring Digital Services Using Agile Processes”.

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