Reduced budgets mean innovation in the public sector is vital if our public services are to become more effective and improve the experience for users.

To make a real difference to frontline services, this innovation has to start with the needs of citizens. This is a principle that applies across all areas of public sector renewal, including governance and policymaking.

We are witnessing a number of encouraging trends in this area:

  • Pilot projects demonstrating how design methods can reinvigorate public services
  • Public servants being trained in design thinking
  • Design managers getting hired to improve decision-making in public bodies
  • Multidisciplinary innovation units being established at the heart of government
  • The emergence of design as an inclusive method for policy development

A body of evidence is growing that demonstrates that design-driven innovation can result in significant efficiency savings, risk reduction and a strong return on investment for the public sector.

Although we haven’t yet pieced together all the evidence, current case studies would suggest that in the same way that larger returns are achieved by companies when using design strategically, the impact for the public sector is also greatest when design is integrated at a strategic level.

The Public Sector Design Ladder

The Public Sector Design Ladder is a diagnostic tool for public sector bodies to work out their level of design use and define a roadmap for progress.

Public Sector Design Ladder (Source: Design for public good report)

To demonstrate how the impact of design can change at these different levels, examples from each stage are listed below. The full case studies can be read in the Design for Public Good report.

Step 1: Design for discrete problems

The Good Kitchen involved rethinking food services for senior citizens in the Holstebro Municipality in Denmark, where 60% of people in assisted living had poor nutrition. Implementing a design intervention resulted in a 22% increase in customer satisfaction and 78% increase in sales of healthy meals.

The Make It Work project for Sunderland City Council in the UK focused on getting the long-term unemployed back into work. This was a city where 26% of the active population were out of work and costing the government millions of pounds in benefits. Following a design intervention of £180,000 (€240,000), 275 people found work, reducing the cost of getting an individual back into work from £62,000 (€83,000) to less than £5,000 (€7,000) – a cost saving of 90%.

Step 2: Design as capability

An example on step two of the ladder would be the Housing Option Services provided by Lewisham Council in London. In 2010, faced with challenging rises in demand and reductions in budget, Lewisham turned to Design Council to try a different approach. A new service was implemented as with the cases above but the key aim was to bring about a cultural change within the Council so that design methods became part of normal working practice. From an initial investment of £7,000 (€9,000) in training, efficiency savings of £368,000 (€492,000) have been calculated.

Step 3: Design as policy

Across Europe we are seeing an increasing number of design managers working in local authorities, notably in Lahti (Finland), Sainte-Étienne (France), Dublin (Ireland), Barcelona (Spain) and Kent, Shropshire and Monmouth (UK). At the heart of government, we’re also seeing the rise of multidisciplinary innovation units using design – some of the best examples include: MindLab Helsinki Design Lab (2009-2013), Experio Lab (Sweden) and the Government Cabinet Office Policy Lab (UK).

Design-led government innovation units across Europe

These initiatives represent step three on the ladder, where design approaches are integrated into government decision-making.

For example, the UK’s initiative, implemented by the Government Digital Service, brought 350 separate websites together to provide a better digital experience for citizens. Replacing the two main government support websites has already saved £55-70m (€74-94m) and the estimated annual saving from a shift to digital is approximately £1.7bn (€2.3bn). Within these units, design is also being trialled as a method for inclusive, citizen-focused policymaking.

The GOV.UK website created by the UK Government Digital Service (Photo: Guy Moorhouse)

In the coming years, we anticipate that public authorities will develop their internal capacities for design-driven innovation by training staff in design thinking, employing design managers, establishing multi-disciplinary innovation units and adopting design as a user-centred method for inclusive policymaking.