The value of empathy and the challenges of scaling
Sabine Junginger, Fellow at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, reflects on the Design for Europe workshop at the OECD Annual Conference and considers how design approaches can be integrated into the public sector.
What key insight did you walk away from the workshop with?
If there is one insight that I took away from my time at the OECD, it’s the confirmation that there’s a great deal of interest in design across many different government organisations. For me, it offered a welcome opportunity to meet and engage with civil servants from around the world who are curious about alternative approaches to address the new challenges they face.
As a panel member, I had the luxury of observing different groups working on their assigned tasks. It was powerful to witness the confusion of some participants when they realised that they were not only allowed to show empathy, but encouraged to do so.
One particular exercise involved participants using to design methods to map out their journeys to the conference. Sitting around a table with strangers, I noticed how some of the participants downplayed their own struggles when describing their journey. However, when user personas were introduced, particularly extreme users such as those with specific accessibility needs, it was no longer possible (or perhaps necessary) to brush over one’s own problems.
My key insight from that task was that people move from having empathy with someone to caring about someone when they are asked to consider a wider range of user needs. Though the workshop emphasised the role of empathy, it ended up demonstrating the value of caring.
What themes did you see emerging from the wider OECD event?
It was really encouraging to hear OECD officials explore the role of design in public sector policymaking and implementation.
I found it particularly encouraging that the attending policy schools spent the last day discussing how their educational programmes should – and perhaps must – change to equip future public servants and policymakers with the skills to overcome the siloed, fragmented, responsive problem-solving approaches that still dominate the public sector.
As these programmes emerge, I see a need to be clear about the contributions design can make to policy-making and to policy implementation. This, in my view, will include a more nuanced discourse on public sector design – one that clarifies how we can employ design as a technique, as a method or, as in the case of policy-making as designing, as a unifying art.
There are some amazing examples of public sector design projects across Europe – what do you believe are the critical barriers to scaling these up?
I believe that scaling is an outdated and increasingly disputed concept in public sector innovation. The value of the design approach is that it responds to the unique context of a problem, including the specific systems and people involved. We need to clarify the meaning and relevance of ‘scaling’ projects and initiatives. When does it make sense? What does ‘scaling’ look like when we are concerned with processes and ways of making?
What do you think are the key skills gaps in this sector?
Most public sector employees are trained in decision-making, in analytical methods and in traditional project management. Few are trained in managing emerging processes or in developing criteria for decision-making that hinge on synthesising knowledge from different sources and in different formats.
Tell us about one key resource that you would recommend anyone interested in the area to take a look at.
I believe that Christian Bason’s book on Design for Policy is a must read. It offers both examples and some theoretical foundations.
Any final words?
If we stick to the human experience, we can circumvent a lot of politics.