Creativity at the heart of government
A few weeks ago a group of senior officials were gathered together for a day to discuss design. I'm very keen to improve government's ability to be creative and to innovate. So why did my heart sink a bit?
i) Groundhog day: The first reason is that this has been happening for as long as I can remember. Whitehall has often held one day events to inject creativity and design into the civil service. Sometimes they got civil servants throwing coloured balls to each other; sometimes there were inspirational speeches by leading designers and consultants; sometimes there was group work. Yet these have had virtually no effect.
ii) Habits not speeches: This is no criticism of those involved. In the most recent case, the RCA helped run the event - and they undoubtedly know a lot about design. The problem is one that's familiar in any organisation. Behaviour changes because of changes to habits, structures, processes and cultures - not because of one off events or speeches or guidelines. If you want a civil service to become more creative and innovative you have to change the wiring. But governments continue to resist the most basic lessons on how to manage innovation. Holding one day events is arguably a displacement activity - a symptom not a solution.
iii) Better design, not just more of it: Perhaps because I've been to too many events like this I've become quite frustrated with the design profession itself. The UK is packed with first rate designers. But a lot of design projects haven't worked well in the public sector, and for reasons that go beyond the inertia of big bureaucracies. Many failed because of flaws in the design method itself. I set out some initial ideas on what these are and how they can be solved in the piece attached. It's quite a subtle message, and quite challenging both to the design advocates and to the bureaucrats. I suspect it's more comfortable for both sides to remain in their comfort zones - in private the former slagging off the boring civil servants, the civil servants slagging off the impractical overpaid designers (which is exactly what happened after the Downing Street event).
iv) No 10 also has a behavioural insight unit which knows a lot about this - and is a good example of institutionalising a different approach, rather than just holding one day events. The lesson from their work is that the right combination of sustained capacity, intelligent method, research and practical action can actually change habits. One day seminars don't.