Design in the public sector context

The public sector accounts for 50% of countries’ GDP in the EU28 and as a consequence has a decisive role to play in Europe’s socio-economic development and competitiveness, as well as in its growth and investment efforts.

However, most public administrations across Europe are experiencing continued challenges of financial pressure and limited resources, which have coincided with a wider questioning of the legitimacy of public administrations at all levels to make decisions that impact on society. These challenges – just to mention a few – require a new set of innovative and – likely – ‘design’ methods, architecture and service structure within the public sector (PS). The question here is: what does ‘design’ regarding the PS mean? Is its origin actually applicable in the context of the PS, or is it only (used as) a substitute for ‘innovation’?

One answer could be: governments around the world are using design to help them innovate. Design therefore may be an ideal tool for creating innovation. It can thus be said that it has the power to generate innovative and creative solutions, to improve services and make them more effective and efficient. This is exactly what the public sector needs.

New approaches to innovation – or to be more precise, Public Sector Innovation (PSI) – are necessary; but what could these look like? This is where the design-concept comes into play: designing is about understanding and anticipating needs to ensure solutions are appropriate.

Designing is about understanding and anticipating needs to ensure solutions are appropriate.

It also includes modern observation techniques that go beyond the usual approach of surveys and focus groups. In addition, measures for designing innovation also imply structural developments of the organisation as a whole, as well as the human resource management (e.g. equipping individuals with information, knowledge and training).

Important to note here is that design-methods should at the same time be composed of a mix of variety and affordability. For example, they should not only focus on technology (which was used to increase transparency and the so-called Open Government), but rather on combined elements such as citizen participation, participatory democracy, service delivery, leadership practices and organisational change.

In Europe, the term Administrative Capacity Building (ACB) is currently widely used to cover such a ‘packaging’ of elements and ‘good governance’ principles. While there is an ongoing lively debate on whether well-established administrative capacities lead to or allow more public sector innovation (ACB > PSI) or the opposite, i.e. (radical) innovative changes result in more capable administrations (PSI > ACB), new questions may be raised and added:

  • ‘Where to place design on this map?’
  • ‘Is a design-thinking approach more likely to be adopted by open administrative cultures benefitting from a high level of institutional and administrative capacity?’
  • ‘To what extent does the administrative culture influence the success of design (thinking) in service development and delivery?’.

To put this in a nutshell, design is a crucial step on the way to innovation in government, in either way as stressed above, since it is about the creation of strategies, organisations and systems. However, its success factor in different administrative systems and cultures may vary and thus needs to be further explored.

In addition, another point of ‘concern’: how influential will the design-concept be for governments and organisations in the future? If funding is ensured in the best scenario, change within the organisation still has to be anchored and new ideas ultimately need to be executed.

Moving from ideation and prototyping to implementation is the critical step. The service design industry is growing fast (e.g. Denmark as a forerunner in design-led innovation in the public sector should be mentioned here; the City of Barcelona as one of the top creative and innovative cities in Europe, e.g. European i-Capital, 4th in creativity, too), and new ways to cooperate with the government are being further adopted.

However, only time will tell how the ‘design’-approach will match with the public sector and how much it can be fully embedded within governments’ operations, regarding less the levels and countries, so as to overcome the current synonym with respect to ‘innovation’.

EIPA is organising an event on 10-11 December 2015 in Barcelona called ‘Public Sector Innovation Lab’ tackling these questions and aiming to provide answers and solutions. Please consult for further information and registration.

This blog was originally posted on Design for Europe


Alexander Heichlinger

Alexander Heichlinger is an Expert & Manager at European Institute of Public Administration (EIPA) in Barcelona, and previously worked at EIPA Maastricht.