Leading public design: Transforming governance from the outside in

"Radically redesigning solutions with at-risk families. Engaging mentally disabled users to create a thriving environment. Creating business services that are faster and more effective for businesses to use. Design approaches are applied all over the world as a powerful approach to innovating public policies and services. But more is at stake: The future of how we run government. Bringing design methods in play, public managers can lead change with citizens at the centre, and discover a new model for steering public organisations: Human-centred governance." 
Christian Bason, author and CEO, Danish Design Centre

From the United Nations, the European Union and the World Bank, to governments of Britain, the United States, Denmark and Chile, and to cities like Helsinki, Adelaide and Copenhagen, design is being used to rethink and re-do public services. But how do these approaches influence public innovation? How do they change the roles of public managers? Might they even signal the rise of new governance models or paradigms?

New research with Copenhagen Business School, Stanford University, Case Western University and Oxford Business School examines the experiences of public managers who have pioneered the use of design approaches in government.

Drawing on 15 case studies in Denmark, the UK, Finland, Australia and the US, the research shows that design practice happens along three dimensions. One is exploring the problem space: ethnographically-inspired design approaches for involving citizens' perspective. Another is generating alternative scenarios: here, graphical design approaches and creativity inducing methods are used to enable collaborative ideation and concept development. Finally, enacting new practices involves the use of prototyping and user testing to render possible solutions more tangible, and opens up various ways of envisioning idealised (future) situations.

Interviews with public managers suggest that a range of behaviours - or engagements - with these design approaches make them effective in catalysing organisational change. Among the most powerful engagements are:

Questioning assumptions Where managers seek out ways of questioning their own assumptions and ask new questions about “what is going on” when his or her organisation interacts with its users. For instance, a manager who engages students in redesigning a high school curriculum asks: “How do we know what the students experience? We are just guessing, we don’t really know.”

Leveraging empathy Where managers seek and use “empathic data” from ethnographically inspired design techniques, to initiate change in their organisation. As a director general in a labour market agency said, when insights were gathered by observing and interviewing citizens who used the organisation’s services: “It was an eye-opener. It has been good, but it has been tough.”

Stewarding divergence The ability to keep open space and time amid an organisation and its routines, to allow a diversity of ideas to emerge, linger, and flourish, while also maintaining an overall sense of direction and purpose for the staff. One leader reflects that this feels like “a loss of control, but a positive loss of control.”

Making the future concrete This is tightly connected to the design practice of prototyping and testing possible solutions with end-users, staff, and other stakeholders. Here the role of managers is to ensure the creation of tangible results. As one manager says: “Showing an idea, rather than just talking about it, is really powerful. It gives life to ideas which may otherwise not make it.”

By applying these four behaviours, public managers can make surprising breakthroughs through design projects. Further, those who use design approaches seem inclined towards a new governance practice that, in comparison to historical public management approaches, is more:

  • Relational In terms of a distinctly human and often longer-term perspective on the role of the public organisation and its impact on the outside world; often this implies a reframing of the kind of value the organisation is supposed to bring to citizens and society;
  • Networked Understood as a model that actively considers and includes a broad variety of societal actors to achieve public outcomes, including civic actors not often considered in past governance models;
  • Interactive Exhibiting increased awareness and more explicit use of (physical and virtual) artefacts in mediating purposeful interactions between the organisation and citizens and other users and stakeholders; and
  • Reflective Which is to say driven by a more qualitative, emphatic, subjective understanding of the organisation’s ability to enact change.

This set of characteristics might be termed 'human-centred governance'. It emphasises bottom-up and highly differentiated processes; and, relative to traditional governance models, the model is more 'skeletal', or even under-prescribed. It places more emphasis on future-making than on the analysis of choice between already formed alternatives. Ultimately, human-centred governance poses a more radical perspective that starts with the needs, behaviours and experiences of citizens, and challenges the governance legacy that most public managers have inherited. It is high time more public managers start that journey.

Source: Bason, C. (2017) Leading Public Design: Discovering Human-Centred Governance. Bristol: Policy Press

Photo Credit: Peter.Bartlett Flickr via Compfight cc


Christian Bason

Chief Executive of the Danish Design Centre (DDC) | Administrerende Direktør for Dansk Design Center (DDC)