Digital design principles need a boost

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan April 28, 2013
There's been a lot of satisfaction in Whitehall over the success of the GOV.UK website winning the Digital category at the annual Designs of Year Awards, but the real success will lie in boosting the profile of design in the public sector.

There's been a lot of satisfaction in Whitehall over the success of the GOV.UK website winning the Digital category at the annual Designs of Year Awards.

GOV.UK  - spearheaded by the Government Digital Service - was first launched in beta in February 2012 and has been at the forefront of getting government departments to offer services under one website.

The judges unanimously voted for GOV.UK above other category winners including fashion, furniture and architecture, for its "well thought out, yet understated design".

Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic called GOV.UK  "the Paul Smith of websites", noting:

"It makes life better for millions of people coping with the everyday chores, from getting a new passport, to paying their taxes GOV.UK looks elegant, and subtly British thanks to a revised version of a classic typeface, designed by Margaret Calvert back in the 1960s."

Nick Hurd, Minister with responsibility for Digital, accepted the award on behalf of the government, saying:

"Britain has a great history of innovative public sector design projects, from Bazalgette's sewers, to the London Underground - to Calvert and Kinnear's road signs. GOV.UK brings great design into a digital age. It’s taken a while for Government and digital technology to start to gel. For some time the best of the private sector have been catering for the 80 plus per cent of the population who are online by providing high-quality online services.

"This website is different – because it puts the users first. It has been planned, written and designed around what users need to get done, not around the ways government wants them to do it.

"For the first time, users can go to one place to find government services and information online - and in a clear, consistent and transparent format. It’s simpler, clearer and faster because the team at GDS have set about building a world-class public service that recognises the user need at every click."

Its a prime example for others to follow, both in the UK and internationally, he added.

Maybe so, maybe no, - but whatever the reality the success of the site does emphasis the importance of effective and innovative design in the public sector with the emphasis placed firm on making public services more user responsive.

It's a theme picked in a rather splendid report from the Design Commission which has come out of an eight month inquiry led by Barry Quirk, Chief Executive of Lewisham Council, and Baroness Denise Kingsmill.

The Design Commission is a standing body featuring representatives from Parliament, industry, academia and the design sector. The Design Council, Design Business Association and D&AD are among those represented.

Titled 'Restarting Britain 2: Design and Public Services', the report makes more than a dozen recommendations for policy change within both national and local government.

GOV.UK is cited among the exemplar initiatives which also includes the Helsinki Design Lab, set up to develop strategic design expertise in Finnish government and public services.

Baroness Kingsmill noted:

"We need to change Government’s attitude to design. But we also need to convince the design community that public services are a valid use of design skills."

The Baroness is completely correct. Public sector leaders in a digital age are going to need design skills if they are to stand a reasonable chance of reshaping and refashioning the services for which they are responsible.

It's all very well talking airily about Digital by Default, but the design of digital services is going to be critical to their effective take-up - and without take-up such initiative are political vanity schemes at best.

And there's the rub of course. Design skills aren't in abundance in the public sector today which means convincing private sector professional designers to make the move across or to enter into productive partnership with the public sector.

To that end, the Design Commission has come up with a number of key recommendations, including:

  • The Cabinet Office needs to take responsibility for developing design capacity across government.
  • Policymakers across government should trial a multi-disciplinary design studio method for originating policy
  • Department leaders must create career paths for social and service design professionals in public service work.
  • Establish an advisory network of professional designers to mentor public sector leaders.
  • Training in basic service design principles must become part of civil service training.
  • A better commissioning model for design needs to be introduced.
  • Design input must be fed into the the Cabinet Office's new Commissioning Academy.
  • The creation of a peer network of public sector staff trying to apply design approaches.
  • Creation of design practice toolkits for social and public sector work.
  • Development of a bank of public sector examples of design best practice and successes.
  • Introduction of design thinking modules to public policy courses.
  • Design education to broaden into: service and social design, ethics, organisational culture and change,  systems thinking, impact metrics, economics, policy, social knowledge.

All good ideas and hopefully a priority for the Cabinet Office and GDS to propogate and implement. There is a best practice example to other international governments to be set here.

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