Making government beautiful through the digital Trojan Horse

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 21, 2015
Digital is the Trojan Horse for making transformation in government a thing of beauty rather than lipstick on a pig. Think design!

dominic campbell
Dominic Campbell

Digital is just a Trojan Horse for design.

It’s a sentiment articulated by Dominic Campbell, co-founder of public sector digital and design firm FutureGov, but one that resonated and was endorsed by a panel of digital government experts at this week’s CityLab: Urban Solutions to Global Challenges summit in London.

These events, previously held in New York and Los Angeles, seek to bring together practitioners and those in authority in cities to explore new ideas to transform metro centers into more livable, sustainable and smart cities.

One such expert group looked at the role of digital government, both in the UK and the US.

Campbell was fired up for wider change than the mere digitalization of existing services, saying:

In many ways the danger is that we stop at that and that our ambitions aren’t high enough. I think it’s really hard to get government to fix itself in situ. Whether it’s a policy initiative or a digital initiative, changing your organization and rewiring its DNA, which is pretty fixed in any organization. You’re born for a reason and you deliver in a certain way.

If you just digitize that, that’s great, you bring it forward. But what we’d like to see is a sort of two or three pronged attack around, like, how might you go about hitting reboot on government as an institution. What should an organisation that’s born digital in 2015 look like? How can you make it 10% of the size and the cost, but 200% of the social impact? How do you get government to think about being a social impact organization rather than a large employer?

Whether you’re right or left, Big Government or Small Government, whatever the politics is, the truth is that digital and design enable you to build different kinds of institutions.

Our risk is that we just put lipstick on the current pig if we’re not careful.

This is where the design element comes into play, he argued:

Digital is a Trojan Horse for design. Everyone can understand digital because everyone has a smart phone. But design is actually what drives everything. What kind of place do you want? What kind of institutions do you need to deliver that kind of outcome and therefore what kind of modern tools do you need to do it?

As long as people retain that sort of strategic oversight, but then also think about government as just one player in place and how they can support others in their aspirations, that’s where this stuff gets really interesting.

It’s about not getting caught up in the cool kids toys. It’s about remembering about what you’re in this for. It’s about better outcomes for your citizens in your city.

Making beauty

It’s a view that finds favor with Hillary Hartley of 18f, the digital client services agency set up by the US government to assist other departments and government bodies in their digital transformation journeys. In that mission, service design is essential, she stated:

Digital is only part of the puzzle. You’ve got to recognise that whether you’re delivering a motor vehicle registrations or whether you’re delivering a service that is based on open data, that service is larger than the thing that you’re putting on somebody’s smartphone or somebody’s laptop or the service that they see online.

So it’s incumbent upon the folks that are helping get those things built, to say, ’Look, this is bigger, this is a design problem, this is something that we have to think about beyond just the screen in front of people'.  Service design is a big piece of that puzzle.

Much of the ethos of 18f mirrors the work of the UK Government Digital Services (GDS), whose co-founder Mike Bracken has recently quit to become Chief Digital Officer at the Co-operative Group. Bracken made a return to the realm of digital government as part of the CityLab panel with the caution that:

Introducing beauty to government services is not the easiest thing.

He recalled:

We sat down with Government and said, ‘We’re going to design our way out of this. Seventy percent of government cost should be service design. You should be constantly designing services around user needs'.

Introducing design to government is the single hardest cultural thing I’ve ever done. You walk in and the dial is set to procurement, it’s set to process, it’s set to Big IT and a 5 year deal.

You walk in and say, 'We’re going to make it beautiful for users. We’re going to do the really hard stuff behind the scenes to make it easy for users. We’re going to listen to them and we’re going to change it every day. And by the way, we’re going to make it beautiful’.

Hillary Hartley
Hillary Hartley

Bracken goes further when he declares there’s a need for a much wider design remit:

Our institutions need re-designing. That’s the big deal. What digital shows us is that institutions designed in the Victorian era are often not fit for purpose.

You can put more money in them, you can put more people in them and you’ll get some better services. We’ve done that. That alone is worth doing. But are they the right insitutional design to cope with the future that’s coming towards us rapidly? I doubt it.

I don’t think we need 350 different institutions in government to get a common platform to send and receive money to and from users. We don’t need to do that 350 times. That’s a challenge to our institutional make-up and to our power structures.

That’s the big thing that digital brings. It brings that challenge. Digital and design bring that question to the heart of government very quickly, at a policy level, at a political level and at a user level.

My take

Provocative thinking - and sound policy.

Memo to government at all levels - pay attention!


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