Dillon Newton has been undertaking work experience with iNetwork. Using his research skills gained achieving his 1st from Liverpool John Moores University, he has been looking at future public services and the opportunity presented by design led thinking.  

The objective of local government for the next five years is to save money whilst maintaining the standards of public services. But given local authorities are only halfway through the series of unprecedented cuts to their budgets, the question on every civil servants lips is whether it really is possible for councils to be canny with their budgets whilst maintaining public services that meet the needs of 21st century Britain.

The work of the Design Council suggests that such momentous challenges can be overcome. In line with the mission statement “design that improves lives and makes things better”, in 2009, the organisation rolled out its Design Bugs Out campaign. A team, made up National Health Service and Design Council employees, collaborated with private sector healthcare designers to create simple equipment that could combat bacterial infections such as MRSA.

The question of whether private companies could, or even should, be involved with the NHS is the most divisive question within the public sector. However with the Design Council acting as a quasi-mediator between these usually opposing bodies, the project was able to pacify tensions through its demonstration of how collaborative, cross-sector design can combat key frontline issues.

The standout products included cubicle curtains with sanitised grab-zones, mattresses that changed colour upon contact with bodily fluids, easy-to-clean digital locks that lacked the concealed spaces in which bacteria could infest, and, likewise, curve-free patient chairs constructed out of removable parts for ease of cleaning.

At the height of the MRSA scandal, Healthcare Associated Infections were attributed to thousands of deaths a year. Moreover, HCAI’s were estimated to cost the NHS as much as £2 billion a year, not to forget the personal toll they placed on already ill-fated patients.

In effect, Design Bugs Out validates how the public sector could benefit from design – both in terms of the tangible products and service, but also in the core ethos and principles of design. That is because design is inherently user-focused. It always starts with the users problems, and works from the bottom-up to find solutions to them.

Indeed, as the Design Commission points out in its recent noteworthy report, the word ‘design’ means much more than just soft furnishes and simple appearances. So just as design innovates products and services that ultimately improve our lives, the Commision points out how design could equally innovate better organisations and structure: something that could ultimately develop a more efficient and effective public sector.

Therefore design could offer a fresh and innovative approach to the way local authorities handle public services. For far too long such services have been conducted in a top-down, one-size-fits-all fashion. This is a costly and ineffective technique, one which is no longer possible given how local authority budgets are shrinking at seemingly unstoppable rate. Hence design-thinking could act as an alternative to simply slashing key public services altogether, as is the case in Liverpool at present.

Another example, this time from Denmark, adds further weight to my calls. As a solution to the public sector ‘barriers’ created by policy domains that operate in in the dysfunctional ‘silo’ system, Mindlab uses collaboration as a basis to finding solutions for society’s problems. In effect the ‘innovation lab’ links up multi-department civil servants with academics from an array of disciplines to prompt fresh thinking around public service issues.

One of the Mindlab standout projects went to the heart of public services issues, where it addressed conflicts at a cardio-medical clinic which left users feeling like inconveniences rather than patients. Intended as part of PhD thesis on design process in public management, the small experiment conducted ethnographic research to observe the clinic on a day-to-day basis. From this, the Mindlab team was able to identify several areas for improvement, the most prominent being homeliness, cleanliness and atmosphere in the clinic.

Similar to Design Bugs Out, Mindlab urged health authorities to consider the ‘experience’ of the user, thus again pointing to the potential effectiveness of public service once fresh and innovative design methods are considered.

However this is not to say that design is some sort of magic solution to the problem public services are facing. Equally, it is not to say that taxpayer’s money should be poured into vanity projects that are only showing glimpses of the monetary benefits. Rather, we should consider how public services are being forced to do more whilst at the same time they are missing a fundamental ingredient.

So consider how our lives as private sector consumers benefit from design. Now consider how when we use public services as citizens, it feels as though the same fresh and ease-of-use feeling is missing.  I’d argue that the tightly defined framework and bureaucracy has squeezed design out of public sector, meaning it is fundamentally at loss within the sector and urging me to further argue how we should reintroduce design as a means of innovation.

What we have is an opportunity to use design to innovate solutions to our most pressing public sector issues. As I have shown design could create services and products to for key public service issues. Or in grander terms, we should be thinking about how a better-designed public sector could cost the country less whilst providing us citizens with more.

The question now is whether enough local government professionals are willing to implement design in the search for cost-effective public services, before such services are cut completely.


Dillon Newton | @dillon_newton