‘It is a lot easier to put the blueberries in the muffin at the beginning’ – how to design a government service

Leading government design professionals share their thoughts on how to make services as inclusive as possible

According to Lou Downe, the government’s director of design and service standards, the ideal starting point for designing a public service is “quite simple – that a user is able to do the thing they are trying to do”.

“If a user is trying to start a business, or learn to drive a car, then we help them to achieve that,” Downe adds. “It is important that we see the flipside too – that we look at what government is trying to achieve, whether that is making sure that our roads are safe, or that our businesses are secure.”

The next key consideration is that “services should be able to operate in a way that is agnostic to operational boundaries”, according to the design chief.

“The user should not have to know what department they are talking to,” they add. “And the third thing is considering every single user who needs to use the service, and looking at accessibility and inclusion in a broader sense – not just access to digital platforms.”

“We need to make design an end – not just a means. When we first tried to digitise public services, we thought a great platform would be a one-size-fits-all solution. Now, we have to improve.”
Orianne Ledroit, Mission Société Numérique

This, Downe tells attendees at the recent GovTech Summit in Paris, should cover anything and everything – including social, economic, and mental and physical health factors – that might limit a person’s ability to access a service.

They add that government needs to break out of “thinking about inclusion in a one-dimensional way”.

“There are a lot of assumptions made about who [will be] excluded and a lot of that is about a lack of diversity in the public sector,” Downe says. “Often, the short deadlines that are set on public services are more of a barrier than digital. If you are working two jobs and you are a carer, you will not have the time to do all of the things you need to do [to access the service] – regardless of access to IT.”

This view is supported by Orianne Ledroit, director of the French government’s Mission Société Numérique, with whom Downe shared a panel stage at the GovTech Summit. 

“Even if public services are well-designed and user-centric, there still will be people who do not know how to use it. We really work on bringing them on board,” she says. “I think one of the problems with design is [we need] to make it an end – not just a means. When we first tried to digitise public services, we thought a great platform would be a one-size-fits-all solution. Now, we have to improve.”

The government design community in the UK is also at something of an inflection point, having grown rapidly over the past four years to a total of 800 professionals spread across the civil service.

Downe says: “We are not having to argue about bringing designers into government. We are having to work out where they should go!”

Now that the discipline is established and valued, the intention is to ensure that design voices are heard as loudly and clearly as technical ones in the wider government Digital, Data and Technology profession, and that the two areas have equal managerial rigour.

“We are investing in leadership in the design community to be able to do that,” Downe adds.

Baked in
Making services truly inclusive can only be achieved if inclusion is an intrinsic part of the design process, Ledroit believes.

“There are three main rules about public service design,” she says. “The first is to have a user-centred experience. The second is to be open by design. The third, and most important, is to be inclusive by design.”

Downe (pictured left) agrees that, for designers, “the key is to go in without a presumption”.

“It is a lot easier to spread the blueberries in at the beginning of making a muffin than at the end,” they add. “But a lot of people try and put the inclusion in at the end, rather than building it in from the beginning.”

While the design community is driving change across government, designers need to recognise that, for many civil servants, “change is a privilege that is not afforded to everyone”.

“It is [often] not that people in the public sector do not want to change, it is because they do not have the privilege to be able to do that,”. Downe says. “We need to create safe spaces for people to be able to collaborate across government.”

They add: “Most of our services were not designed for the internet – our government was not designed for the internet. The role of design is thinking about how government can operate in that world.”

Sam Trendall

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