Two years ago Michael Bichard, chair of the Design Council and former civil service mandarin, waxed lyrical about how design could drive innovation and sustainability in public services.
Since then the council has been busy, running Public Services by Design, a two-year pilot programme in which frontline staff and public managers work alongside designers to gain a better insight of services and users, creating low-cost prototypes to improve services and deliver greater efficiency, concluding that design plays a key role in transforming public services.
While design hasn't gone unnoticed in the public sector – school building programmes for example – it's invoked less so when it comes to services and its impact on customer relations.
"For a number of years we've been working on ways that businesses can improve services through good design," says David Kester, chief executive of the council. "Increasingly you need to be very smart, agile and responsive, working with users and giving them more power. We took the view that you could apply these principles to public services too."
The pilot programme involved 10 projects, including an independent living scheme for older people in the north-east, and overall has led to a projected saving of £26 for every £1 spend on the services, according to the council.
"When you first think about design you can't help picturing chairs or clever handles but clearly there's a process and principles behind that," says Peter Gadsdon, Lewisham council's head of strategy and lead on the council's emergency housing service pilot. "It's still based on observing people and their interactions with things to design services."
Initially frontline were trained with handheld cameras that were used to gather short interviews with customers. The films were then edited, bringing together the issues, concerns and expectations of service users.
"We're dealing with vulnerable people with chaotic lives and it's a complex area, demand is driven by all sorts of factors and quite hard to predict. But once you have that product, staff, stakeholders and senior management can look at it and make more sense of the service and what is needed," says Gadsdon.
One of the best ideas generated from the video and through idea workshops was to collect a series of case studies mapping the different routes customers could take, which was produced as a comic strip and hung on the walls of the housing options service.
"The most simple ideas are sometimes the best ones," says Gadsdon. "The waiting area was quite chaotic and we had a lot of failure demands – for example people turning up who didn't bring the right documents. There was always many people waiting but they could be the same people over and over again. We've since reduced this."
One unplanned outcome from the programme was the profound impact that the pilot had on the staff, explains Gadsdon.
"We had spin off effects around morale and team building and they gained a richer insight of what it's like to be a customer," he says. "The approach we used was very much around getting frontline staff heavily involved. We didn't realise how much staff engagement would impact and sickness levels have dropped."
Engagement with staff at all levels, but particularly the frontline, and helping them, through mentors, to build skills which they can then use themselves is a marked departure from the methods, and cost, of business consultants, says Kester.
"We're not coming in and acting as consultants but act as intermediaries to build confidence and skills so they can do it themselves," says Kester. "It's a diagonal slide, it's not just about engaging huge numbers of the public or teams but around 15 people who, like in Lewisham, are then armed to spot repetition and problems."
Gadsdon agrees: "The challenge is persisting with something and seeing it through. You do a video, workshops etc and then everything resets and you carry on. We think of it like a pipeline so we now have another group of staff going through the process."
And because staff are involved right from the start, Gadsdon says, the team now have the tools to create the videos and run their own workshops.
But applying approaches that have been successful in the private sector doesn't come without challenges in the public sector.
"It's a completely different environment to businesses where decision-making and actioning are much more straight forward," explains Kester. "In the public sector this is more complex and the relationship between services is much more interconnected. Activity has to involve more people."
Another area of difference is in the public sector's approach to risk, but innovation and smart thinking now is more crucial than ever, comments Kester.
"The biggest risk for governance boards is inaction on innovation," he says. "In an era where you still have to deliver well for your citizens with less resources, the biggest risk is that you don't find better ways to do things. The more effective for them the more cost-effective for everyone.
And part of that is finding out the needs of users, trialing things, and prototyping – these are the fundamentals of design.