Can a Design Thinker Thrive in Public Service?

Dec 9th, 2015

(Post started in August 2015).  

Ah ha! I think I’ve found a solution.

Leading design science theorist John Chris Jones responded to the question:  “Is designing an art, a science or a form of mathematics?” in Design Method.

Caption Time

He said:     “The main point of difference is that of timing.  Both artists and scientists operate on the physical world as it exists in the present  (whether it is real or symbolic), while mathematicians operate on abstract relationships that are independent of historical time.  Designers, on the other hand, are forever bound to treat as real that which exists only in an imagined future and have to specify ways in which the foreseen thing can be made to exist.”

For today’s public services, the proliferation of social technology innovation & use across channels, a rapidly shifting global policy dynamic that is increasingly interconnected and converging coupled with the simple, yet powerful, demand for real time & relevant public services forces rapid change.  Constantly.

Bring in Nigel Cross’s characterization in his paper “Designerly Ways of Knowing” of the differences between humanities, sciences & design and all of a sudden things start to make sense in public service

Cross says that in the science culture, the phenomenon of study is the natural work, using appropriate methods featuring controlled experimentation, classification & analysis, with inherently valuing objectivity, rationality, neutrality & a concern for ‘truth’.  Public service science culture should reflect this.

For the humanities culture, the study is of the human experience, using methods of analogy, metaphor & evaluation, inherently valuing subjectivity, imagination, commitment & a concern for justice. For public service policy makers, depending on the policy area in question, a good amount of the humanities culture filters through the policy research and decision-making process.

But in the case of design culture, the phenomenon of study is the artificial world, using methods rooted in modeling, pattern-forming & synthesis, while valuing practicality, ingenuity, empathy & a concern for appropriateness.   In public service, a pure design thinker would find themselves up a creek in a canoe without a paddle, unless they were able to bridge the other cultures in a meaningful way.  Provided that the designer was allowed at the table to begin with.

Nothing is ever pure, nor static.  But Cross’s typography is a convenient structure to introduce the concept of a design thinker.

Because I believe that real design thinking in public service is inextricably linked to the core of good policy research, decision-making and implementation.

(Post finished October 19, 2015.)

Today I had the chance to speak at a panel at a Conference Board of Canada conference (CBOC) in Ottawa entitled:  Innovation, Disruption & Culture – with Thom Kearney.  Our thesis:  that design thinking can be a vehicle for not just solving wicked policy problems but at the same time for disrupting the policy environment and culture to encourage & create an authentic, open government.

How?  Before October 19, that was difficult to say.

Now, after October 19th, there might be potential.

The Liberal Party of Canada’s platform said:  “We will devote a fixed percentage of program funds to experimenting with new approaches to existing problems.  We will measure our results and encourage innovation to continuously improve the services government provides to Canadians.”

Given the above, at the CBOC conference today, we pitched this commitment as a “Googlization of Government“.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin set it out in their 2004 IPO letter:  “We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google.  This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner.”

Interestingly, in the latest research I found, about 10% of Googlers actually used this time.

But it seems that the ‘idea’ of having this HR innovation policy on the books served its purpose therein.

What’s interesting about this platform commitment is that it appears hard core – actually devoting a fixed percentage of  historically shrinking program funds.

Frankly, if this is real, it means a commitment to devote any level  of funds to empowering public servants regardless of where they lie on the hierarchy.

And it seems to signal that we trust you, we believe in you and we want you to succeed in making Canada better.

But the new Government’s platform commitment to the fixed percentage wasn’t reflected in the December 4, 2015 Speech from the Throne.

Does that matter?

I’m not certain.

But my gut tells me that if this commitment were executed in an authentic way that allows the funds to be deployed toward meaningful, wicked public policy problems, it could be a catalyst for public sector policy innovation, maybe using design thinking as a vehicle while engaging citizens and businesses directly in that journey.

While simply signalling that its okay to think beyond the box.

Because, in the end, isn’t the customer (oops citizen) always right?


vision | voice | visuals mine