In tough times we need designs on the future
12 December 2008
The standard of public services will only continue to improve if we embrace innovation and invest in skills, Sir Michael Bichard tells Alison Thomas. And he argues that even in a time of recession, the public sector must show commitment to the principle of good design
Just a few short months ago innovation, redesign of public services and investment in skills were being promoted with the laudable aim of keeping Britain at the forefront of the brave new knowledge economy of the 21st century. Today, the imperatives are rather more immediate than that – getting the nation through recession and out the other side in one piece.
And Sir Michael Bichard, chairman of the Design Council and director of the Institute of Government, is keen to promote the importance of the principles of good design and of good leader-ship to drive innovation and ensure both the nation's economic recovery and strong, effective public services for the future.
"One of the reasons I came to the Design Council was I thought that we could tie design in with public services and, with the setting up of the Institute of Government, could link all those things together," he says.
"Many people think of design in terms of packaging and product design. They don't realise design tools can go far beyond that, and can cause you to ask serious questions about business vision and service vision. Design is very much addressing the relationship with clients, customers and citizens and is relevant to the public sector, not least around services."
Massive investment in public services over the past decade has produced improvement, but not the transformation the government was looking for, Sir Michael suggests.
"You can argue that one of the reasons for that is that some of the money has been invested in services that are inherently poorly designed. If you have a poorly designed service and you pour money into it you get an improvement but you don't get a transformation. With money becoming more scarce it's even more important now that we start thinking about fundamental design issues around services."
So far the economic downturn does not seem to be leading to panic cuts in services and spending by public bodies, he says. Instead he detects an increasing interest in government in the potential for innovation.
"There is clearly a need to continue to improve services, even with less money," Sir Michael says. "I can't see how you can do that unless you ask serious questions about the way in which they are designed. Recession is not the time to batten down the hatches and see things like design as one of those soft things you can forget about, any more than it is the time to stop worrying about training and learning and skills. This is the moment when design and skills become absolutely critical to survival, growth and success."
Even without the current economic problems, there is growing recognition that innovative approaches to services and to policy development will be needed to cope with an increasingly complex world, he says. "The problems we are experiencing are often new and more complex, and range across bureaucratic silos. They are also not problems that can be resolved by the more efficient delivery of services.
"I think the past 10 or 15 years have been about how can we deliver more responsive services more efficiently. The next 15 years are going to be about how we deal with problems like climate change, security, obesity – the problems that don't respond to the traditional delivery of services in silos. We have got to look at new ways of addressing these problems and being innovative – it's no good repackaging yesterday's policies."
There is growing understanding among ministers and permanent secretaries that one of the routes to innovation is design, he adds.
Sir Michael aims to bring together the work of the Design Council and the Institute of Government, set up earlier this year to promote leadership skills at the most senior levels in government, and get the design community talking with government – "getting people in government to understand that design tools can help them to deliver better services and also more innovative services".
And he says there is "quite a buzz' developing around innovation, such as the work the Design Council is doing with the Home Office on designing out crime, and projects with the Department of Health to design out infections such as MRSA.
New skills and approaches to developing policy will be important, he says, such as being more open to external challenge and input, and using design tools such as prototyping more frequently.
"You have to be realistic – politicians are always under pressure to achieve improvement and progress, but I think we could do more prototyping and evaluation as we go along," says Sir Michael, drawing on his experience as permanent secretary at the then Department for Education and Employment.
"Though people have some doubts about the policy now, one of the things that impressed me when I was doing the New Deal was that we were getting real-time management information and we were able to adjust the policy on the hoof as we went along. I think too often in the past policies have been introduced in a way that doesn't deliver the information you need to assess quickly enough whether it is working or whether you have got a problem – and if you have got a problem you need to know about it."
Involving deliverers and citizens in the development and implementation of policy is also important, he says, citing the Design of the Times (Dott) initiative in which designers worked with communities in the North East to help them address their problems more effectively, achieving successes in areas as diverse as improving sexual health and reducing energy use. "We ought to be looking at new ways of enabling communities, and design has a part to play. There are some really interesting examples of designers getting alongside communities and helping them to produce new solutions."
Meanwhile it is a commonplace to say that the public sector is risk averse – but the analysis needs to go deeper than that, he suggests.
"You have to ask why the public sector is risk averse and what are the barriers to innovation. Leadership can make a big difference – political leadership as well as official – and the structures and governance arrangements of the organisation. Do they get in the way of innovation, are they too hierarchical? Are we recognising innovation – when you appraise people do you actually value people who are trying to be innovative; do you promote people who are innovative? Do you manage risk well? If you don't, people are going to be quite nervous about innovating because sometimes innovation does go wrong."
And rejecting a blame culture is vital. "If you want innovation a blame culture is not going to help. I know this sounds a bit like motherhood and apple pie, but you don't get innovation from organisations where people don't trust each other. That's the bottom line. If you don't trust people you are very cautious about doing something that might involve risk because you are not sure you are going to get support if it goes wrong.
"We are very good at managing risk in terms of producing 28-page risk assessments, but we need to examine how good we are at getting alongside the young official, probably inexperienced, who is developing a particular policy, and working with them to identify risk – political, financial or reputational – and what we do to minimise these risks."
A commitment to investing in innovation and business development is also important, but he observes: "Sometimes a lack of investment sparks innovation – that may well happen in the coming months and years."
Sir Michael is keen to do more research into the successful examples of public sector innovation to establish the ingredients of success and how projects overcome cultural obstacles, restructure themselves and find ways of working across bureaucratic boundaries.
And he is also eager to spread such best practice. "What it needs for innovation to spread is independent intermediaries such as the Design Council, the Institute of Government, Nesta or the Young Foundation, all of which are in a position to bring some of that learning and knowledge together. There is a reluctance if you are in the thick of it to accept that another local authority or a health trust or a government department has got something to teach you. The reality is that there is a lot to learn out there."