As I’m less than two months away from finishing my Digital Experience Design MA, I’m thinking more and more about what’s next. One thing I know is that I want to apply human-centred design process and an agile way of working to solving meaningful problems in areas that are underserved by design talent.
So when I heard the founder of FutureGov, Dominic Campbell, talk about the challenges and opportunities in the public sector, I was inspired and wanted to know more. He was kind enought to meet me in Future Gov’s London office and answer all my questions. Below I’m sharing the highlights.
Q: What drives you?
A: I’m probably the only person that wanted to work in local government at the age of 14. Probably because my grand parents used to run a bus company in the North of England. Growing up in Birmingham, which is quite a civic-minded city, I’ve always been interested in how government can play a role in improving people’s lives.
And then I got into government 12–13 years ago and interestingly it was pretty disappointing. I thought it would be full of people who are civic activists, but they were administrators. Which is an important role, but I expected a sort of passion and a desire to problem solve in an interesting and challenging way. But government itself isn’t set up for that. The way it is constructed is about taking legislation and building a service around it, rather than taking users’ needs and building a solution to a problem.
So that’s why I ended up leaving. To try and come at it from a different angle. Because I still believe strongly in the role of some form of collective public services. But I do believe that the once we’ve got are made for 100 years ago and need to be reinvented. So now we often play the role of the friend of government that is willing to take the risk on its behalf to try something new. So the stuff that drives me is creative problem solving and interesting challenges.
Q: And where did your interest in technology come from?
A: It was almost a reverse interest. I got my first email account when I was 19, I got my first mobile phone when I was 19 — I wasn’t early on anything. And then I went into the working world and ended up running big corporate IT projects. And while I could, on the one hand, see the opportunity of technology, I could also see that technology was forcing behaviours in a bad way. It was getting in the way of people doing the really important stuff. So taking them away from talking to human beings.
So I almost learned from the bad things, rather than the good things. But then I was introduced to Twitter and Delicious and a range of silly apps that were popping up 7 or 8 years ago. And I became really interested in the idea of small technology that does just what you need it to, nothing else, and it helps you solve a problem.
So I left government to try and show government how to change the way it thinks about technology. So how do you do lots of small things rather than one big thing. Because one big thing never solves all the user requirements. That’s when I went from an uneasy feeling about technology into seeing what good looks like and wanting to do it.
Q: If you were doing a research project, like I am, what kind of questions would you go deeper into?
A: I’m really interested in enterprise technology. I think there’s a huge problem there and a huge opportunity. And I think social workers deserve better, because they’re doing a really important job. So how could design and technology radically transform independence in public services? Almost like the quantified self movement. What’s quantified self in public services? How do you empower people to do a lot more for themselves?
I was talking to somebody earlier about how the left is so old fashioned on this, because it thinks about government in terms of how many people it employs. But government should be about social impact. And if the answer is fewer people doing things, and technology enabling you and I to do more for ourselves, surely that is good government. So how do digital and design have the potential to reinvent the way that government thinks about its purpose and delivers its social aspect?
“How do digital and design have the potential to reinvent the way that government thinks about its purpose and delivers its social aspect?”
Or just take one specific area like domestic violence or children sexual exploitation. And think about how you could apply some lateral thinking from other sectors, using digital and design well, to solve a complex problem in the public sector.
Q: What do you think designers lack to work in public services?
A: One thing is resilience. And an ability to admit that nothing can be perfect. When it comes to change and using design for improvement in public services you need to be willing to accept that things go slower than you thought they would. That 60% better is better than nothing. It’s sad in some respect, but it’s also the reality of designing within constraints.
It’s interesting to also understand that in the commercial sector you can deliver 80% of your vision, if your lucky, but on something that is irrelevant. Whereas if you can deliver 60% of your vision on something that matters, then that’s surely more important. So having that resilience, having the ability to do strategy as well; to understand the context effectively, the politics, the structures, the power; understanding it all and then delivering one tiny perfect thing that changes something.
“In the commercial sector you can deliver 80% of your vision, if your lucky, but on something that is irrelevant. Whereas if you can deliver 60% of your vision on something that matters, then that’s surely more important.”
Whereas what I see a lot of is jumping to conclusions pretty quickly, and coming up with ideas that are quite superficial. You need a level of seriousness about your craft in public services. And modesty. Coming into an environment where you don’t know anything can be hard. Which is why, I think, a lot of people come in and out very quickly, because they’re exhausted. The good thing is that we have a collection of people who like to fight for the right kind of stuff.
Q: Do designers working in public services need to get involved in politics?
A: I think you have to be aware of Politics with the big “P”, but you have to be good in politics with a small “p”. The way that we work is that service designers and UX designers always partner with an organisation designer who does politics. They understand the power and they understand the relationships. They create the space for designers to deliver the right solution. Because I think it’s a bit of a waste for the designer to do both. And there’s very few who have those two skill sets.
So I don’t think you do, you probably just need to find someone who can cover that for you. My business partner Carrie and I generally do that at a strategic level. We are going to Chief Execs and creating a vision for change. And then an organisational designer will go and turn that vision into something more tangible and work with a designer to deliver that. We believe in multidisciplinary teams and we need people like you to make things. It’s a good partnership.