Service Design – An approach to Better Public Services?

Director of Administration and Finance in the City of Jyväskylä, Heli Leinonkoski, gives a Civil Servants view on Service Design.

That was the question on my mind when I first time heard about the discipline called Service Design – only a year and a few months ago. As a civil servant I wondered if this was the way to connect citizens more closely to the service development work we do at the local government level. I became immediately interested. So much that in two months, February 2011, I was already in London chasing up what Service Design is really about. Thanks for that arrangement go for Mr Jussi Nissilä, Programme Director at the Finnish Institute in London and the City of Jyväskylä, my employer in Finland.

Did I get the answer to my question during my stay in London? I think so. Because of my background I had a very practical approach to Service Design and I really wanted to know how it works in practice. Does it help me and my fellow civil servants in public sector challenges? After talking to several design linked people I was pleased to realise that it was not about a rocket science and it did not taste theoretical. The Service Design helps people to piece together a problem, provides tools to find the solution and makes this all using communication, visualisation and co-creation. The tools are logical and understandable or what else you can say for example about the Desktop Walkthrough -tool where Lego figures act out common scenarious of a service process.

From the civil servant’s point of view the most fascinating feature in Service Design is that the tools and methods are also applicable in tackling complex social issues, such as youth marginalisation or the welfare of senior citizens. Furthermore the methods can be used in finding ways to change people’s behaviour in order to generate positive, sustainable social impacts, e.g. reducing water consumption.

In UK there are brilliant examples of public sector cases in which Service Design tools have been used successfully. One of the best-known is SILK, Social Innovation Lab for Kent. The team of three, innovative women in Kent County Council has definitely shown how the gap between a council and citizens can be reduced. Read about the projects at SILK’s website: http://socialinnovation.typepad.com/silk/.

As a civil servant I believe that there is potential for using design methods to increase mutual confidence also between civil servants and political decision-makers. In financially hard times, like these days, there are difficult issues to be resolved in councils: radical cut-backs and savings, re-allocation of resources even redundancies. A new, refreshing approach would be more than welcome. I find design methods useful also in cases where in-house processes, like HR or internal invoicing, spanning different departments have to be rationalised. Using service design tools to visualise processes can help to understand how things flow within the organisation, and whether there is anything that can be simplified.

In Finland the town-planning process is strictly regulated by the Land Use and Building Act. The hearing is too often carried out solely because the rules say so. Critical opinions are considered as a burden that slows the process. To make the whole process easier, both for citizens and for planning architects, there should be true co-planning and more communicative methods in the early stages. Finnish cities like Helsinki and Jyväskylä have used new interactive methods in some town-planning cases and the experiences have been really positive. Hope this trend is going to continue.

On the whole the Service Design is worth of taking serious at the public sector. We civil servants too often think that we know what people need and unfortunately that is mainly based on box-ticking surveys. We need to look at services through the eyes of the people whom those services are intended, and we need a deeper understanding of how the services we deliver affect people’s everyday lives.  As Katherine Kerswell, Chief Executive of Northamptonshire County Council, said: “We are very privileged in local government that we not only deliver services but what we deliver can change lives and communities”. The question is: do we recognise the responsibility which is included in this privilege and genuinely co-design services around people? Should we put a little bit more effort to understanding people’s lives and what really matters? Service Design offers tools – it is up to us whether we use them or not.

Heli Leinonkoski
Director of Administration and Finance
The City of Jyväskylä, Urban Design and Infrastructure
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 “Service Design – An Approach to Better Public Services? A Civil Servant’s View” by Heli Leinonkoski was published on the 5th of March 2012 in the Working Papers Series of The Finnish Institute in London and may be downloaded here.

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