Background: As an experiment, I'm writing my ebook Public Design FAQs in public, on the 200wad platform. It's a complete field guide to the best practices, strategies, tactics, tips and hacks to using human-centred design approaches in the public sector. Read the book here as it's written, 200 words at a time.
Q: Everyday we're busy fighting fires at our government department. Our Minister also needs us to recommend a solution in the next few weeks. We simply don't have the time to go out into the field to talk to citizens. Design thinking sounds useful but it's too time-consuming. We need solutions now, not more research!
A: If fires are burning everyday, it's understandable that we need immediate, stop-gap patches to quickly plug the leaks. After all, a lapse in public service delivery might have serious consequences for citizens who are solely dependent on your service to say, get fed or receive medical attention. For sure, do what it takes to stabilize the situation, but don't let your stop-gap patches become permanent (but piecemeal) ways of delivering your service. In the first place, the fires you're fighting are probably symptomatic of larger systemic issues in your planning or implementation, so it's advisable to set aside time still needs to get to the heart of the problem.
In public service, pragmatic efficiency often reigns and there's a bias to jump into solutioning as fast as possible. The danger is that we might be solving the wrong problem very efficiently, without a clear understanding whether the solution addresses the needs and painpoints of the citizens. And that implies that taxpayer's money are wasted, manpower and time is spent on solutions that are less effective than it could potentially be. So design thinking can, in a way, help public service be more effective, because:
- By speaking to citizens, we develop empathy and understanding of citizens' needs, so that whatever solutions we come up with will serve these needs.
- By involving and co-creating solutions with frontline staff, we develop empathy of the challenges that they face when implementing the solutions, so that the new service or scheme also helps them be more effective and efficient.
- Based on the empathy and understanding of both citizens and staff needs, we can better reframe our perspective of problem and get towards solving the right problem, instead of stop-gap measures of efficiently solving the wrong one. So setting aside time to properly find the right problem to solve will go a long way.
More haste, less speed!
But having said that, design thinking in itself isn't inherently time-consuming. Yes, taking time to solve the right problem might take some time, but you can use the very same techniques in quick and dirty ways to quickly bring a fresh perspective to your problem too.
For instance, you can do some quick guerrilla research with existing citizens who interact with your service. It could be speaking to them for ten minutes while they queuing for their turn in the waiting room, or doing up a quick online form to get feedback. Or you could look up Facebook groups or online forums/communities where your users might hang out, and engage them there. Come up with a rough prototype of an idea you might have (in the form of a rough brochure, poster or a few information slides), and show it to some users in a closed setting (if you don't feel comfortable sharing anything publicly at this early stage).
Quick and dirty research might not be as comprehensive or in-depth as you want or as is required by standard policy-planning protocol, but it can already point you in new directions of enquiry and learning, towards solving the right problem. Even a little design research that's done early can add value and provide high leverage learnings compared to no design research at all, so why not?!