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: Happening across every government team meeting:
You: "Let's try using design thinking to solve X! (or some innovative new way of solving an old problem)"
Boss: "There's no budget."
A: There's certainly a common perception that to use human-centred design in public services we need a relatively big budget to contract consultants or vendors. Sure, if it's a big, important project and you need external help, it does mean you invariably can't escape the budget issue. But it doesn't have to be. There are ways to apply nifty techniques of design thinking into your work without ever having to invite for three quotations or call for a tender. There's many ways to use design in cheap but effective ways. Besides, that fact that your boss is saying there's no budget means that perhaps he/she is not seeing the business value of design and its return on investment. So it might be best to lower that barrier for him/her and show some small successes with the technique in cheap and effective ways first, before jumping into contracting out.
If you're in the non-profit space, seeking pro bono help might be an easy way to help your boss dip his toes in design thinking without the hefty budget requirements. Of course, I wouldn't recommend pro bono being the de facto way to engage designers this way - there's a lot of value they can bring and if you see value in it, it's best that they can be compensated fairly. Pro bono could also be possible even in the government space, if the public issue you're working on is not highly classified. If you got questions and need some guidance, ask them or find volunteers/mentors on government design forums like Apolitical, #Govdesign, International Design in Government community (there's a Slack group too), or Public Design Chat.
Otherwise, many of the techniques and tools of design thinking are freely available online, and cheap to try out. I keep going back to a few, like Design Kit (for social impact) by IDEO.org. The New York City Mayor's Office also has a toolkit for civic service design, which is quite well designed. Search for other toolkits here.
What if, say, you need to test a public communications piece to see how members of the public will potentially react to your new government initiative? Sketch out the comms on flipchart paper, use magazine cut-outs, or prototype a rough newspaper front page and show it in closed sharing groups to colleagues or selected (and safe) members of the public. Need to do a quick citizen engagement session over a public issue? Ask friends and family members if they mind having coffee. No need to engage an expensive research recruiter to find respondents (yet). Need to brainstorm ideas? Tap on the wisdom of the crowd and organise an brainstorming office lunch with colleagues who always have lots of creative ideas. Or print out the problem you're tackling, put them up on a flipchart and paste it in the office pantry with some spare sticky notes and marker pens. Include a call-to-action and invite people to write ideas down as they are having their coffee breaks. Besides, that's also a great way to get people excited and to spread awareness on your project and on design thinking methods.
See? Easy peasy. "No budget"? No problem.