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: Design thinking is just another intellectual fad passing through government. It gets whispered around in senior management meetings and then it becomes a thing. Few months later, another fad picks up and the previous one is forgotten. First, it's design thinking. Then came behavourial insights. Will we see the return of Six Sigma, or lean manufacturing (*sarcasm)? As public servants, we are tired of implementing the fashionable methodology of the month, only to have people lose interest in it after much public money is poured into it. It's demoralising to staff, and such a such of manpower.
A: This is quite an on-point observation about how design thinking is being co-oped into personal/political agendas. As with any new exciting method, there's always a chance that it gets abused for purposes other than what the method claims. Unfortunate but unavoidable. What we can do about it as staff is to do due diligence whether to really understand the method and see if there's real benefits to applying it to the problems and issues your team is trying to solve. If yes, take what you can from it. If no, float feedback up to your bosses (skillfully) that it may not be applicable in your case. As public servants we are stewards of public money and there's nothing wrong with being cautious about implementing something new.
That said, there is still a case to be said for design thinking in the public sector. I once heard an enlightened manager said "Design thinking as a term or a fad might fade away after a while, but there will always be a need for public policy/services to be citizen-centred, to address the needs and difficulties that citizens are facing." The point here is to not get caught in the name, some snazzy headline or the superficial buzz, but in the deeper outcomes we are trying to achieve. We don't have to call it design thinking, human-centred design or service design if it's not helpful to the cause. In fact, staff get turned off by new fads after a while and the name itself hinders the cultural acceptance and adoption of it. Fancy methods are products that management consultants try to sell us, and we don't have to be beholden to the name, and just pick and choose the right methods and tools to help us do our job better. Ultimately, solving the public issue at hand is our mission as public servants, isn't it? If design thinking gives us useful tools to help us plan better policies and deliver citizen-centric public services, why not just use the tools without all the jazz?