Let's get scrappy: Three takeaways from the Service Design in Government conference

Published: 26 October 2023

A cake, featuring a design of the Edinburgh skyline and the words SD in Gov 10th Anniversary
The Service Design in Government conference is for anyone interested in designing and commissioning public services. 

This year the event marked its 10th anniversary and brought together an inspiring mix of speakers and facilitators to stimulate discussion and collaboration.

A small team from Social Finance’s recently established Design and Research practice travelled up to Edinburgh to attend. This is the second year we have been at the conference – last year we presented a case study on the ethical case for friction based on our partnership work with Reset’s Homes for Ukraine matching service. In this blog, we’ll share some of our key takeaways and learnings from this year’s event.

First things first, what are services? Put simply, services are things that help people do things, like learn to drive, apply for a mortgage, or book a train. 

The postal service of the 1800s is often considered the first service in the UK. Now, our everyday lives include interactions with myriad digital and in-person services, many of which are delivered by the government. 

Service design is the practice of working out how services can work better for the user. This blog explains it well!

1. Service design is evolving and responding to increasingly complex issues

It is widely acknowledged that services and the way they need to be designed has changed over time, and as such, service design as a practice has evolved too. At the conference, it struck us how service design is being used to approach increasingly complex issue areas, in ever more creative ways. 

Dr. Jen Manuel, from the UK Health Security Agency, described how user-centred design, commonly applied to transactional services, is moving into more relational services. We’re witnessing a shift from the comfortable’ territory of service design that emerged within data and digital teams, towards less familiar territories, such as Policy Labs that have recently been established in central government departments, and more complex service spaces such as health. 

As service design branches into new areas, it’s an exciting time to get involved. It’s also an important time to revisit core service design knowledge. Martin Jordan and Kara Kane reflected on their decades of experience in service design for the UK and German governments, reminding us not to be too dogmatic in our pursuit of design processes, but to accept a level of scrappiness when it comes to building trust and pursing new opportunities. 

Doing co-design differently requires building a trusting relationship and humility, as we balance the power between designer and user.

Chloe Taylor-Gee, Design Researcher, Data + Digital Labs team

A similar sentiment was reflected in Rochelle Gold’s honest and personal keynote speech, The Journey to Eutopia, which reminded us not to wait until the perfect time or the ideal set of circumstances. It was useful to hear colleagues speak optimistically about pragmatism when breaking new ground. 

Our Data + Digital Labs team have recently defined five core impact areas, including children & young people’s mental health, reducing health inequalities, and tech in social care. We are looking at how user-centred design can improve these areas of work, from conducting usability studies and observations of digital tools used in social care, to running co-design workshops with young people to ensure their voice forms part of the solutions we propose. 

2. Do things differently to get different results

Accessibility and inclusion are central to good service design. When services don’t meet the needs of some groups or unintentionally exclude people, they need to be redesigned and approached differently. 

In a stimulating talk by TPX Impact and the mental health charity Young Minds, Nina Mafula and Mike Woolf detailed a core problem: despite Young Minds offering services for all young people, research showed the primary users were predominantly white, cisgender, middle class young women. 

To create a service that supports young Black people, the speakers explained that building trust and strategic support at senior leadership level were key. They conducted creative qualitative research which exposed the baked-in assumptions that led to some Black people feeling excluded. They used participatory activities to co-design a solution best suited to their most pressing needs. Doing co-design differently requires building a trusting relationship and humility, as we balance the power between designer and user.

Two people presenting in front of a screen at a conference.
The team from Humanly

Similar messages could be overheard at a talk by Ali Fawkes and Jenni Parker of Humanly, who explained how they developed a creative toolkit for their project with Social Finance on supporting Jewish children with mental health concerns. It included creating an emotion cushion’ and building a cardboard brick emotion wall’ for young people to kick down! 

Their tips about conducting research with young people were helpful to us at Social Finance, particularly as we expand our research on online harms and young people.

3. Slow work is sometimes the best work

Despite the common trap of equating efficiency with quality, this inspiring keynote speech by Julian Thompson encouraged us to pause and consider the possibilities of joy and the imagination. 

Speaking from his experience of designing for Black communities for his design company Rooted, Thompson explained that the histories of oppression and colonisation have impacted the way in which people dream about their futures, but that equity invites us into the realm of imagination’. This approach takes time and may not look linear, but could create the most transformative solutions. 

This sentiment was shared by Kate Tarling in her keynote speech which summarised the key points from her book The Service Organization. In order to make the shift from organizations that provide lots of services’, to organizations which embed service design across all levels’, Kate spoke about how creating change in institutions requires building momentum over time. It involves identifying key user groups who understand how things get done around here’ and getting to a point where more than one person is saying what you’re saying. 

At Social Finance, we are speaking to clients and partners with this in mind, showing them the benefits of design research and service design, and gradually building momentum and understanding of the transformative potential of centering the user. 

As a Design & Research Practice we are excited to apply the learnings from these takeaways into our everyday work. We’re establishing a Community of Practice to begin sharing our experience of these new approaches, tackling challenges with new ways of working and being intentional about when and how we should use different approaches.

We’re always looking to build new connections and plug into the wider service design community. If you’re on a similar journey, or you want to learn more about how design research, service design, or participation capabilities can enhance your project work and truly champion the user, get in touch with our Human-centred Design & Research Practice Lead, Camilla Devereux.

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