Manuela Aguirre - Can service prototyping from the frontlines support policymaking processes?

In the last three years, more than twenty new government innovation labs have emerged, most with service design as a central capacity. These labs are seen as a means to improve quality of life, reduce inequalities and work more effectively with reduced public budgets. However, the complexity that the policy and public service landscapes entail requires equipping designers with a new set of tools, skills and principles.

New tools from the area of Systems Oriented Design allow designers to deal with extreme complexity, leveraging visual and systems thinking techniques. New skills adapted from social anthropology and social policy allow designers to be more rigorous in their research and prototyping designs.  Finally, designers need strong ethical principles to evaluate new ideas and interventions when designing for the common good.

Engaging in research-by-design, I embedded myself in a public service innovation lab that has a unique point of departure. Rather than establishing itself within central government, it uses a Grounded Change approach (Schulman et. al. 2014) by working at the frontlines - at the intersection between citizens and service providers. Traditionally in the public sector, the design and delivery functions are separate. Policymakers design and municipalities and public organizations deliver, disconnecting policy from people’s real context with weak feedback loops between design and implementation.

Through a case study, the question explored was: can strengthening the design capacity within citizens and the people delivering public services improve outcomes for all parties involved?  The results of a six-month long design capacity building program showed that Grounded Change is promising - as radical new services were co-designed and prototyped in context by service staff with end users. The ongoing challenge is how to connect this approach to the support structures that will enable these new services to continue developing and support policymaking processes.