Towards intelligent design in public administrations

17 June 2020

Can the pandemic boost innovation and bring out the best in human creativity?

Iñigo Herrera

So far, 2020 has broken many boundaries that only a few months ago seemed unbreakable. Due to the public health crisis caused by the onset of COVID19, many governments around the world have ground their economies to a halt to prevent the spread of the infection. Pollution has dropped down to levels previously seen as practically unreachable by many until not too long ago, health workers globally have worked tirelessly to treat patients, and citizens, for the most part, seem to have respected the limitations imposed on them by governments.

Indeed, we saw in many countries how the outbreaks were quickly reduced, and the curves flattened (despite recent setbacks in some places). It wasn’t long before we saw the waters of Venice clean enough to see the bottom of the canals for the first time in generations, or Mount Everest being visible from places it hadn’t been seen for decades. When it comes to politics, we have seen governments start to take action on urgent matters which, as a result of the crisis, have exacerbated the precarious conditions that many citizens find themselves in, such as with Spain’s guaranteed minimum income scheme, or the EU’s pledged reconstruction package for its ailing members.

Perhaps it is fair to reiterate what thinkers such as Yuval Noah Harari have argued based on historical trends, that every crisis presents an opportunity for change. In this opportunity of a lifetime, we must rise to the challenge by kickstarting innovation and by channelling the best of human creativity to allow us to come out stronger on the other side.

However, one of the bigger obstacles standing in our way (that we seem to have no answer for thus far), is the organisation of our public services so that they are more efficient, agile, and proactive when it comes to protecting citizens, and to make sure that crises such as this one do not leave people even more marginalised than before. The key to this is the intelligent design of government services and the socially responsible use of data to power these services.

Until not too long ago, data seemed for many people to be just another piece in the otherwise complicated puzzle that is human society. When it comes to interacting with the private sector, this can almost be forgiven – after all, if your bank gives you the impression that it is not well organised and efficient, you can take your custom elsewhere. But what if your country’s national tax agency stubbornly demands that you complete countless forms every year, with data they already possess, just so you can pay your taxes? Tax evasion aside, we are left with little choice but to comply, albeit begrudgingly.

The short answer is that poorly designed government services (often from the perspective of the government official rather than the citizen) create a needlessly complex relationship between the government and the governed. At best, this can cause mild amusement and frustration at having to sort through mountains of paperwork, and at worst, as we see at times such as this one, it can leave citizens unable to understand and access social supports that they are entitled to and that they need.

As a matter of public policy, the introduction of intelligent design – that is, user-centred design – can be a fundamental tool to help bridge the gap between what governments have the capacity to do and what citizens need.

User-centred design is heavily reliant on both quantitative and qualitative research as a means of identifying first and foremost what a service needs to consider from the user’s perspective. Taking this perspective to the core of the service, it needs to consider the entire process from beginning to end, and not just what the user sees, but what goes on behind the scenes as well. This includes, for instance, the ways that citizens can count on to communicate with government agencies, be it by phone, e-mail, or face-to-face.

In broad terms, design thinking can be divided into three phases. The first of these is the ‘exploration’ phase, in which the issue at hand is researched thoroughly and broken down to understand the underlying issues that exist with any service. For instance, some of the questions that can be addressed are: is it too confusing for citizens? Does it require redundant documentation? Are the processes that citizens will have to follow set out clearly enough? Does it offer an effective communication system for citizens to be able to know if their paperwork has been accepted or if they are required to submit further details?

Another element in this phase is understanding, from the quantitative and qualitative perspectives, how big the problem at hand is, and whether this service is something that every citizen must go through (e.g. signing up to social security payments, applying for a passport, or renewing a driver’s license). Furthermore, what can the citizens who use the service tell us about it? What issues did they encounter and how did this affect the way they could manage their paperwork?

Having understood these initial issues to form the context, the next stage in service design can proceed to a ‘design’ phase in which services providers can begin experimenting with different ways in how to create a streamlined service, for instance by getting rid of superfluous documentation or by not gathering data that the government already has, by simplifying the information given to the citizens about this service, or by making sure there is an effective communications protocol that allows citizens to understand each necessary step of the process, and in turn to feel as though their government is truly transparent about its bureaucracy.

The last phase of service design involves releasing progressively more complete iterations of the service, which can enable both the officials and citizens to slowly come to terms with the improved way to handle paperwork. This also enables a more fluid adoption by both parties, as they test every aspect of the new service and constantly provide feedback for successive, more complete iterations of this service.

In this manner, service design lays the foundations for a more efficient public sector organisation, one which enables officials to focus on how humans interact with the public sector, whilst all the mechanical aspects of inputting and handling data can be left to automated processes. This is, of course no small feat, but it will allow the public sector to be better prepared for future crises and to better fulfil its responsibility to the citizenry.