From Servants to Stewards: Design-led Innovation in the Public Sector

Adam Hasler: “For years, and very acutely the last few months, citizens of the United States and in many other parts of the world have been pitched into an often uncomfortable morass of debate and discussion about the direction of their country. Problems exist, and persist, which government at all levels has tried to address or currently addresses, and government’s efficacy at addressing problems affects all of us in some way. At such an historical moment like the one in which we live, in which a competing visions of government excite or frighten so many, we remember how much government matters to us.

A very powerful anecdote told to a crowd of listeners at Harvard recently recounted how, during a United States Digital Service project, the prototype for a project delivered to a decision maker and her team didn’t include a feature that was very clearly dictated to them in the requirements. The head of the United States Digital Service team that facilitated the project received an angry call summoning her to the director’s office. There, the policy maker who had added the requirement asked for an explanation why the prototype didn’t meet requirements. “We described to her that we actually took this prototype to a school, and had people use it. It wasn’t a feature they wanted or used, so it didn’t make sense to build it.” The simple common sense of the logic of design-thinking immediately resonated with the policy maker. “Yeah, we shouldn’t build it if they don’t need it.” She stopped for a moment, and continued, “Oh my gosh, this is great, we should do everything like this, we should make policy like this!”

“Yeah, we shouldn’t build it if they don’t need it.” She stopped for a moment, and continued, “Oh my gosh, this is great! We should do everything like this! We should make policy like this!”

This story demonstrates how a growing movement within governments around the world has begun improve the public sector through design-led innovation. This article, presented in four parts, explores various aspects of that movement. To get right to it, the “design” in design-led innovation refers in this work specifically to design thinking, or the idea that design is a process, rather than a domain of outputs. You’ll see that I advocate strongly for a particular design process known as human-centered design, commonly referred to as HCD. HCD is a process made up of alternating divergence and convergence by which an individual or team starts by empathetically understanding a problem through close interaction with the people that experience it. The team then extends that co-creation to the solution phase, and experiments with ideas originating from both the team the humans who have the problem. It relies heavily on prototyping and small-scale releases of potential solutions to facilitate multiple iterations and get as close as possible to a solution whose effectiveness the team measures relative to its ability to solve the original problem. This may represent a bit of a switch to some: rather than become enamored of and advocate for a favored genius idea, many of today’s best designers fall in love with the problem, and don’t rest until a solution, originating from anywhere, gets it closer to solved.

I define innovation here as the process of developing and cultivating new ideas, often from individuals throughout an organization and even outside of it, thereby maximizing the potential of all of the resources at an organization’s disposal and often breaking down organizational silos. The marriage of innovation and design thinking suggests a strategy in which innovation encourages new ideas and helps an organization adapt to ever-changing conditions, and a transparent process that helps to develop a deep understanding of a problem, decreases cost and mitigates the risk of releasing something that doesn’t solve the problem, and provides a mechanism for questioning the system itself.

This work culminates an introductory research project for me. At the heart of the work is the question, “How can design thinking and innovation improve public sector effectiveness, provide more opportunities for rewarding political participation, and facilitate the pursuit of ambitious, shared goals that move us into the future?…(More)”