July 24, 2018

Design Thinking for Better Government Services

woman and white board covered with sticky notes

What do government programs reducing chronic malnutrition in Madagascar, boosting innovation in Asia, and increasing enrollment for food stamps in the United States have in common? While working at the World Bank Innovation Lab, I saw policymakers around the world searching for innovative solutions to complex problems affecting their constituencies, and how “design thinking” — a structured, creative process — can be an extremely powerful approach to tackling the unique challenges of delivering public value and improving public services.

“Design thinking” (also called “human-centered design” or HCD) is a creative problem-solving process that puts the user (the target audience or a client) at the center of attention in order to arrive at novel solutions that deeply reflect the user’s needs. Originally developed and widely used by designers, architects, and the private sector with roots going back to the 1960s, design thinking recently gained traction in the public and international development sectors. Although different schools of thoughts and terminology exist, the main pillars of the process are consistent and include deep empathy, listening and connecting to the user, experimenting through rapid and cheap prototyping, and constant iteration. To learn more about the process, I recommend the NESTA or UNDP guides on design thinking for public services.

Why does it matter to government?

During my time at the World Bank Innovation Lab and at Harvard Kennedy School, I encountered several projects from around the globe in which governments used design thinking to improve their services significantly. Some of the potential benefits include the following:

Improve service delivery.

HCD offers a straightforward way to develop a much deeper understanding of the needs of the recipient of government services and their experience with a government program. This includes the critical — yet often overlooked — behavioral, sociological, and cultural factors that should be reflected in the design of programs. Hence, HCD can help governments to:

-- Increase program effectiveness through innovative solutions and improved design. Many services provided by the public sector (especially in health, education, sanitation, and poverty reduction) require highly complex behavioral changes by individuals, communities, and societies at large. During the HCD process, being close to the beneficiaries allows policymakers to tailor programs to lower the barriers to making these changes. HCD can also act as a “debiasing” tool, helping policymakers widen the spectrum of potential solutions beyond their own current assumptions. For example, with Madagascar’s National Community Nutrition Program, the country’s government and the World Bank team leveraged HCD to improve programs designed to reduce chronic childhood malnutrition, which is staggeringly high in the country. One of the powerful insights that came out of the HCD research was that there was a lack of awareness among mothers as to what constitutes nutritious food and how to prepare it, and that this was a much more significant barrier to overcoming malnutrition than the financial barrier. In response, the team designed, among other interventions, an awareness campaign and cooking demonstrations focused on preparing nutrient-rich food. The World Bank team observed that HCD allowed them to “design interventions better suited to beneficiary desires and behavioral tendencies with quick, cheap generation and testing of new approaches to influence people to adopt new behaviors.”

-- Eliminate potential barriers to accessing and using government programs, such as the GetCalFresh project run by Code for America that streamlines the application process for California’s food stamps program. While the state offered an online application, it was burdensome for the user, often taking an hour to complete and consisting of more than 50 web pages and over 100 questions. Most families who started the process would end up abandoning it. By using HCD, Code for America created online and mobile applications that offer an improved user experience, allowing users to transmit documents by taking photos of them with their phone than sending them via fax, scan, or snail mail, and reducing the time it takes to complete the application to less than 10 minutes. These improvements have substantially increased enrollment.  

Improve program efficiency.

HCD helps to increase government efficiency in two primary ways:

-- Eliminate programs solving the wrong or unexciting problem. The HCD process forces all participants to have a very clear definition of the problem being addressed. Designing a program without an established and shared understanding of a problem can be extremely costly and time-consuming. The HCD process also helps to unpack a solution disguised as a problem. For example, one government delegation from an Asian country wanted to solve a problem of creating a “virtual inventory” of all innovation experts in the country. The HCD process revealed that the real challenge at hand for the team was “how might we improve currently limited guidance and support services available to start-ups in the country.” With that, the team was able not only to create much better and cheaper programs more quickly, but also to start from a foundation where all of the stakeholders shared a common understanding of the challenge.

-- Save large upfront costs, through rapid prototyping, iteration, and A/B testing, in which one compares two versions of something to assess which performs better. This is a major shift from what is called the “waterfall approach,” which treats analysis, design, and implementation as discrete phases in a project. Due to a lack of iteration in the waterfall approach, large resources are dedicated to product or service development without testing it with the user. Such an approach, some experts posit, accounts in no small part for the failed launch of the HealthCare.gov platform in the US in 2013. Using HCD, on the other hand, policymakers to get quick and frequent feedback from users and hence decrease the costs and the risks of failure.  

Build capacity and work across silos.

As HCD often involves multidisciplinary teams, it encourages working across the silos within organizations and among different stakeholders. This cross-fertilization helps to build capacity and social capital that can be applied to future projects.

Human-centered design is not a silver bullet. But it can be an incredibly powerful process that helps policymakers improve public services and make government more responsive to its constituents, especially when facing complex, wicked problems. Learn more about the right conditions to apply HCD in my next post.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

Related Topics

Related Topics