Notes and reflections from Service Design in Gov 2022

I’ve been a service designer for a few years now, but I’ve not made it to #SDinGov in person before. This year I was speaking with my colleague Katie.

These notes were written a few days after the conference so I may have misremembered some points or have put my own interpretation of what I heard. So please take them as an inspiration of things to think about rather than accurate reporting of what I heard. If a speaker would like me to change anything I’ve misremembered I’m more than happy to, just reach out.

There are some great interviews from keynotes on the Understanding Users podcast.

Castle like building with bright blue sky behind it
The beautiful building on the way to the conference.

Day one

User-centred design in public services — what now and what next?

Rebecca Kemp, Design Director, Future Foundry

  • scope to add user-centred design (UCD) to public services
  • focus on viability
  • diverse people
  • agency for users and being aware of power relations
  • desirability — does the user need it?
  • feasibility — can we do it?
  • viability — will it make profit or meet organisation objectives?

When doing UCD in public services it’s hard because the organsiation need is slippery. We can be working with created needs and can need complex solutions because of the integrated problems we’re trying to solve.

Rebecca acknowledged that there is no single version of the truth and no one person actually knows what the future should look like, so opened up the conversation for us to chat with those next to us to see what their thoughts were.

Public policy design: making design core business for government

Lucy Kimbell, University of the Arts London & Andrew Knight, Civil Service

Lucy and Andrew had a conversation asking each other questions. Some key points that I took away were

There was some conversation about how we define design, but that might not be a useful rabbit hole to go down.

  1. Increase in public value
    When an idea goes through the design process (researching, testing and building at the end rather than having a policy idea, building it and then evaluating) then you reduce the risk in what you’re building.
  2. Helps people make sense of the world
    We are solving very complex problems so need to navigate complexity and uncertainty. Design helps join the macro and micro.
  3. Multidisciplinary nervous system
    If you can get to a common language between design and policy you can get the benefits of both working well together to solve problems.
  4. Productivity
    Design gives assurance that you’re doing the right thing and increases efficiency with the focus on delivery and outcomes.
  5. Public trust and social contract
    Citizens have to work out what to trust and design can help with that because personal agency is part of it.

There are barriers to getting value from design in to government. Policy design is a new discipline. Using Christian Basson’s design ladder can be useful to think about where it is. Design for strategy would be a 4.

1. Value proposition
Design is a mystery from the outside, so we need to evidence the value, this means in show the money. This value proposition has to be told in a way that leadership understand it and we need some champions.

2. Education
Training is needed so that everyone in government has a basic understanding of design, what it is and how it helps.

3. Missing infrastructure
There is a small window in the political system to get design right

  • Government intent — what is the policy trying to do?
  • Systems — what do current and possible systems look like?
  • User needs — what do citizens or users actually need?

Once you’ve found the sweet spot between those three you also need permission.

Because we’re trying to influence senior leaders we need to understand their needs. The advice was to sell design to them because it’ll make them look awesome. As well as that design drives productivity and it connects to strategy execution.

But at the moment there are silos of design (policy, service, tech, architecture, etc) and we don’t have a shared language or the right tools for policy design.

One that’s missing is the ability to visualise policy design.

Recommended read: Blunders in Government

How service ownership can help deliver better policy outcomes

Liam Hawkes, Home Office & Charlotte Moore, Home Office

Liam and Charlotte work in a policy lab, where they don’t always have a service owner. They shared their reflections on how you can think about the role of service ownership independently of there being a single person doing the job.

It being easier to fit the front stage together than the backstage was a theme that came up a few times at the conference.
(This became of a theme of the conference for me.)

Policy is delivered through services but there are 3 stages to making a service work:

Policy > Delivery > Operationalise

A lot of service design decision are made at the policy stage, but service design often isn’t working at that stage.

Services don’t look at the wider problem, the scope and focus is often smaller.

  • Policy intent,
  • Organisation goals and
  • User needs.

Finding the sweet spot in this trilogy is also another theme that came up for me.

1. Understanding the whole context

2. Using outcomes and measures

3. Embedding continuous feedback and feedback

4. Holistic and collaborative decision making

1. Go easy with new teams (it’s new and it can mean more work for them).

2. Focus on high value problems the team are facing.

3. Work hard to make yourself understood. Don’t use unfamiliar language, and make sure all language is shared, different people might have different meanings for the same word.

4. Embed the approaches so the team can carry on

5. Appreciate the small wins, to embed you are going to need to change the organisation.

This Service Owner Model video was shared afterwards on twitter which I think is useful

Follow the money: service design & the Green Book

Kate Tarling, Independent & Andrew Greenway, Public Digital

It’s how the government appraises policies, programmes and projects. It’s the highway code for deciding how money is spent.

You have to write a business case which:

  • Asks the right questions
  • Manages stakeholders
  • Considers approaches

A business case is made up of pre-agreed sections (confusingly also called cases):

  • Strategic,
  • Economic,
  • Financial,
  • Commercial,
  • Management.

Often people start writing the business case with the answer in mind, but the process of writing it can and should prompt reflection on the approach.

Andrew had an interesting reflection on rule sets. That at some point any rule set will eventually hinder the intent it was designed for.

You need to understand how a business case is created to get money for your service.

Because it’s based on an economist’s view of the world it uses different words and is based on the assumption you can make a rational argument and predict the future.

There are 8 rules of how economists work:

  1. Decided by reacting.
  2. Let others do the technical work.
  3. You know as much as anybody, and more than most.
  4. Above all, be sceptical of enthusiasts.
  5. Probe, delay and question again.
  6. Cut by bargaining rather than saying no.
  7. Act tough; it inhibits would-be spenders.
  8. Be on guard for hidden and rising costs.

The summary was that designers and economist work in different ways but want the same outcomes.

The way it should work is:

  • Make sure the work is valuable
  • Involve the right people
  • Consider all legitimate options
  • Test and learn and deliver what’s best
  • Iterate and improve

But sometimes you get the money and deal with it later in reality and getting more and more detail in the business case doesn’t always lead to better outcomes for users.

  1. How to get money
    Write a good business case or shape other people’s and build in that you’re expecting change
  2. How to use the money
    Agree the desired outcomes collectively — write outcomes that can be counted across
  3. Announce how you’ll be working and keep doing it
    Getting a quote from someone senior can help
  4. How to get more money
    Write more business cases as you learn what’s needed
  5. Influence how work is assessed
    Maybe get ideas and score your confidence in them
  6. Make further funding only available to teams working in modern ways

Designers are seen as disrupters, but we should change that narrative because we actually add certainty.

(This is another theme about how design is seen and how we share the benefits of design with others beyond design.)

In summary:

Build relationships, learn how economists think, play the game and write business cases and show the value we bring

Next generation transactional service design: the case of government funding

Gemma Matthews, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities & Thomas Kohut, TPX Impact

The team shared how complex the issues they were solving were because of:

  • Multiple users from multiple places
  • Shared data and decisions
  • Stakeholders who are also users
  • Different views on how policy should be realised
  • Organisation needs being hard to pin down
  • Designer don’t always have control over design decisions
  • The skills and tools we’ve got are not enough

A lot of these came up again in other talks and became themes of the conference.

As they understood user needs they started to question:

  • If they were designing for fairness or pain
  • If they were trying to remove bias from the process
  • If their role was understood, or were they seen as IT there to deliver a tool (not to solve the big problems)

They decided to solve the internal users problems first which felt like it wasn’t the way you’re ‘supposed’ to do it, but they found once they’d solved the internal user’s needs it was a lot easier to design the external user’s experience.

Day two

Inclusive design: luxury or must have?

Shabira Papain, Founder of People Street

In this fabulous keynote Shabina who shared personal reflections about how important it is to design for the 20% of people who find it hardest to access services.

This was done in the context of the protected characteristics, but also thinking about new things like digital inclusion.

Health inequalities matter to everything, they are social determinants

Co-design with those most at risk of being excluded is the place to start and then make it universal.

(Another theme of the conference that we need to use more co-design as a starting place to design from.)

Listen and act on it!

To achieve design you need a multidisciplinary team and you need to talk about the power imbalances and the voices that are and aren’t in the room.

  • Seek to listen to underrepresented voices
  • Unite bottom up and top down perspectives
  • Piggy back on good work already established
  • Share good practice across teams, systems and nations
  • Strive for services grown together with communities
  • Aim to create agency, don’t passively bestow services

Recommended read: Marmot Review report — ‘Fair Society, Healthy Lives

Going beyond planting seeds — practical advice on impacting design maturity

Martha Edwards, Government of British Columbia, Canada

Martha started by showing us some amazing photos British Columbia and then contrasting them with the reality of life in the cities that the services teams work on within the government.

Designers in digitals teams can’t solve big problems with a website. Martha used to think of adding research design as planting seeds for the right answer to grow. But planting the seeds is not enough, because you can’t control what grows, so perhaps we should be thinking of gardening instead.

  • Better quality design
  • Reduce risk
  • Save time for everyone
  • Designed inclusively means it’s open to all
  • Many teams don’t have a designer or design leader (they are a UX team of one)
  • Many designers are consultants
  • Tech lead on the product decisions
  • There are strong silos
  • Design systems are not updated

Are we actually making evidenced based decisions? It can feel like there is a lot to do, but it’s not overwhelming

  1. Learn as much as possible and get inspired by others
  2. The EAST Framework can help to make it Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely to change
  3. Find place you feel safe and supported
  4. Make a plan and look at it from a zoomed out and zoomed in perspective
  • Support other with hires and hire designers into your team
  • Learn from others — for example what is your ratio of devs to designers
  • If you’re in a silo and feeling lonely support a design community, focus on consistency over complexity in running the community
  • Ask why, challenge when things aren’t done well and advocate for better
  • We all have the right to be here, so be bold
  • Be realistic and optimistic
  • Be humble — there are no heroes
  • Believe it will be worth it
  • Say no to things, but also say yes to things

Speculative design for product decisions in anti-social behaviour reporting

Bekki Leaver, SocietyWorks

This talk was an interesting discussion of how gathering the insights from what data is telling you and running a workshop with potential users can work out if something is the right thing to do.

There were also great reflections on how much time and effort it takes to get access to potential users.

Learn to recognise possible harmful consequences of decisions in time

Marek Mencl, Pabeni

This was a fabulous workshop on introducing the idea of needing to be planet centric in how we think about design.

We were first asked if we had an all knowing mirror what would we ask it?

This turned out to be really ticky, because would you actually want to know if the answer was not what you were hoping for?

We then chose random cards to make up a future scenario that was made up these elements:

  • Arc,
  • Terrain,
  • Object and
  • Mood
  • Moral agent (added later)

We were looking a souvenir from the collapse of justice and feeling content about it. That was our scenario.

We took time to understand the scenario and then imagined how the world could look. We shared these and discussed them with our team.

It was nice to take some time out to imagine a different future.

Lightning talks

Caroline Jarrett, Effortmark Ltd

Caroline hosted four lightening talks which were wonderful. It was so refreshing to hear from different voices.

Catherine shared personal perspective on being a users and assuming ‘it’s just me’ and it’s not until you connect with a community that you realise that the service is failing everyone like you.

The challenge was placed to us as designers, that we have the power and need to consciously seek out those voices.

We shouldn’t just solve the problems we know about, we should seek out other problems.

Ozzy is a policy advisor at MoJ with lived experience of the justice system.

Their reflections were that service design to translates their journey into how the civil service talk about it and keeps them along for the ride.

They are there as someone who’s being designed for to keep the service designers in check.

Ozzy’s advice to people who were going to bring in a person with lived experience to their team was:

  • Be sincere, don’t be tokenistic, they can tell if you’re not being
  • Think about their career too, they are more than their lived experience.

Ozzy was really passionate about the work that the service designers and user researcher he works with do and how by working with them they were able to keep them true.

Imran shared some insights from their perspective as a community leader.

  • A community is not necessarily meant to last for ever, so enjoy it while it’s running.
  • Treat the community like a service and use UCD and agile principles to improve it.
  • Self sustaining communities are a myth, they take time, effort and funding.
  • Communities need an effective leader, they should have the energy and vision, but shouldn’t do all the work. Aim for a flow of power and distributed decision making.
  • Communities are organisation hacks, so don’t hack the hack, don’t use shortcuts.

Andrew ran an ambitious session where they shared a draft of standards that policy professionals should work to and asked for feedback from the room. Lots of post-is!

Day three

Towards the next decade of digital public service reform

Paul Maltby, Chief Digital Officer at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

Paul kicked off day three with their reflections asking if we should be of moving beyond good forms to solve deeper problems behind the forms.

Also asking ‘What are the patterns of the service? Can we fix the plumbing?

Paul’s five predictions for the next decade are:

Applying digital culture and process to respond to people’s raised expectations, because too much policy lived in a stubbornly analogue world. To do this senior civil servants should ‘get’ design.

Government is bigger than transactional services. We have stewardship over bigger things and design has a role to play in this.

Be bigger and bolder in how we define ‘digital’.

We’ve learned from the private sector, if we need to bring data in for our use, why not make it external too, others may benefit from it.

Build things as services that other can use.

Recommended read: Government as a platform

How can we bring people together and create movements for change?

Using tech tools in partnership we should think about how do we get the balance right of decisions being taken locally but data being shared centrally?

It’s great to get real time data you can play with over a cool dashboard. Then it can change how policy works.

It’s more than dashboard it’s about predictive models

Where could data science drive deeper?

Getting digital suppliers is no longer a headache for central government, the digital framework has helped. But it’s not that easy for local authorities. Drupal are doing some interesting work in that space.

How can we reform decentralised the public service market place?

Paul asked if the agile framework could give us a format to define the future because it recognises where we’ve come from.

Strategic policy direction -over- Transactional services

Services that enable other to build services -over- Services for end

Horizontal community building -over- Broadcasting

Machine-learning services improvements -over- Dashboards

Shaping broken civic tech markets -over- Commissioning external suppliers

Are good intentions enough? preconditions for public service design in complex contexts

Marisabella De Castro Abello, Universidad del Norte

Marisabella reflected on service design practice in Columbia and proposed that we need an extra stage within the design process.

Setting the scene of working in Columbia with very high levels of poverty and low levels of trust the government.

They reflected that the needs of different actors in the the space were very different.

Because of this they proposed that before starting Discovery (or research) there should be a phases of Assessing.

During the assessing phase the service designer would assess if there was power balance and trust between the actors in the space, if there was trust they could proceed to Research, if there was no trust they should build that before starting with research.

Abstraction in Service Design

Fritz von Runte, Scottish Government

Fritz shared the Scottish Goverment’s plans to create ‘lego pieces’ or elements of services that could be separately designed and put together.

Suggesting that we should become service assemblers rather than service designers.

The benefits of shared elements is that they:

  • Reduce complexity,
  • Are reusable,
  • Are repeatable,
  • Are quicker and cheaper.

The Scottish government has put into law that this is how services should be created.

Design culture that delivers

Martin Jordan, German government’s Digital Service & Kara Kane, BT & Clara Greo, Made Tech

Ran a workshop to encourage us to talk about what were they symptoms of design immaturity. They will be writing up their observations and blogging on the twitter #strongdesign

Conference wrap-up: What now, and what next?

Sophie Dennis, Chair of the conference

Sophie reflected on thoughts from the conference and as a design leader.

Beware trying to define it, service design is broad and wide and therefore is different.

  1. We have design in government
  2. We are committed to being inclusive and equitable in our design
  3. We are getting a seat at the table, not just having design leaders, but having leaders who understand design.
    Our design leaders are creating space for us to work

Business models from the private sector don’t work, we need to think for ourselves to make things work for how we work.

Do we have the conditions for co-design? The trust, equality, safety and ability to share power?

These conditions need to be right at all three levels of:

  • Systemic
  • Organisation
  • Person

We should continue to try to removed inequality from how we work, while knowing we will get it wrong. And when we do get it wrong we apologise.

Be kind to ourselves, take time to pause and reflect, we’ve been working in challenging circumstances and that’s hard. So find that win of the week!

The role of the service designer is as facilitator, we don’t make the change, we change how people think about the problem.


Fionn Tynan-O’Mahony did a great job of summarising the themes and reflections in this twitter thread.

  • service design working more closely with policy design
  • co-design, how we need to create the right environment for that
  • the fact that our work has to work at the cross section of:
    user needs
    policy intent
    the systems already around
    and getting the timing right
  • solving problems for internal users and behind the scenes might be the next phase of our work (now that we have a way of doing it for transactional user facing services)

Also @stamanfar has written up their notes too in Service Design in Government Conference 2022

And there were a lot of tweets on #SDinGov

These are just my notes from the sessions I attended, they are probably full of typos and bits that don’t make sense out of context. I’m sorry about that. I’m happy to correct any parts that don’t accurately reflect what the speaker was saying. Feel free to message me on Twitter @judewebby



Product manager who was a service designer

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store