Week #75 at the Digital Service: Notes for 2–6 October 2023

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A white woman and a white man are on a big stage, behind them is a banner saying ‘catalyst for change’ and a projected slide saying ‘the long slog of public service design’, next to them are huge letters and numbers: SDGC23

What a dense week! Even though Tuesday was a public holiday, this week was intense. With the Service Design Network’s Service Design Global Conference taking place in Berlin, (internet) friends, colleagues and acquaintances were in town. So, the days were social with countless conversations.

Welcoming international community members

I tried to pull off a mini-conference for this week, but I didn’t succeed. I still managed to get an afternoon community meetup organised, though.

We advertised it through the international community channels, messaged public sector people attending the conference individually and asked German colleagues if they were interested in joining. Eventually, we had close to 20 people from 4 nations participating and over 3 hours of uplifting discussions.

3 people with light skin - 2 men and 1 woman – sitting on chairs and stools in a leafy office space with posters in the background: a poster on a column says ‘afternoon community gathering’, another poster on a glass door says ‘designing a more digital Berlin’

Colleagues joined from our Digital Service, the UK’s Government Digital Service, the UK’s Ministry of Justice, the Canadian Cabinet Office in British Columbia, Berlin’s CityLAB, and Germany’s Competence Centre Public IT. So we had UX designers, interaction designers, service designers, policy designers and product managers in the room for a broad discussion of design in government.

We kicked things off with 3 short talks. I spoke about ‘Progressing user-centred design practice in a federated government structure’ for some 15 minutes. Then, product manager Jana and designer Sophia gave insight into ‘Co-creation within the public sector’ and how they are involving subject matter experts and caseworkers in the design and development of the legal information system. Thirdly, product manager Bene talked about the digital check and ‘Digital-ready policy enabled by service design – and better public services through digital-ready policy’. We published all slides from the talks afterwards on GitHub.

3 young-ish people of different ethnicities sitting on chairs and stools in a well-lit office space talking to each other, a sign on a column in the background says ‘Breakout 1’

Having welcomed the visitors with some content and an idea of what we are doing at Digitial Service in the first hour, we then collected topics of interest. With 2 breakout spaces and 2 rounds, we discussed the role of ‘delight’ in public services, skills designers need in emerging areas, and how to play back experience from service to policy.

People afterwards expressed gratitude for the intimate exchange of ideas and practices throughout the afternoon. Some folks joined us for an extended dinner conversation.

Talking about the long slog of public service design to private sector folks

On Tuesday late morning, Kara and I gave our ‘long slog of public service design’ talk for the second time in less than 2 weeks. After the presentation for (mainly UK) public sector folks in Edinburgh, we reviewed the talk and looked at where the content needs to change to suit and appeal to people in all sectors. Eventually, we changed relatively little.

With various stages in the venue, we got the big one right after the keynote and had a good attendance of a couple of hundred people in the space and online – some of the 900 who joined the event either way.

We maxed out the time that was given to us and only had the chance to answer a single question: What are we doing now to support the multi-decade transformation work that governments need?

Afterwards, various people approached us in the space and online to tell us how much the talk resonated with them. Neither Kara nor I assumed people working in the private sector would find overwhelmingly much relevancy in what we had to share.

Having such a stage presence gave us visibility to the fellow public sector colleagues we had not met before. So we could chat with colleagues from Iceland working in the city government of Reykjavik, working as service designers in the city of Amsterdam and more policy colleagues from the UK Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service.

Switching between the work and the conference, I managed to see a moving talk on civil defence by Ukrainian designer Daria Rolina and saw Simone and her colleague Nora discuss building more inclusive organisations for better public services.

Wrapping up the conference, Lou delivered a strong closing keynote about bad services and how to work against them. One slide resonated particularly with me. In that, Lou lists what service design is and can be – including a conversation, a new fund, a new structure, changing an API, stopping things from happening, or spending 6 months getting money. From the over 30 activities, some resonate more than others – but most of them I’ve seen in my past 7.5 years in government. So, I’m glad to see them listed and recognised here.

A person with light skin and short blondish hair on a stage with a huge projected slide above them – saying:

Service design is… 
A conversation
An email
A new fund
A coffee with someone
A diagram
A new structure
Changing the name of something
Renaming a business process
Changing an API
Stopping things from happening
Starting new things
A new stream of revenue
Fixing a point of failure
Giving permission for something
Organising pay rises
Clearer outcomes
Defining the edges of a service
Costing up delivery
Applying for funding
Hiring people
Spending 6 months getting money
Making friends
Making enemies
Building a community
Rage-quitting Taking breaks
Pillow plumping
Sticker designing
Powerpoint wrangling
Tear mopping
Morale building

Discussing things that are easy, hard and simply strange

As if a community workshop afternoon and a big-stage talk weren’t enough, I agreed to participate in the conference’s open studio night on Thursday evening. From 7 pm, we invited conference participants to join us for some hours of exchange. People had to pick up tokens at the venue to get access, which was limited. From the 6 different locations, our tokens were gone first.

Some 45 people joined. I spoke about hour work for 25 minutes. Then, Charlotte and I answered various questions.

A group of about 30 people sitting in a well-lit minimal office space looking at a big screen with a man in a casual outfit standing next to a lectern – the slide says: ‘Doing service design when doing service design is very hard’

I merged a few talks I gave before and titled it: ‘Changing German government through design and delivery for better public services’. I spoke about the things easy – like working in a user-centred way by conducting research and designing iteratively – and about those that are hard – like navigating the Federal structures in Germany and getting anyone else to follow good practice like it’s described in the Service Standard.

And I highlighted the things that are strange – strange because they are quite different in other countries. That list included:

  • No single domain
  • No overarching brand
  • No open design system
  • No governance models
  • No quality assurance

I showed what happens when there are no rules, no guiding principles, and no support to facilitate good service design. To not leave people depressed, I shared some examples of us doing service design when doing service design is very hard and the various successes we have had so far. I also mentioned the importance of working in the open by connecting, writing, speaking and publishing. So we closed on a positive note, and gathering from the following questions, people weren’t taken aback.

Some people even approached me regarding jobs we have open or might open in the future. That and overall interest in the event showed us it’s worth engaging with people near and far regularly.

What’s next

Next week has to be calmer. But I also need to catch up with more office work.

While things are still fresh, I will offer the long slog talk as an internal lunch and learn session to my colleagues on Wednesday.

On Thursday, NExt will run its 7th bar camp. Caro and I plan to talk about our application of the Service Standard there.