Design for the Future: Public Sector

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What will public services look like when viewed through Google Glass or Oculus Rift?

In 2016, I designed a workshop tool to help local public service leaders start to think about what the medium to long term future might look like. In preparation for the workshop I’d been giving a lot of thought to how new technology could shape the way that citizens interact with public services and what the relationships might look like between the public sector and private sector (specifically the tech industry) in 10, 25 or 50+ years time? To provide some inspiration and provoke a conversation I created a short welcome to the 2060’s. I read plenty of blogs, watch a few documentaries, and keep a keen eye on world news, and whilst I’d hesitate to say that my predicted view of a the late 21st century wasn’t informed at all, I think it’s probably fair to say that it was inspired more by Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and Geoff Ryman’s Air, than any scientific forecasting calculations. However, the whole point of the tool was to create a little excitement, provoke a conversation, and even stir up some debate – so I wasn’t really too concerned about the robustness of my forecasts.

In my provocation, the 2060’s are a time of political unrest where the inability of the world’s governments to cohesively respond well to several global disasters had given rise to huge political upheaval during the second quarter of the century. The UK was devolved and the European Union was on the verge of collapse. The political landscape had shifted father right with the passing of each decade since the first global disaster in 2019. Google had transformed the way in which we connected with the internet by launching Google-Air, a technology that is capable of beaming the internet wirelessly into people’s consciousness. In the process, they had inadvertently created a new social class structure broadly comprised of those who could afford to have collective knowledge of the world and those that couldn’t. Politicians had crowd funded their campaigns for decades, using their resources to beam propaganda into the minds of the masses using Google-Air. Crowd funding had also enabled the first 3D printers to start printing the first Mars colony, with an eighth of the world’s population having shares in Mars Co, and the opportunity to join the ballot for places on the first transport ships due to depart towards the end of the century. Whilst the population continued to grow here on earth, and resources became more scarce, owners of high-rise food farms had taken over abandoned inner city skyscrapers and were producing most of our inner city food. NHS Drones provided much of the trauma response as well as looking after people in the community. However, the NHS itself has been reduced to providing ‘basic life care’, leaving the provision of ‘quality life care’ to private companies, and those citizens who were able to pay the higher health premium. In the 2060’s minimum health payments under ‘basic life care’ guarantees a life expectancy of 85 years. Patients can expect to receive microsurgery to cure a range of conditions; ‘micro-robots’ fix internal issues such as clearing arteries in order to reverse the effects of heart disease as well as removing all types of cancer and blood born disease such as hepatitis and HIV. Those paying the higher rate premiums receive higher levels of ‘quality life care’ provided by private sector organisations who are commissioned by the Local Assemblies. Patients can expect to receive regenerated limbs, along with stem-cell treatment to cure the likes of dementia and paralysis. To cap it all, seven of the top 10 tech companies in 2065 had not been around in 2015, with 60% of the company CEOs having been born later than 2040.

I really enjoyed taking some time out to future-gaze, and since creating the tool, I have often found myself pondering the longer-term future of public services. The trouble is, it boggles my mind and just ends up feeling fantastical. Of course, whilst this was a good exercise to get people thinking differently, it isn’t the way to ensure that the public sector of the 2060’s is fit for purpose. How can it be when the public sector is trapped in a situation where it makes it hard to think beyond the next financial year? Cuts to the public sector have become commonplace with Local Authorities, Health Trusts and other public sector bodies charged with ‘saving’ millions year after year. It’s hardly surprising that in this kind of pressurised environment, public service leaders are reluctant to go out on a limb and fund a project that might end their own career but benefit that of a chief executive who is currently in primary school. For designers it wouldn’t be easy either. After all, how can we think about how public services can work better in a future we can’t really imagine, serving populations that we don’t know, understand or empathise with? We work with what we know. We look to the present and the near future and ask questions like – what might visiting your local hospital or town hall look like through Google Glass? What might new types of care and well-being service look like through Oculus Rift?

Twenty years ago, I remember being called a poser for taking my Ericsson GA628 out of my pocket in the student union bar. One of my best friends at the time used to carry his social network around on a battered piece of paper in his pocket; lists of landline numbers and physical addresses (very few mobile numbers or email addresses) scribbled on a tatty piece of A4. He didn’t hold much stock with mobile phone ownership. Being constantly available didn’t sit well with him. Advance just two decades and smart phone ownership is at record levels, and my friend with the tatty piece of paper now owns the latest iPhone and regularly updates Facebook with check-ins and status updates. The world around us is changing at an alarming rate and we are all changing with it. Figures from the UK Government’s Transformation Strategy suggest that the average British person now spends around £1,500 purchasing goods online each year, helping to make our digital economy one of the most developed in the world, worth around £145 billion a year. Smartphones and tablets are the fastest growing channel with 71% of UK adults now owning one of the devices, enabling us to access services from practically anywhere. On average, people spend over two hours each day using their smartphones and tablets, rising to nearly five hours for those aged 16 to 24. It’s fair to say that citizens have taken up online services with enthusiasm.

Over the past decade, there has been an explosion in new types of service that have emerged to both exploit and drive these technological developments and trends. The likes of Netflix, Spotify, Uber, Airbnb, Fitbit, Amazon, Ocado and Zappos have disrupted the entertainment, music, travel, health and wellbeing, retail and food markets – all have been built around technology. Even the markets being disrupted are catching up and our touchpoints with existing services are changing. My local minicab firm is emulating Uber by providing an app through which you can order and track your cab, learn the driver’s name and the registration of the cab that will be picking you up, and many super markets now operate click and collect. New services which we hadn’t even considered just a decade or so ago are starting to change the way we live. Even the most resistant citizens are slowly changing their points of view with every year that passes.

So if the rest of the world is changing so quickly, why is government and the public sector so slow to react? The speed of change in the public sector can be frustrating. In my previous blog – moving too fast, I tried to consolidate my thinking on this. I think there are many reasons for why our large public sector ‘institutions’ are struggling to adapt, but perhaps a simple way to think of it is simply because the public sector has to serve everyone. The private sector are able to create tailored services to delight specific consumer markets, where as the public sector has historically provided a one-size-fits-all service for everyone. As a result, these services often miss the mark from a citizen centred point of view, and governments are becoming increasingly disconnected from their populations. Surely, it doesn’t have to be this way?

As designers in the public sector, part of our role has to be helping leaders think further than the budget cuts in front of them, past their political term or careers. In the past, it can be argued that the public sector has focussed on delivering services that are most efficient for them. Governments around the world now need to find a balance between the resources available to them and the needs and expectations of citizens, building services around the user rather than the provider. Rather than one-size-fits-all services, what we need is a smorgasbord of services and touchpoints that are flexible to populations – understanding what the citizens need, but being flexible in the way in which their needs can be met. Nevertheless, designing services at a local level can be hard if the national policies aren’t there to support them. As a design industry, there are perhaps therefore some key ways for us to influence the future of public services:

  • Central Government – Designing policy
  • Local Government – Designing ways to implement policy (could be service design)
  • Outside of government – Creating multi-disciplinary, multi skilled networks for social change; working with central government and local government to respond to design challenges together.

I’ve seen a shift in the service design community over recent years, from thinking exclusively about designing local services, to thinking wider around how to use design to rethink policy, and here there does feel like a tide change. For me the most exiting take-away from the UK Government’s Transformation Strategy is a commitment to bring policy design and service design together. This is key in helping the sharp end of government service delivery move beyond the firefighting, opening the way for public service leaders, designers and officers to talk to citizens about different types of public service that transcend organisational boundaries. The government has made a commitment by laying out what they will do by 2020 including designing and delivering joined-up, end-to-end services. However, this is easier said than done. It’s up to designers to help guide and influence leaders, turning the rhetoric into reality. GDS recently announced the Digital Academy, a platform that will provide skills training right across government, training 3,000 a year from 2017. The aim is to create the most digitally skilled Civil Service in the world. This is great news and is perhaps the first time we will see on a large scale policy, digital, design and operations teams being brought together into single co-located flexible teams. Therefore, we are starting to transform the culture of how government delivers services. However, there is a way to go. Over the coming years we will see new types of public servant help the public sector to get better at sharing data across organisational boundaries, and doing it in ways which the public are comfortable with – turning the data over to the residents that own it and letting them decide how it is used.

We don’t really know what the future has in store – One thing that is for sure is that change is happening at a fast pace. The one thing we can do now is to focus on creating the right foundations. So rather than getting locked into huge siloed procurement programs that try to predict the landscape for decades to come, we have to start thinking in terms of creating interoperable flexible platforms that are able to adapt and integrate new technology as it comes online. We can’t solve a problem we can’t yet imagine, but what we can do is create the right infrastructure and skills base inside government to ensure that when a problem arises in 10, 25, 50+ years time, we can respond quickly to rapidly changing circumstances. We need to build platforms that will support public sector 2.0 through the next part of this digital revolution, because the future is closer than we think. In a more recent piece of work, my colleagues and I have been spending time with young people aged between 9 and 19, trying to understand what they will need from the government in the future. The insights we have drawn from the conversations are interesting. Several key trends are noteworthy:

  • 20 years ago, children might have aspired to be just like their favourite movie star or sports star – 9 year olds today want to be just like their favourite YouTuber.
  • Coding is becoming a way of life.
  • Young people live life ‘on demand’, preferring to consume their TV content on a variety of mobile devices and at a time which suits them.

Therefore, the public sector could be in for a big surprise in the coming years. The youngest children we spoke to were 8/9. In less than 10 years, these true digital natives will be voting our public servants into power. They will be the generation to which Uber and Airbnb was a way of life, not a curiosity. They will expect to access their services at a time, and in a way that they want. They will demand more of their public services. Will the public sector be ready to respond to a new set of expectations placed on it by a new type of customer? Will the public sector be willing to work with them differently? If not, I have a hunch that we may see a new type of entrepreneur developing new unregulated services which will put parts of the public sector out of business – because to be honest they know all of the necessary hashtags even if government doesn’t, and they won’t want to hang around and wait!

Four Future Images


2 responses to “Design for the Future: Public Sector

  1. Pingback: Taking Inspiration From A Glimpse Of The Future | Simon Penny·

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