Design for Government is a multi-disciplinary project-based Master's course at Aalto University, Helsinki. Finnish ministries assign real projects with complex challenges for the diverse teams of students to work on. Last year I was delighted to mentor a few of the teams and today we will start with a new batch of students and a new set of challenges. I've been pleasantly surprised by how excited the civil servants have been to work with the students and to apply new kind of methods and patterns of thinking.
"We only have time for easily digestible bullet points"
Back in the days, as a first year student of sociology in 2006 I had great expectations of learning by applying theories to empirical research of contemporary social problems. I thought students would work in teams helping their professors in larger research projects and most important findings would be conveyed to real decision-makers. I quickly noticed the weakness of this link between academic social sciences and decision-making, namely that it barely existed. I believe it's partially due to the aim for the independence of science, but also because of the types of deliverables coming out from academia.
One of our most accomplished professors told us a story of how their research team had managed to squeeze their hard work of many years into a book. The important, contemporary topic was well analyzed and had evoked well-deserved interest in one of the Finnish ministries. The problem was that they approached the professor via e-mail, asking for the key points on one A4-sheet. "Nobody has time to read books in the hectic work life."
The topics the students are working on in Design for Government are similar, but the excitement with which civil servants are engaging with the projects is on a whole other level from merely browsing executive summaries. I believe there are at least four crucial reasons to why design thinking fits well in the pursuit to address some of the complex social issues faced by the public sector.
1. It's not about the specialists with authority, but about generalists with curiosity
Researchers are more focused on a specific topic than most of the civil servants, thus when they challenge the thinking of civil servants they posses a level of authority that sets them above the civil servants, or at least makes them an independent authority. A specialized and independent critical approach is hard to translate into fruitful opportunities for change, because it easily becomes a mere debate on the pros and cons of the existing structures.
Design thinking is more about asking questions from an outsider’s perspective without expertise. The lack of specialized expertise allows for stupid questions, which can turn into new ways of approaching the problem. Such an outsider role can be easier to work with as it calls for trying out new viewpoints instead of defending the existing ones against criticism.
2. It provides a solution-oriented and constructive approach to problems
Analytical research de-constructs problems to be viewed through different theoretical lenses. It critically examines existing practices. Design, on the other hand, is about providing solutions in the form of creative ideas. For civil servants working with policies and public services on a daily basis the productive approach is more urgent than the de-construction.
3. It's not about masterminds working in isolation, but co-creation and participation of different players
Design thinking encourages the inclusion of different stakeholders into the problem solving process and makes it a joint venture. Including more people into the change process gives them a sense of ownership, thus making them advocates in favour of executing the solutions, rather than suspicious outsiders or mere objects of changes.
4. You don't need to have a master plan that solves all wicked problems - small steps and experiments are all right
Prototyping with the minimum viable solution allows iteration and learning by trial and error. Framing trials as experiments and trying them early on is different from the more traditional approach of pilots that are rather expected to prove the big solution works. If it doesn't, the project is a failure. With experiments the learning itself is a success.
Necessary perspectives on the framing of public sector problems
In order to be successful, design of government is still too important to be left only for the cooperation of creative minds. Analytical rigor needs to be present in a well-formulated understanding of at least two different perspectives.
A) The human perspective on the problem
Public policies affect people and any tinkering with them should be based on an understanding of the everyday realities of these people. Real stories from real people make the settings of policy changes more tangible and help in adopting the perspective of actual human beings in evaluating the potential consequences of different decisions.
B) The systemic perspective on the problem
All complex problems are problems of multiple institutions. Mapping the networks around the problem is crucial for providing a successful solution. What kind of inputs and outputs do the important stakeholders share and how would the proposed solutions affect them? Building stories that align the ways in which different institutions view the problem greatly increases the likelihood of finding a solution that matches the goals of the key players, who can also enable its execution in reality.
With all of this in mind, I'm looking forward to challenging my own thinking with the help of our student teams and to learn from their novel experiments with this year’s challenges provided by the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Transport and Communication. Multi-disciplinary teams putting design thinking into practice have a great opportunity to get their clients excited about new solutions, and if they manage to analyze the systemic and human perspectives of the problem in a fruitful way they can set a few more examples on how the challenges of public sectors will be tackled in the future.