“There is a hunger out there, an increasing desire and recognition that we need to do things differently.”
Christian Bason has just emerged from a training session with a dozen senior officials from the European Commission and European Parliament. “There was real openness and interest in ‘design’,” he reflects, “and, more fundamentally, a recognition that we need to change how we run our governments.” For Bason, who has devoted his career to promoting new thinking and new approaches to policymaking, such enthusiasm must have been music to his ears.
So, what is ‘design’? Just another buzzword for innovation? Actually, it is far more. Design is a new way of addressing public problems and capturing opportunities for achieving better public impact, and in the process transforming how we are governed.
Design methods collect insights based on a citizen’s needs, aspirations and behaviours, as well as everyone else involved in providing a public service. And placing their insights front and centre, rather than relying on those of a detached expert, helps to steer governments towards better – more human – solutions. Bason’s personal definition rests on its significance to policymakers the world over.
“I would say that design is about offering a set of approaches, tools and methods that public leaders can tap into as they try to create policy that is fit for the type of complex reality that they are facing,” he says. “Design is also about offering ways of thinking or behaving for public leaders to drive change. So as well as practical tools and methods, we’re also talking about a new mindset for how government institutions should be led.” In other words, it is a new way for governments to realise their oft-repeated pledges to become more innovative.
But why now? Why are policymakers looking for new ways to create policy? Bason believes that older systems are simply no longer able to cope with the tremendous changes that are reshaping the world around us. From changing labour markets to climate change, artificial intelligence to urbanisation, our world is changing fast – and governments have to keep up or fall way behind. Design, he believes, is an invaluable opportunity to close that gap.
“The way that we have designed or constructed public administrations over the last 50 years is increasingly out of touch with the kind of reality we face today in society and the world at large,” he says. “More recently, ministries and government departments have had a new layer added, one based on new public management, and this incorporates things like market mechanisms, contracting out, professional human resources practices and some elements of digital technology. Unfortunately, this effort has largely failed to deliver better results and higher productivity in government.”
This failure to match expectations has created an imperative for change, he believes. “In this context design is a mindset about how to innovate in government, and a response to the need to do something different – but this is not just about the public sector, as businesses can benefit too.”
Having previously headed up MindLab, now led by Thomas Prehn, Bason is currently the chief executive of the Danish Design Centre, which aims to strengthen the competitiveness of industry through design investments. “In one strand of our work, we are using taxpayers’ money in something that only government can do – which is to invite businesses and, in our case, designers to experiment with new ways of creating value,” he says. “A design-driven approach to business growth depends on trying new business models and new approaches to value creation that companies would otherwise not have thought of, and would otherwise not have engaged designers to focus on.”
His team are currently engaged on a “very intensive” collaboration with medium-to-large businesses to do three things, it transpires. “Firstly, we are orchestrating, designing and carrying out these experiments and facilitating the process as a whole. Secondly, we are observing via metrics, qualitative surveys and other research studies. And thirdly, we are sharing and scaling new insights and learnings across the system. For me, it makes a lot of sense to take a design-driven approach and apply it towards the objective of business growth.”
Putting it into practice
When asked for examples of how design has already led to positive change, Bason says that there are many instances to choose from but cites the impact of design practitioners at Oslo University Hospital in Norway. Women with a heightened risk of developing breast cancer had previously been forced to wait up to three months before they were appointed a time for examination and diagnosis – far too long for anyone anticipating potentially life-changing news.
However, a redesign of the process by Danish Design firm Designit reduced this time by 90% – bringing it down to just three days: a true transformation that has hugely improved the lives of patients. “This example shows how design can really be transformative about how we run the public sector,” says Bason. “Redesigning the entire referral and diagnostic process for breast cancer patients at this hospital put the patient first, which is something we should always strive for. It also shows how design can achieve results that other processes – like Lean or digital, deployed by themselves – would be hard-pressed to achieve.”
Such results reflect the hunger that Bason says he picks up in his meetings with different governments, as well as in his native Denmark. However, he goes on to say that it is a long-term process.
“Creating a team of 8 to 10 people doesn’t happen overnight, and doesn’t transform a whole government system any time soon,” he points out. “It takes time. But the roots are getting deeper. Mindlab has been operating for 15 years now, and there are new labs emerging in countries around the world which are helping people connect and share their ideas as this movement grows and grows. And it’s only going to accelerate in the months and years ahead.”
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