Skip to content | Skip to comments


The UK’s abundant design skills could transform the quality and effect of government IT. None of our computerised public services was ever formally designed, from intention to outcome. Every one of them should have been.

When the Victorians created the infrastructure we still use today, they made it not only highly functional and effective, but beautiful as well. We should do the same with our public services and the way they use IT.

The question of design goes deeper than technology systems or user interfaces. Unless the public service itself is designed and constantly reinvented and improved to meet real public service needs the technology applied may be pointless or counterproductive. It’s not the role of this strategy to force design considerations into legislative processes or public-sector management. But an ideal government IT strategy requires that any technology sits in a wider context of well-designed activities and business processes. Otherwise the IT is unlikely to add value.

Front-line and user experience provides the authentic evidence for this.

Key principles

  1. In addition to delivering public services, the task we face is to rethink and redesign them.
  2. When we co-design and co-create public services from start to end with staff and “customers” (ie those the service is intended to help) we start to address the deeper underlying problems
  3. We need transdisciplinary design. Real world problems are complex. Different disciplines see and understand different things. Good designers understand this.

Whether it’s identity, health, education, child protection or transport projects there are legal, social, and moral ramifications way beyond the specification, scope and cost of the IT system. Most of what we analyse as major IT project failures were in reality social or political failures. We were trying to do the wrong thing. The systems were never designed to “work” in the sense of to solve the real problem in the right way. They ignored common sense or human nature.

Specific recommendations

Things to do:

  1. Make junior Ministers in Departments responsible for “customer experience” and outcomes
  2. Require evidence of user-oriented design for all business change projects
  3. Add a “design” dimension to the Gateway Review process to evaluate this
  4. Invite the Design Council to lead, in articulating the role of design in technology-based public services
  5. Ask the Design Council to propose standards for public-sector service design
  6. Support independent feedback about public services. All you need to do is listen.
  7. Make SROs and other senior staff use the systems they are responsible for in a live environment

Stop, challenge or review

  1. Stop any major project that fails a design audit (ie is not formally designed to solve the stated problem)
  2. Stop replication of (and consequent threat to) independent feedback channels such as patientopinion and mypolice: don’t “nationalise”/replicate/institutionalise/compete with these initiatives – welcome and endorse them

Continue, support or resume

  1. Support and encourage responsible independent feedback channels such as patientopinion, mypolice, mypublicservices, mysociety (they are the embodiment of the intermediary strategy and ground-up public services)
  2. Support the small element of service design work in some parts of health and education


  • Central St Martins College of Art & Design
  • Design Council
  • Dutch “Citizen Link” programme
  • Engine Service Design
  • MyPublicServices
  • Patient Opinion
  • (esp its “Beveridge 4.0” report)
  • thinkpublic
  • The Public Office (Kable)

RSS feed of comments 2 Responses to “Design”

  1. Fraser says:

    Re-evaluate digital roles

  2. Andrew Lamb says:

    Whether the quote “none of our computerised public services was ever formally designed…every single one of them should have been” is true or not, there are a number of online services which reinforce the perception.

    Adopting user centred design principles is absolutely the right approach to remedy this situation.

    As an encouragement, I’ve witnessed first hand DWP begin to do this within their Self Service Programme.

    In 2008 they re-designed their Benefits Advisor Service so propositionally it starts to add value for users.

    With Directgov support, they brought in Information Architects, Interaction Designers, a Front-end developer & web copywriter and pulled the service apart.

    They’ve worked with systems designers to optimise the user experience for budget available.

    They invited Directgov to train more than 80 x DWP staff in basic user-centred-design principles and ingrained the maxim of “useful + usable = used”

    DWP flexed a lot and by late 2008 launched a service designed substantively around the needs of customers. The evidence is that users have found it both useful & usable with conversion rates exceeding 75% – delivered in one project iteration.

    Through combined working DWP introduced governance across the DWP online service estate which took effect 22 March 2010.

    This requires all new DWP online services to prove they’re useful & usable before passing Critical Design Review Gate & being funded to build.

    Interaction Designers are now at the core of creating journeys and wireframes based on customer insight (quantitative and qualitative) for testing.

    There are still issues – culturally, adapting procurement processes, costs of usability testing etc but I’ve seen DWP genuinely break into user-centred-design including the all important “stop, challenge or review” suggestions made here.

    All credit to DWP and its tiny partner Directgov.

    Directgov are now working in the same way with a number of other departments – both on new services and in improving existing services as they converge into Directgov.

Your feedback

Comments are now closed.