Design in Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:18 pm on 29th January 2003.

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Photo of Lord Freyberg Lord Freyberg Crossbench 3:18 pm, 29th January 2003

rose to call attention to the role of design in improving public services; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, the aim of this debate is to look at the way design is used in the public sector and to examine its potential to create a lasting impact, both financially and practically. I should like to speak about the design of goods and services in the public sector and about the systems needed to deliver them. Coupled together, these can offer the tools to transform our public services and provide ways of saving money in the long term.

Every year, central and local government spend billions of pounds on the design of goods and services in the public sector, from building hospitals to providing furniture for schools, new housing, street lighting, prisons, transport, waste disposal, and so on. However, there is evidence that the standard of design in these areas is still far from impressive, and new initiatives to improve it seem to be making very little impact.

On the face of it, the solution seems to be simple: first, to make greater use of the best design talent available; and, secondly, to realise that proper investment in good design at the outset will save money and improve lives in the long term—that is, long-term value over short-term expediency. However, at present, a host of good intentions and theoretical practical measures, such as the insistence that design principles be applied, have been set out in numerous government reports and ministerial speeches, but these are not in any way matched by results. What can the Government do that they are not doing already?

Discussion with those in the design world and at the Design Council in particular, of which I am a member (along with co-chair of the Associated Parliamentary Group for Design & Innovation), has led me to conclude that there would be considerable benefits in the public sector reassessing its design practices; that is, the point at which the design of products and processes is considered. In other words, what needs to change is the very culture responsible for procuring new buildings and services.

I would therefore like to alert the Government and those responsible for public sector spending to ways of thinking about and applying design principles that are most likely to produce good results. Over the past few years, the case for good design in government and public services has been keenly fought and, by and large, accepted. However, this message does not seem to be getting through to those who are actually responsible for commissioning and managing public buildings and services. For example, the recent Audit Commission report, which looks at schools built by private finance initiative (PFI) and those funded by traditional public finance, shows that the quality of all buildings was unsatisfactory. The faults referred to are fundamental ones; for instance, the quality of the building, layout, lights, classroom size, heating and acoustics as well as an absence of design innovation. This is a terrific waste of opportunity.

This and other evidence that I could point to suggests that despite many initiatives the overall standard of design in building schools has not improved. A similar picture holds for recurrent spending on product design. The Department for Education and Skills spent £1 billion a year—13 per cent of total expenditure—on learning tools and resources. Yet currently few of Britain's best designers are involved and purchasing decisions are not linked to the broader understanding of desired educational outcomes.

There is clear evidence that while those taking decisions to acquire new services often recognise the importance of good design, they lack the expertise or contacts. Last year, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) discovered that only 23 per cent of local authorities make use of design expertise when assessing planning or investment applications. Schemes which teach design awareness to the decision-makers and local authorities are crucial if we want to raise the standards and quality of our public services. That applies also to government and their departments.

The question today is how we use design to achieve practical and worthwhile changes in our public services, turning aspirational government policy into real beneficial and long-lasting improvements for the use of those services.

The connection to design in this context might not seem obvious, but design, of course, is not just about objects and the aesthetics of form. It is my belief that well designed systems for delivering public services are a crucial part of providing these desired improvements. Design considerations should be brought into play at the earliest possible opportunity—technical systems and organisational structures need themselves to be well designed.

I am not advocating endless surveys into the requirements for each public service. Instead, targeted consultation at the point of use should be carried out by people who understand the function of design as a tool to deliver public services. The design industry has developed a range of fast and effective techniques—borrowed from the social sciences—to understand and interpret the needs of users. Those techniques are simple to apply and go beyond focus groups or market research in what they can deliver.

The Government can encourage the learning process: more specifically, their various departments must be prepared to engage in dialogue with each other and with frontline agencies if more than one is involved in a particular scheme. These user-focused techniques developed by the design industry can encourage cross-departmental thinking and provide easy-to-use tools for the new practice.

Nor should we shy away from addressing first principles where necessary. Many of our public service institutions are still built to Victorian models and need to be radically rethought. The Do Tank's report on the 21st century prison looks at the problem of sprawling gaols built in the 19th century and is concerned that many of our new ones are simply modern and outdated versions of the originals. It proposes smaller "learning prisons", specifically designed to enable resources to be switched from security to rehabilitation.

Integral to the project is not only a building design, but the design of a new learning regime—again, developed by working with prisoners and prison officers. I am no expert on penal reform, but I can and do applaud the report's attempt to use design in such a practical and radical way.

There is clear evidence of the all-round benefits when the design is right. A King's Fund document published in 2002 highlighted the example of Newham Hospital in south-east London where levels of staff morale increased by 56 per cent following the redesign of the hospital. When asked whether they felt valued, 78 per cent of staff said, "Yes", after the redesign compared to 22 per cent three years previously. In other words, when one makes an investment in high-quality fabric and environment, one is making an investment in the people who work and pass through it as well. There is no short cut to that.

Up until now, the effective use of design within public services has lagged behind industry where the benefits have already been clearly demonstrated, a fact which has been borne out repeatedly by Design Council research. There have been a few notable exceptions, such as the redesign of the Royal Mail's change of address service. As a result, the public's completion of forms was transformed from 87 per cent incorrect to 90 per cent correct and entirely eliminated the need for staff training.

An example of good practice in the education field can be seen in the work of the government-funded charity, School Works, which links the design of secondary school buildings to the educational agenda—a rare occurrence. At Kingsdale in south London—a school classed as failing at the start of the project—a new curriculum, management structure and pastoral care system were designed along with a new building.

The momentum created by the whole process led to a renewed belief in the school's future. Pupils gaining GCSE grades A to C increased 20 per cent in the first academic year. In a recent report for the Department for Education and Skills, PricewaterhouseCoopers documented the strategic use of a design process in turning the school around. However, it should be emphasised that such practice is at present the exception rather than the norm.

The School Works scheme aims to provide practical solutions by combining expert knowledge with the expertise of those who work and live in the educational institution. Such an approach may sound like common sense, but it is an advance on the way design solutions have been achieved in the past, when they were often imposed without full consultation with those who would be using them.

Another problem is that many of the best smaller design companies are put off applying for the public sector design contracts by the long-winded bureaucratic hoops that they have to jump through. Public accountability is important, but it should be recognised that there is a downside. Where possible, we need to speed up the system and harness all the creative talents that we can.

This is of pressing importance because the Government have embarked on the most ambitious programme of public spending investment and reform since the 1940s. To give an example of the scale, in 2003–04, £24 billion will be spent on public services in addition to what is already invested and in 2004–05 that will increase to £40 billion.

I was recently introduced to the term "smart spending", which I suggest is an apt one for the use of design in public services. Investment in good design is a form of smart spending: it need not cost more and it can save money in the medium to long term. Improving the quality of design also offers the potential to improve the outcome of the services offered.

Finally, I would like to encourage all government departments to see design as important and relevant to them and not just the preserve of the DTI. Design of effective systems as well as of goods and services can bring lasting benefits to the users of those services and can save money in the long term. More importantly, we need to ensure that the people at the forefront of delivering those services, of building or managing them, know the benefits of using good design solutions because without their participation all of those good intentions will be wasted.

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.