Design in Public Services

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Pendry Lord Pendry Labour 3:29 pm, 29th January 2003

My Lords, the whole House is indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, for initiating the debate and for the way in which he introduced it. The power of design in reshaping the underlying systems and businesses process is very important. Without a doubt, high quality public services are vital to the nation's prosperity and well-being.

Britain is rightly regarded as a world leader in design. Successful businesses are the ones that invest in design to create more innovative and valued products and services, but in the public services that is not the case, and we must ask why.

The Government clearly recognise the importance of high quality public services to the nation's prosperity. Much effort is being put into modernising our public services, and the Government have embarked upon the most ambitious programme of investment in public services for more than 50 years. By 2004, public spending on education alone will buy one-third more than in 1997 terms. Modernisation requires investment, which is something that our public services were starved of in the 1980s and 1990s and—to be honest—well before that. That amounts to years of neglect, and it will take a long time before that can be turned round.

Money alone, however, will not deliver the reform of public services, or the transformation necessary. We all know that some of the worst public services have been among the most costly. People who work in public services systems do not go to work because they want to do a bad job—quite the reverse. Often they work in systems and structures that inevitably deliver poor outcomes. How frustrating and demotivating it must be for workers to work in a system capable only of delivering poor outcomes, however good they are as individuals.

For the Government's investment to deliver improvements, we must take a completely fresh look at the systems and structures that underpin the delivery of those services. We need to break out of the traditional ways of doing things, which will only continue to deliver the same outcomes and ultimately fail the needs of the people who depend on those services. Design skills and design thinking have a central role to play in transforming our public services. Design offers creative innovation and a new perspective on persistent problems. If public services are to be valued by the public, they must be redesigned around the needs of the users—the pupils, parents, patients and passengers.

The traditional model of a public service can be caricatured as being provider led, inward looking and hidebound by rules and structures and hierarchy. We need to break out from that model; services need to be redesigned so that the user is at the centre of everything that is done. Targets, inspection and league tables all have a part to play in increasing the accountability of public services, but over-inspection and the imposition of arbitrary targets can actually stifle creativity and innovation.

Fundamentally, improvement comes from within public organisations, and is not something that is done to it from outside. The people who work in the systems and processes will be those who deliver that improvement. We need to build the capacity of our public services to transform themselves and to achieve improvement continually. We need to give those who work in public services the right tools and techniques to redesign systems and structures to deliver high quality services for their customers.

I have some good examples from public services in my area. For example, local pension officers from the Department for Work and Pensions work alongside local council officers to provide a one-stop-shop for pensioners to improve ease of access and take up of benefits and pensions. That is so important when at least a quarter of pensioners do not take up their benefit entitlement.

I can also cite a successful partnership between police and local councils delivering enterprising solutions for designing out crime from local neighbourhoods, such an "alley gating" schemes. That involves the gating off of common alleyways in terraced housing areas, reclaiming the space for local people and cutting burglary by one-fifth compared with other areas.

My local council in Tameside, with its staff, recently redesigned the way in which they process council tax benefit claims. By involving the staff, applying the tools and techniques of design and taking a completely fresh and unfettered look at the services, they reduced the error rate from 80 per cent—the sector's norm—to less than 1 per cent. They also reduced the time taken to process claims from 10 days to one and, at the same time, slashed unit costs.

Finally, we must not have the idea that redesigning services is a one-off process. It cannot be seen that way. The search for improvement in public services must be never ending. The use of design as a critical tool must be an integral process.