Are we papering over the cracks?

Being a Service Designer in a newly formed unitary council and its challenges

In 2021, I became the employee of a newly formed unitary council, following the smooshing(!) together of 4 local councils. In this time, I have realised just how important service design methodologies are to harmonising and designing new services, rather than letting them ‘develop incidentally’ over time.

The expectation

I was imagining that in my role as a Service Designer, I would come in and be greeted with a wonderful, clean, shiny new problem. I would start right at the beginning of the service design process in a wonderful world of ambiguity and unknowns and get to work on my favourite bit of the process which is understanding users’ needs and empathising with their pain.

The reality

In local government, we rarely get the opportunity to come in as service designers when a service is conceptualised, the services are usually long established and have had minor changes or tweaks over the years.

With the longevity of the services we offer, we’ve found that extra steps have been added to the processes across time. Years of add-ons & work arounds have meant service offerings have fundamentally remained the same but been ‘bolted onto’. The upshot of this is that services and practices, have become protracted, inefficient and inevitably further removed from the service user.

One example of this is that one of the original councils within the now unitary council, offers parking permits to its residents. Residents would often pop into the council with their documents, order and pay for the permit & wait for it to be ready for collection or posted if they wished.

Times changed and people preferred more convenient contact channels and would prefer to ring in. Customers who preferred to contact the council over the phone, would order and pay for the permit on the call, then the customer would come and collect the permit, bringing in their car ownership documents for copying at the time.

Perhaps inevitably, problems arose with the validity of some documents received. The decision was taken that documents should be sent into the council two days before permits were issued to allow time to complete a thorough verification of the documents. However, the process stayed the same. So, customers ordered and paid for the permit on the phone, they then had to drop off or post their documents and wait 2 days before their permit to be posted or could be picked up from reception.

This added an extra step in the customer’s journey and firmly placed the risk in the customers laps in terms of transit of important documents if they chose to post the documents, or inconvenience if they wanted to drop the documents off.

This is one of many processes that begs for redesign and is a classic example of how things have grown organically over time – which happens when you don’t have the time to step back and view things, or the resource to be able to consider things as a whole journey from the customer’s perspective.

The issue

Turns out this whole service approach of service design is a pretty hard sell when a service just wants a new website and want it by yesterday. Service Design isn’t just about digital solutions. It’s a holistic approach looking to find the barriers to accessing the service or running and administrating it. It’s understanding where someone starts and ends their journey, when they access it and why and how they finish that journey.

The method for relieving a user’s pain might be a new website, but it might be so much more or less than a website. Designing a website for a service that’s got some fundamental flaws could just be papering over the cracks. Even if the wallpaper is really posh.

So how do we promote that fundamental user focused, research first, solve the right problem philosophy across a large organisation in a state of flux?

What if we put a stop on the ‘proposed solution’ for a minute and look at the problem from a wider perspective? We may be able to save some money and time and be confident that we are offering what people need, in the way people need it.

In order to do this, we are asking the service to open themselves to us, and that is incredibly difficult for people who have taken ownership and pride in what they’ve done, often for years, coping with sometimes limited resources or system limitations.

I can empathise with the service. They know their users best, they understand the problem well and from this they’ve understood the desired solution is: (*select as appropriate) new website, new app, new system, new contractor, etc.

However, what’s often missing is the opportunity to explore and co-design potential solutions with users.

The Users

When proposing any solutions, the users and their needs should be kept central to discussions and research, so we can move past our own feelings and assumptions.

This is where I’ve found the part of the design process that resonates most with me: user research, workshops, insight gathering and sharing these with the service. My job is to capture all user’s perspectives. Residents, service users, the council workers delivering the services, managers managing the workers delivering the service, department managers, partner agencies and so on. It can be a long list – but we need a full picture so we can intrinsically understand, live, breathe, feel the problems.

I believe user research is one of the single most important things we can do. As a Local Authority undergoing unitarisation we are at this amazing point in time, we’re remoulding ourselves into a new entity – we have new residents with new needs, new demographics & of course new opportunities.

User research should be at the foundation of every decision we make and everything we do. At best, without it, we’re baseless and inefficient. It’s like starting to build a skyscraper from the second story up.

The answer?

I haven’t got a big bang answer here, still looking……please – answers on a postcard! I suspect it may have to be more of a softly softly approach, keep doing good and the word will spread… So, I will keep asking the ‘Why’ question at all times.

I will use the ‘I want a new website’ request as an opportunity to seek out user stories and present user findings and show other potential areas within the service for discovery work & re-design with the user at the centre.

We will keep banging our service design drums AND invest in some good wallpaper strippers!

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