Applying Design Thinking to the Public Sector
May 10, 2019 | Design Thinking
by ExperiencePoint

Applying Design Thinking to the Public SectorThere’s an old expression: the more things change, the more they stay the same. You can find examples of it everywhere from corporate America to academia to government. Whether it’s a new CEO promising sweeping changes after a merger, new policies trumpeted on a college campus, or a new Congressman taking office buoyed on the platform of change, things tend to…well, not change.

A powerful way to break that cycle is to use design thinking to effect a real transformation. The Canadian publication Policy Options ran a story last year that outlines how government can (and should) be using design thinking. It talked about how design thinking stages should be core principles of a government that is truly of the people, by the people and for the people.

As the U.S. dives deeply into an election cycle, it is an interesting way to think about candidates and their policies.

The foundation of design thinking — empathy — can and should be the foundation for any political campaign and sitting government. Focusing on how people think and feel, how they behave, what they need and just as importantly, what they’re not getting, is at the heart of creating policies and laws that truly serve peoples’ needs.

To do that, politicians and their teams have to climb down from their ivory towers to actually engage with constituents after they are in office.

The Policy Options article highlights the Canada Beyond 150 program as a way to create that kind of connection. Canada Beyond 150 is a professional development program for new public servants that is all about learning to engage with and listen to citizens before defining a policy problem or a need, let alone creating a law or a solution that addresses that need. New government officials are taught to conduct interviews, create dialogues with citizens, do “cultural probes” that dive deep into people’s hearts and minds, even encouraging them to share personal experiences.

Next, they’re taught to define the problem or need — really define it carefully, based on what they learned in their listening sessions. Only then can they get on with the business of generating ideas, prototyping and testing.

One participant commented that “stakeholder engagement made me realize that we must all hold the pen if we are to truly create more inclusive policies.” The current 10-month training program has ended, but they created a blog where you can read about how it worked, and how the participants are sharing their design thinking learnings with their peers.

When you think about it, government and design thinking is a perfect fit. Governments are about serving people, making laws and responding to needs to act in the public good. Design thinking is about putting the customer or end user at the center of the design and ideation process. Other governments can learn a lot from Canada’s program about innovating around and meeting and exceeding the needs of their constituents.


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