#56 The Designer for Public Services in the Digital Age

I first met Lingjing Yin when she attended an #upfront workshop last year and I was immediately drawn to her subtle strength, conviction, and service design talent. Since then, Lingjing has also tried her hand at stand-up comedy which you can watch below. Lingjing is a service designer at Future Gov and an adviser to the British Film Institute. She cares about making public services better and here's what she has to say...

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned over the last year?

Over the last year, I’ve been working with local governments pretty closely to tackle complex problems and design better public services. As a designer, I am experiencing the growing complexity of the problems via projects at FutureGov - from fixing transport to improving fostering services, from redesigning care services for people with dementia to helping people to access heritage archive in the digital age. All made extra challenging at the time of austerity and uncertainty. I’ve learned a lot and am still experimenting with new ways of working. Here are a few lessons I’d like to share.

Firstly, the job title doesn’t matter, impact does. We designers often stuck with job titles or find it difficult to describe exactly what we do. "Am I a strategist? Am I a service designer? Am I a business designer? Am I a full-stack system thinker?” The quest goes on and our Linkedin page can be confusing for non-designers. It’s easy to fall into the trap to try to update that perfect job title and describe who we are and what we could do. I often find it more interesting to talk about the impact we are creating. Are we meeting real user's needs long-term and embedding positive changes? Are we spreading user-centred experience across the wider system? Are we helping the team to work better together? At the time of increased complexity and uncertainty, I’d rather be the designer obsessed with impact instead of job title. I hope one day my client can introduce me proudly to their colleagues as ‘she helped us to design better public service’.

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Secondly, designers have to design beyond target user experience or journey maps and design with the system in mind. Often we underestimate the complexity of government and can be carried away with our 'user-centred toolkit’. When we land our work with a target user experience backed up with loads of research insights, we assume people will be amazed and start doing something with it. However, the truth is for any organisation with many elements and sources of power interacting with each other (like the government), the journey maps we take high pride of can be seen as naive and unrealistic. To make change happen (if our goal is to deliver that target user experience), we have to look beneath the user experience and understand the building blocks of the system and the inter-relationship between them. We have to get our hands dirty to get into the details of finance, policy, staff roles and responsibilities, processes and tech systems. We have to be smart about when to sense, when to probe and when to act and be realistic of what can be changed and work with what’s manoeuvrable. That is not to say all designers now need to go to business or law school or start to code. But being mindful of those building blocks is definitely helpful. In the fast-changing world, the best way to deal with complexity is to embrace it and design with the system in mind.

Thirdly, we can always be bold and design for public sector growth even in austerity. Most of our projects at FG starts from a saving target or the question of “how can we help the council to save x million in x year?”. To most of the governments that often equal to service reduction, tighter eligibility or shifting to cheaper channels. None of us is strangers to the news of increased housing waiting list or reduced opening hours of your local leisure centre. The most rewarding projects I’ve worked on at FG are the one looking to reframe the savings questions to the challenge of delivering a much bigger vision yet with less government expenditure. Those projects often involve with challenging councils to rethink its role within the society and service landscape, from controlling and commanding to connecting resources, from delivering directly to enabling market innovation, from service reduction to capability growth. It also involves helping councils to adopt technology to not only automate tasks, eliminate people but also to increase influence and levers in the market by using data and insights. The public sector urgently needs more growth mindset to meet user’s needs and drive the cost down.

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Finally, while it’s ok to think big, the best way to test complex strategy is to launch it quickly, do it cheaply and revise it rapidly. I often feel the pressure from our local government clients to be able to explain exactly what will happen after the change otherwise they won’t try it. Since no one has the magic glass ball, the best way to figure out whether our strategy or idea works or not is to launch something small quickly(i.e. Riskiest Assumption) so that we test user’s response in the real world. The ability to do it cheaply is almost the new competitive edge of one organisation from another because if we can do it cheaply, it means we can test more ideas until we find the best solution. It also prevents the team from being attached to any specific idea. Revise it rapidly is about taking on feedback learned from experiment and adapt our strategy accordingly. This is what we call Agile ways of working at FutureGov.

What’s your burning question of the moment?

There are so many. Here are the top three.

* How can we help governments to adopt a growth mindset in austerity environment?

* How can we create space for experimentation within government to test strategy quickly, cheaply and revise rapidly?

* How can we put digital at the heart of organisations strategy and make organisations work more like the internet? (e.g. open, networked, user & data-driven, responsive, etc.)

What’s the most inspiring thing you’ve seen/ heard/ read in the last year?

I am fascinated by the podcast from the behavioural insights team Nudge Unit when they talked about the dirty secret of government is that we don’t know whether what we are doing works a lot of the time. The Nudge Unit believes by focusing on smaller things we can better achieve bigger goals. Some of their work with the Cabinet Office is very interesting which helped the government to make better policy by breaking down big goals into series of smaller steps and actions to try.

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An article I read a few months ago really stuck with me. It's from Ian Burbidge from the RSA. In his ‘Outdated public services must empower people to achieve change’, he examined the context of the outdated models of public services and the types of societal problems we are facing. I found the call to 'think like a system and act like an entrepreneur' could be a very powerful message to a lot of people working in public sector. I certainly find it very useful.

What would be your one piece of advice to students out there?

Don’t think of career path too much, focus on what you’d like to grow as a person and how can you make yourself helpful. The danger of career development sometimes is it makes us anxious about ourselves as we can always be better. There is simply not enough of a celebration of who we are and what we are good at already. 

When I switch the questions of ‘Am I good enough?’ to ‘Am I being helpful?’, it helped me to stay focus on my strength and articulate values I could offer to any team and any company. It removes the emotional elements too which can sometimes get in the way of our growth.

When you are good at many things, why don't you do all of them? This can be controversial as most of the workplace like to hire people who could do one thing and do it well. And I find it very difficult to be good at many things or convince people I have many skills at the early stage of my career.  This podcast from Harvard Business Review interviewed Kabir Sehgal who is living and thriving in his portfolio career instead of a traditional career path. His story of juggling multiple jobs and build it into a great career is an inspiring one. I am still figuring out what is my portfolio career might look like. 

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