Design Thinking for a citizen-centric future

Author: Philip Knittler

Das Foto zeigt eine Workshop-Situation mit drei Personen.

The public sector is often criticised for being too complicated and not user-friendly enough. One way to counter this is to apply Design Thinking methods.

Originating in the fields of product design and architecture, Design Thinking was adapted and popularised in the 1990s by the Stanford Design Program (D.School) to be used more widely in various industries. It is used by many companies and organisations around the world to find creative solutions for challenges. Design Thinking is an effective tool for the development of new products, services, business models, and business processes.

What is Design Thinking and how does it work?

Design Thinking follows a user-centric approach by taking the user’s perspective and focusing on their needs. The process has five phases: understanding, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing. These phases work closely with the principles of empathy, collaboration, experimentation, and iteration and provide a human-centric approach. This differs from traditional approaches, where solutions are increasingly created from a business perspective. Design Thinking has been used extensively in business and has a proven track record of solving problems and driving innovation. One example of applying design thinking at the enterprise level is IBM’s Enterprise Design Thinking Framework. It is used to solve complex business challenges and maximise value for customers, employees, and other stakeholders. Unlike traditional business processes, which are often characterised by rigid hierarchies and procedures, Enterprise Design Thinking takes an iterative approach, where solutions are developed based on feedback and constant adaptation.

Why is Design Thinking relevant to the public sector?

Although many companies have recognised design-based approaches as an important factor for better services and processes and have built up the corresponding competencies and roles, the public sector often still lags behind when it comes to the development of user-centric solutions.

Yet it is precisely the public sector and its services, including the underlying administrative processes, that have the potential to become more efficient and usable through new, user-centric approaches. After all, public services are of vital importance to citizens and society as a whole – especially in terms of building trust and confidence. To ensure an effective and user-friendly service, administrative processes must be not only user-friendly but also doubly user-centric. This means considering the needs of both citizens and employees. With Design Thinking, processes in the public sector can be improved by focusing on the perspectives of both parties, resulting in more effective service.

Why is it so difficult to put into practice?

There has been a lot of discussion about using this method in the public sector. People often argue that the real challenges and multi-layered workflows found in public administration are not represented in the basic principles of Design Thinking. But why do we see this opposition? Several factors contribute to this:

Resistance to change
Identifying the needs, wishes, and requirements of the target group is one of the central pillars of Design Thinking. Designing and conducting qualitative research with citizens is therefore an important skill to learn. If citizens are not at the heart of the initial question when it is being formulated, the solution will likely focus on the institution itself rather than the target audience.

Regulatory and political requirements
Internal policies and regulatory processes can be a barrier to the implementation of Design Thinking, as they often prescribe rigid processes and procedures that are not always adaptable and leave little room for innovative solutions.

Reluctance to embrace iterative approaches
Political pressure and time or resource concerns often restrict Design Thinking. This may be due to the pressure to produce results. The Design Thinking approach does not immediately lead to final results, products, or services; instead, it follows an iterative approach in which initial ideas for solutions are prototyped.

Challenges of embedding processes and empowering professionals
In the public sector, processes must be deeply embedded in the organisation. This means the basic principles and methods are understood and applied to achieve maximum benefit.

How to introduce Design Thinking successfully

To succeed, it is important to see the challenges as opportunities. Citizens judge public services not by policy decisions or internal processes, but by their personal experiences. It is therefore beneficial for policymakers and service providers to collaborate and solve problems together to ensure a positive experience. Using Design Thinking, government agencies can focus on human-centric feasibility from the outset when designing their services.

Five reasons why Design Thinking is relevant to the public sector

  1. Improve user satisfaction: Design Thinking focuses on users’ needs and seeks to develop solutions that actually solve their problems. This results in greater satisfaction and makes public services more accessible.
  2. Increase efficiency: Design Thinking is an iterative method, where solutions are developed in small steps, being improved, and tested at the prototype stage. This leads to faster results and helps to avoid redundancy.
  3. Cost savings: Design Thinking enables the solution to be developed in line with users’ needs while reducing risk. Because users are at the centre from the start, they end up being more satisfied, and costly mistakes can be avoided in the planning and implementation of projects.
  4. Increase the ability to innovate: Design Thinking encourages creative solutions and promotes innovation capacity. This is particularly important in the public sector, where there are often complex challenges and legacy processes to overcome.
  5. Increase public trust: Design Thinking emphasises the participation of all users and relies on open communication. This can help build trust and reputation in the public sector.

With a human-centric, collaborative, and experimental approach, Design Thinking promotes not only innovative solutions but also a mindset of continuous improvement and curiosity. This enables people to respond flexibly to changing needs and to develop transformative solutions. Design Thinking is an effective method for sustainable change in the public sector. It helps staff to bridge the gap between challenge and change and to become more closely connected with the beneficiaries – the citizens. In turn, this can lead to a renewed sense of responsibility and ownership of the role they play.

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