Public sector service design & systems thinking Moving from enforcing to helping
The Background A local government council in England decided that they wanted to review the way that they tackled community problems like noise, anti-social behaviour, dog fouling, neighbour disputes and rubbish in gardens. These services are always backed by legislation that defines the limits of what is acceptable, and this drives behaviour and the subsequent rules.
Due to past experience, the Director had a clear understanding that Service Design was the methodology that he wanted to use, and the staff were placed in a new integrated Hub together with the Police.
The approach that was taken, follows the classic Service Design approach that shares its principles with Design Thinking. In effect, the project was to go through three main stages:
The Community Safety project team was set up, and the role of the consultant was to develop the Service Design principles with the team, and give the team the right tools when they needed them. The team then undertook the approach, developed the prototype, and designed the implementation.
The team worked for four weeks, to gain an understanding of how the system worked. We discovered that all the demands could be classified as; my neighbour is noisy, I don't like my neighbours behaviour, there is a car parked on the road for a long time, I am being harassed, and there is lots of rubbish outside someone's house.
These are a few examples of what we found in the first two weeks:
The team began to realise that we kept getting repeat calls - what was that about? The team complained that the public just did not seem to listen. But we had to be fair and give the same service to all.
The public seemed to react quite badly when we said that we had the power to fine them, and that we are not interested in their overall situation - we have a procedure to follow.
We automatically fined people for throwing some of their rubbish round the corner, behind the hedge. Why not? We had to treat everyone the same. Some people got very annoyed at this, and this puzzled us.
After 4 weeks of investigating, this is what we learned about the service we all had been working in:
There were many people we dealt with that we just did not help, we made their overall situation worse.
We spent lots of time on things that added no value to anyone.
70% of demands were investigated, but never resolved.
45% of demands were due to neighbour disputes.
75% of the demands changed from what their original demand was.
60% of people we deal with are recorded on 3 or more separate computer systems.
70% of our demands are linked to social housing or the police.
In 85% of all cases examined, the team have discovered that the person is having additional issues with other council services – in other words the person and process is complex.
The team now had hard evidence that how their current procedures worked did not produce a very effective or an efficient service. They started to realise that there was work to do to improve the service. By this point the team were very enthusiastic to make changes – but were unsure exactly what to do.
The Work – Community Safety To understand the process that the council staff take is not straightforward, because there is no typical problem. Imagine a community – anything that annoys anyone in that community is dealt with by this group. They called themselves Community Safety. So, to make clear the transformation that occurred, I have taken one of the simplest examples – to show that it is not the problem itself that is important– it is how the problem is viewed and resolved that is the key to a better service.
Example - A problem with Rubbish
This is a story of two people John and Sandra, who both have domestic rubbish accumulating in the garden.
John, has accumulated an amount of rubbish on his front garden. And this is the workflow:
Someone in the community complains.
A call taker, follows a standard procedure, records the details on a system. This becomes a task.
The task gets sent to the manager, who after a few days prioritises it and sends it to an officer.
The nominated council officer visits the house, knocks on the door and tries to speak to the person inside. The officer wants to ensure that the John understands that the rubbish needs to be cleared, and will lead to a fine if the problem is not resolved in a week. But John is at work.
The officer returns to their office, creates an official letter at their computer, completes the IT system details of the failed visit, and sends the letter to be posted.
John gets an official letter from the council pushed through his door that states that the rubbish contravenes his housing tenancy agreement. It also says that if the rubbish is not moved within a week, a fine will be applied.
John quickly removes the rubbish, he drives it to the local tip. The subsequent visit by the council officer finds that the waste has been removed, and the council has rightly done their job.
Looking at John’s situation; he has recently split from his wife, and has let things in his life get out of hand. He has been away visiting relatives for a week, and just got back to work. When he got the letter from the officer, he recognised that he needed to tidy the garden up and did that.
Comparing John with Sandra
Sandra has accumulated an amount of rubbish on her front garden. And this is her workflow:
She gets the same visit, and letter. But Sandra has not moved the rubbish within the week. The council officer visits again and verbally tells Sandra that he now has to fine her. She swears at the officer and slams the door.
The officer, then goes back to the office and writes up the whole scenario on the IT system. But the officer has been trained to be customer focused, so the officer makes several visits to talk to Sandra in the next weeks – delivering letters when the door is not answered.
Sandra eventually throws the rubbish over the fence nearby, and the officer is not happy about this.
Sandra is fined. But because she cannot afford the fine, the council agrees for her to pay small amounts every week.
The council go and pick up the rubbish and take it to the tip.
Looking at Sandra's situation. Sandra, has an uncle, who was released from prison, stay at her house for several weeks. The uncle sometimes invites strange guests into Sandra’s house. One of Sandra’s children is out of control, and she often screams at the child. Sandra is very unhappy, feels alone and unsupported.
Sandra often just cannot cope with the normal things in life that need to be done – it has all got too much. She does what she can to reduce any problems. To cope she tries to live with someone who she thinks has a strong character, and so she tolerates the uncle. Sandra has lived with two other strong men in the last three years, but they have sometimes abused her. Because of the extra people in the house, there is more rubbish than fits in the standard waste bin that Sandra has been given.
Every time Sandra gets a letter from the council it’s a new problem for her, to add to the already long list. How is she meant to get rid of the rubbish? She does not have a car. So to reduce her daily worry she simply throws all council letters, unopened, in the bin. When she got a letter from the council about her rubbish, she threw it in the bin.
The Learning The council approach is to treat every case of rubbish in a garden in the same way. But we are discovering that different people have got very different needs.
Giving John the letter to tidy his garden helped him to keep his life under control.
Giving Sandra the same letter as John, made her life worse. It pushed her level of need just one more step higher than it was. And it may have cleared up some of her garden, but all she did was remove the problem from her sight.
The Prototype and the New Approach
The team spent several weeks learning, taking the next cases that came into the council at random, and tried to perform them in a better way. And for each case, they compared both approaches by measuring what happened, and estimating what would have happened in the old way of working.
These are team insights that were then taken forward to design the new approach:
We can make a big difference to people’s lives, and we have to stop making people’s lives worse.
Before doing anything, we need to understand the whole picture about someone; listen, and never judge.
Ignore departmental boundaries as much as possible.
The officer who knows most should make the correct outcome happen.
Take ownership of helping to solve the problem.
Get support from others if you need to, or pass on ownership to someone else if that is the most appropriate action
Take each case based on what matters to the person, do not follow a standard course of action.
The team analysed the root causes of the issues they dealt with, and they were: low level anxiety, depression, childhood issues, personality issues, and chaotic lifestyles due to lifestyle and family difficulties. The main activity that was used to help people, was – listen and to give advice. The team did not use a process anymore, they used a framework to help them understand what to do in different situations. This framework developed from experience in the trial and systems thinking principles.
Taking the new approach with Sandra - what the officer would do now:
A complaint is made about rubbish in the garden.
The officer who picks up the call, records down the location and then searches the system to find out more about Sandra. The officer finds out that she is behind in her rent payment, and that she has had several dealings with the council for other problems.
The officer visits Sandra and asks if he can come inside for a chat – but the officer does not mention the rubbish. The officer asks questions about how Sandra is able to pay the rent, and she talks for 20 minutes to the officer about all the problems she is having.
The officer then asks Sandra if she has a problem with rubbish, she says yes. The officer sees that the root cause of the problem is that she needs an extra bin. Then the officer asks how he can help her get rid of the rubbish. Sandra cries – it’s the first offer of help anyone has given her in weeks. They agree that the council will pick up the existing rubbish from the garden. And the officer then goes to his van and gets an extra bin and gives it to her.
Sandra cannot thank the officer enough, she feels better for the rest of the day, and she does not shout at her child so much anymore. She feels more confident, and now has a hope that the council might help her in future, rather than give her more problems.
The officer returns to the office and records a minimum amount of information against Sandra's record. Importantly, he records the issues of difficulty for Sandra.
No recording on the council IT system was required, except for several sentences. Only one visit was needed by the officers and one by others to collect the rubbish.
The outcome was achieved with a significant reduction is actual work for the council. And a far better outcome for Sandra.
Comparing the Two Approaches It is difficult to list down the differences between the two approaches, because even in this apparent simple situation, the circumstances are complex. But the description of the old and new approach highlights the difference in outcome for Sandra. Many of the demands coming in were more involved and complex than this one.
Another case that the team came across was Tracey - A 22 year old woman complains of anti-social behaviour. The causes of her issues were to do with;
Immaturity about knowing what to do in situations most adults her age would know.
Low level anxiety.
Pressure from her father was distracting her focus.
She had contacted the council a total of 30 times over the past two years.
Outcome – after three visits, her anxiety had reduced, we helped her gain her confidence. She did not need any more support, and she had started to look for work. She has no recorded calls to the council since then.
The outcome was achieved with a reduction by around 30% in actual work for the council. And a far better outcome for Tracey. She just needed someone to answer her questions, and begin to give her confidence in herself.
If you are interested in the detail of Tracey and our work with her listen below, (8 min audio)
The Outcome of the Trial The results recorded from the cases taken in the trial, using the new way of working are:
Visits out of the office are reduced by 50%.
Letters are almost never sent anymore.
Internal communication within the council has increased x4.
Patrols have almost been eliminated, unless they are what is needed.
Actual cost savings due to reduced activities between 33% - 42%.
Repeat calls dropped to less than 10%.
The public loved the new approach.
The staff began to enjoy their work – it’s much better than being unpopular.
Structure Adult Social Care, Mental Health and the Police located some of their staff in the new Hub - to take advantage of the integrated way of working. Inappropriate referrals reduced significantly because staff were able to communicate directly with each other face to face, before simply throwing the problem into a 'referral'.
Team and Management Approach The team discovered a radically new way of working. In the old way, they all followed a common process. But in the new way, each officer had to understand and decide for themselves what course of action to take. At the start of the process this was very difficult for staff to comprehend, especially for the managers. I had to help them learn new techniques, and they had to gain confidence in their approach and risk. But, for each officer, there came a moment when they suddenly 'got it.' We created a decision-making framework that helped the officers to structure how to make decisions. Each person became part of a self-managing team to some extent.
Managers The managers had to experiment with new approaches that encouraged team learning. They also had to develop new ways of managing and keeping control using empowered and delegated decision-making. This was a challenge, as the old ways were disbanded. I helped managers to learn how to evaluate cases and officers performance. The manager had to relinquish their old methods of control. Often the managers would go out with newer officers, to observe and learn how officers worked with the framework.
A weekly session was created where everyone would give an overview of their work, learning was shared, and issues were aired.
The behaviour and culture of everyone in the department changed.
from We enforce to We help
Next is a video of an account of the project from a team member, 8 min
End of article
Below is a description of the approach that was used to undertake this transformation. The methodologies includes Design Thinking and Systems Thinking, incorporated into Service Design.
The Service Design Methodology
The approach that this piece of work took combined Design Thinking principles with Service Design and System Thinking, with a sprinkling of Lean. Each 'thinking' is woven into the overall method, so that in one morning, the conversations will always start with what matters to the end user, incorporate an end to end perspective, and talk about the real barriers int he organisation. We challenged everything.
The Service - Service design focuses on applying design thinking principles to a service, by embracing the needs of the 'customer.' In a local government service, the application of this approach is not quite the same as in a private organisation. The reason is in asking the question what os the service delivery? It has to be the actions of the officers to help someone to fix a problem. Therefore the innovative approach is applied to the whole service delivery approach. That has to include every element that is directly part of the delivery; rules and procedures, staff roles, measures, empowerment, and managers role. That may be why this case study may appear to be different to others.
The Plan was agreed with the client - but they had no experience of this type of approach, so I had show them that a fixed project management approach would be ineffective - the plan had to be part of Understand. But what might be interesting to the reader is that this is really about Transformative change. In this type of change, which is a complex wicked problem; part of the discovery is to find out where we were going to go. I say we, because this involved transforming peoples thinking as well as the service. The team - Transforming thinking is something that happens when people decide to explore and accept other fundamental possibilities. So, the team that went through this had to be officers from the organisation, plus managers. They had to undergo the journey, and the only way to do that was for them to actually do it themselves. My role as the consultant was as a facilitator, and as a coach. I would give them the right tools at the right time, and they would develop the outcomes. So, no nice clean diagrams from me, they were all generated by the team.
The managers - two of the managers were involved for about 1-2 days a week. They had to start by being part of the team, and they had to learn. Slowly over time they started to learn new ways of interacting with the team and allowing officers to come up with the solutions. The manager had to learn how to work with an empowered and self managing team. Whats the role of the manager when the team are self managing?
The main three elements of Service Design
So, the first thing we did was to listen to demands:
listen to the demands coming in. The team did this themselves, and after two days they recorded down what they had found from the forms coming in, listening to phone calls, and listening to people coming in.
The demands were categorised according to what they were.
The team recognised that some of the demands were easy, and some seemed very difficult to fix
From a design thinking and service design perspective starting with the outside-in - customer perspective is fundamental. I would like to detail the approach here for this type of service. Which is perhaps different to many of those others encounter. I understand several levels of 'depth' 1. The immediate user experience 2. The user feeling when interacting. 3. Understanding the customer, their immediate expectations and solutions. 4. Understanding the main problems the 'customer' is facing in achieving what thew came to me for. 5. All of the above, but extended to their current lives - plus the barriers they face, and what they would like me to help them with.
The video above of Tracey will demonstrate this depth.
Each level will produce a different action and outcome. In this work it is important to realise that I operate at level 5. So, the initial demand is often not the problem - it is other things that the council officer can help them with that surround the persons life.
The example of Tracey in the text above is a good example of this, where the team had to help her with her decision-making, maturity, and anxiety. That has nothing to do with the service that the council traditionally provide!
Understand the end to end work flow We then started to map the flows of the forms that came in to the office. I showed the team how to do this, and they decided how they were going to complete the task. I facilitated and helped them to create flows that were readable.
Value - and waste reduction We then looked at the flows and decided which of the activities were value and which were not. We did this because we wanted to focus on Value activities when we began the prototyping. Using Lean techniques, what the team found was that only 10% of activities were creating value! And this was the beginning of the realisation that there was much to improve.
Performance - impact on the public Somehow the team had to understand how well they were doing as a service, and the only way is to measure the success from the customers perspective. We found this very difficult, as the demands were not transactional. In the end we measured how many people called again, and we also went and spoke to people to ask them if their issues had been resolved.
prototype & trial
The team members were split up into pairs. Their purpose was to learn new approaches and they achieved this by taking demands and try and do them in a new way. They were given a set of principles to follow. The sequence of what they did is described in the article above. What they learned was discussed at the end of each day all together, and recorded on a large matrix on the wall. We used a combination of systems thinking in overall approach so we effectively started the prototype from a blank piece of paper.
After working this way with a few demands, the team's view of what they had to do was radically changing. They realised that by Actively listening,- they would get very different information from people they were there to help and from other staff, we found out what really mattered to people. Understand. Focus on value - we could cut out huge amounts of overlap with other departments. And we only recorded what we needed to record on IT. Lean techniques. Outcomes - we did what people asked us to do, if it was reasonable. Previously they had done what the council had told them to do as a standard procedure. Customer centric. Solutions - We searched for solutions that we would not normally be involved with, like give advice on how to deal with low level anxiety. Value. Helped them - if we saw that we were going to push their level of need higher, we would use another approach. So, we would reduce the amount of fines we gave out if we thought that the person had a good reason to do what they were doing, and if they had no money.
We worked together on how to implement this with their colleagues. The decision-making framework was then used by the manager to help coach individual officers to build up their competence and expertise.
Team Working The manager and the staff created a weekly meeting, where officers would each talk about the work they had been doing, and monition issues that they had. The team would learn from this feedback and also help each other share ideas and problem solving. This session also allowed the manager to get a good understanding of what the officers were doing and the challenges they face.
Implementation The implementation plan and method was mostly developed by the original team members. They knew their colleagues well, and knew what they went through to develop this approach. The primary technique of developing others followed the approach of going out with an original team member. So the sequence was:
1. Background information about what we learned in the prototype and trial (1/2 day) 2. Going out with an experienced team member (mentor) for the day. 3. Structured reflection on the day before. 4. The newer officer tries out the approach whilst together with the mentor. 5. The cycle continues until the new officer is confident and competent.
I left at this point and they and the managers implemented the approach across the whole department.