Complex person-centred public services and Digital has to be designed in ways that are fundamentally different to transactional services.
Human Learning Systems work of Prof Toby Lowe, and and his analysis of around 50 public sector case studies is an important step in understanding why change in the public services is often so elusive. But his report begs a question that we have to answer here;
Why is Digital not a fundamental part of the solution in any of the case studies?
The seduction of simplicity; the Amazon effect.
We all know what Digital is, and how it has transformed the way we work and live. It is now hard to remember what we did without it. Google and Amazon have imbued us with a paradigm that Digital is transformative and provides us with a quantum leap in service efficiency and delivery.
We fell in love with Digital a long time ago. We can foresee the landscape of how our organisations would work differently, and how our lives would begin to be transformed, if only we design in more Digital. The next digital developments would simplify our work life, and present us with data that we could then use to make quick decisions. And we spend much of our time working to make this happen.
But despite what we tried in the public sector, we never quite get there. And here is why…
Digital is based on one key assumption, and that is that our behaviour is logical and predictable. The problem is, people are often complex, irrational, and unpredictable; especially when they are in need of help.
Transactional vs Complex Services
To probe the original question as to why none of the HLS case studies has Digital as a solution is simple. It comes from understanding the complexity of the services that are the core of the public sector.
Digital is a logical technology that enables transactions, communication and data movement to be automated. It has transformed how we renew passports and driving licenses, stripping out large chunks of work, producing both large efficiency and effectiveness gains. For highly transactional services, where the unit of service is an item, with very low variety and no variation of input, Digital is stellar.
Data consists of units, defined and unchanging from the moment they were created; by a design based on simplifying reality through categorisation. It is the ultimate act of logical reductionism, where we interpret the world through these categories and units. We compare like with like.
Knowledge is that which is what we perceive of what we learn about what happens in our lives. Whilst some knowledge can be reduced to single units, the reality is that knowledge often contains the nuances of beliefs, and behaviours. It may consist of thoughts and feelings, about the reality that we inhabit as irrational human beings.
To make matters worse, knowledge is often dependent upon the situation that we are examining at the time – being highly contextual. To use a simple example; the experience of one person in a restaurant, eating a meal, may be totally different to another doing exactly the same thing. How can we collate and store this information, except by the simplifying and assuming that each person has the same context as the other?
Is a situation that is difficult or impossible to predict because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise. It defies any standard attempt to understand because it is a symptom or result of multiple, contingent, and conflicting issues. Much of the work of the public sector in dealing with people, family and community issues are like this.
Combining data, knowledge and complexity together
As soon as we consider services that deal directly with people, this introduces complexity and variation that is unpredictable at the level of the individual demands that come into the service. If we attempt to Digitalise that demand, the evidence shows that the information that we have just stored becomes unrepresentative, simplified and rapidly out of date. The result over time is a separation of engagement between the citizen in need and the government agency. This fact alone causes a whole host of reactions from citizens in need. The data becomes trans-contextual.
On the other hand, by using staff themselves to understand and assess citizens needs, they can take in whatever level of variation and complexity that they need to, to deal with the context that they are immersed in.
As an example, the success of the initial response to the COVID pandemic by local authorities has been overwhelmingly down to applying HLS principles in uncertain environments. At this local level, the absence of Digital solutions can be contrasted by the effective use of telephones and direct communication between staff and citizen in need, and local agile community responses. Digital big data was left behind in its inability to function in its abstraction from the reality of the immediate situation. The response was delivered by people thinking within the context Infront of them; a triumph of human, not Digital, ingenuity.
'You don't listen, you never do, none of you, you think you know what I want and if I don't do what you say when you say, I'm back here sleeping in that arch'
Citizen, aged 26, homeless, in and out of prison, and struggling with addiction, talking to Charlie.
"In that 30 second exchange, he summed up everything I understand to be one of our biggest challenges in Local Authority."
Charlie Edwards, Head of Community Safety, Derby City Council, 5 October. 2021
Power with, rather than power over
Traditional public services 'deliver' services to citizens, in ways that there councils have deemed appropriate. However, in the case studies, the power is balanced between the officials and the citizens. True collaborative working.
Each of the HLS case studies point to successful outcomes through increased engagement by direct collaboration between the citizen and staff. This is not accidental, but a feature of the nature of the information that pertains to the rich picture that represents the needs of a citizen and the complexity surrounding that need. This ‘warm data’ contains the necessary nuances and immediacy that is needed at that moment in time, for that particular contextual situation. And this knowledge is best defined and transmitted person to person. The fact is, that the success of the recording and transmission of this richness fails spectacularly if we attempt to do this through Digital means.
Digital Service Design
Over the last few years, Digital Service Design has stormed into the mainstream private sector, with agencies springing up rapidly. Characterised by working in agile and progressive customer centric ways. For some, they seems like the young brash upstarts that they are. But they do represent the vanguard of a new paradigm shift that has gained momentum almost everywhere. They are proving to be successful in what they do; transactional Digital design.
In the public sector in the UK, the success that Digital has had, has faltered through various failed initiatives. This was until Government Digital Service (GDS) came along. Since its start in 2011 GDS had reportedly saved over £1b, with improvement of around £500m annually after that. Perhaps this has been the most rapid improvement initiative in the history of UK government? No wonder GDS is now poised to expand its reach across government, with Digital now being seen as a major enabler within the recent NHS White paper.
GDS has, more than anything else, managed to create its own unique island of a new paradigm, a different way of thinking and operating, within the heart of central government. It has managed to carve out highly agile teams of eager and motivated staff, who collaborate directly with each other in ways that are as distinct from the traditional central government ways of working as it is possible to be. This characteristic perhaps owes more to its overall success than anything else. What it is interesting is that these GDS principles of working, closely match those of the HLS framework.
Conclusions from the evidence
By forgetting the distinctions between complex and transactional services, we are in danger of being seduced by the attractiveness of the simplicity and success of Digital, and we may use it to redesign every service we come across. We must separate the design and application of Digital into transactional (logical) or person based (complex) services, and recognise Digital has to be applied in the appropriate way as a technology and an enabler. Digital has to be designed in, hand in hand with the redesign of services, by understanding the complex nature of individual citizens in need, in their context, and can deliver the service through decisions made in that context.
A new way of designing and managing services based on design thinking and systems thinking
The Human Learning Systems approach offers an alternative to the “Markets, Managers and Metrics” approach of New Public Management. It outlines a way of making social action and public service more responsive to the bespoke needs of each person that it serves, and creates an environment in which performance improvement is driven by continuous learning and adaptation. It fosters in leaders a sense of responsibility for looking after the health of the systems, and it is these systems which create positive outcomes in people’s lives.
HLS takes the practice of service design into the realm of the triple diamond as a methodology, and it takes service design into the application of the whole service
Is there something wrong with public services?
Do you have this sense that we struggle to realise why our public services don’t seem to work very well, and why we keep implementing change programmes every few years? Why some citizens seem to be having a more difficult time? And why demand and costs of delivery are always increasing?
There were people in the 1980's (Margaret Thatcher) who (rightly) thought that the public sector should move from its bloated bureaucratic paradigm, to one more defined by the success from the private sector, called New Public Management (NPM). They thought that it should (wrongly) embrace:
Who would not disagree with this? The public sector was the butt of jokes, and there were stories of waste everywhere. Something new was needed, and quickly.
The Outcome Today
Now, decades later, we know the outcome of NPM. We understand far more about complexity and service design than we did then. We can see what has happened to our communities and health services:
New Public Management (NPM) is based on the scientific paradigm of designing an organisation as a pre-determined machine. Staff all have their roles to play, managers manage the service through measures. Senior managers use measures to tweak mainly financial based actions.
It is interesting that today the private sector is having issues with this paradigm. It is struggling to remain moral in the face of rampant shareholder returns, and to create good working careers for workers. They have to put in safeguards to mitigate the worst of the scientific model of management, but that that is simply papering over the cracks.
And most importantly, NPM is designed for products and service selling in an open marketplace.
We also know much more about the theory of public services. We know that the public sector is generally a place that is full of complexity. Interestingly NPM is based on the opposite; on a transaction and compatitive based design that contains defined departments that have procedures that can be standardised, repeated and audited. As soon as we place a NPM design over complexity, we get a service that is unable to absorb that variety that is inherent in the system. Those who do not fit into the standard, are rejected and have a very difficult time trying to get support. In most cases they give up, and their lives take a turn for the worst.
Digitalisation is a great example of how the NPM paradigm and consistent Digital design fails to adapt to the reality of the variety that is the public needs. In local authorities, installed Digital designs often have to be bypassed if we truly want to achieve what is needed. In public services, we need flexibility rather than standardisation.
Designing for Complexity – Human Learning Systems
If we design services against the characteristics of the service we need:
What are the approaches that move us into the land of a new way of working, free from the problems of our current management and service design? Design Thinking and Digital Service Design have come to the forefront in recent years. This is despite the fact that they have been around for many decades. But what is different this time that makes then so popular? Well, it comes with a new paradigm, that is a break from New Public Management. GDS has been very effective in its development of highly transactional central government services.
In local government and healthcare, there have been ongoing prototypes of new ways of working that have been quietely developing for years, and recently a group of those people decided to put these together, and examine the framework that makes them different.
Launched in June 2021, Human Learning Systems has been created by a collaborative of public service workers, managers and leaders who were fed up with the way that targets and markets create dehumanising, fragmented and wasteful public service, divorced from the reality of the lives of both the people being supported and the people who support them.
Human Learning Systems
Lets start with the belief that public service exists to enable each person to create good outcomes in their lives. To do this, we believe that public service must embrace the complex reality of the 21st Century world. This means being human, continuously learning and nurturing healthy systems.
refers to creating the conditions in which people can build effective citizen relationships. This means understanding human variety, using empathy to understand the lives of others, recognising people’s strengths, and trusting those who do the work. It allows for new management competencies to develop.
It also means that staff bring their whole selves to work, recognising that we as people in work need; challenge, learning, autonomy, and achievement.
In complex environments people are required to learn continuously in order to adapt to the dynamic, ever-changing nature of the work. In complex environments, there is no simple intervention which “works” to tackle a problem. “What works” is an on-going process of learning and adaptation. It is the job of managers to enable staff to learn continuously as the tool for performance improvement. This means using measures to learn, not for reward/punishment. It means creating the conditions where people can be honest about their mistakes and uncertainties. It means creating reflective practice environments between and across peer groups.
THINKING AND DESIGNING SYSTEMS
The outcomes we care about are not delivered by organisations. They are produced by whole systems – by hundreds of different factors working together. The final job of managers is therefore to act as Systems Stewards – to enable actors in the system to co-ordinate and collaborate effectively - because that it was will enable positive outcomes to emerge.
How do we do this?
The principles of Design Thinking are the antidote to the machine based command & control paradigm.
We need an approach that contains these principles, and is based on proven practice. The HLS framework has been created from researching the approaches used in the HLS case studies.
The Triple Diamond Design
We all use different variations of the framework. It is flexible enough to be able to adapt to change in organisations.
UNIVERSAL CREDIT EXAMPLE, Authored by LANDWORKS June 10 2021
It was not going well. Universal Credit in some ways does help people back into employment.
In other ways, it is simply not designed for folk who are not, or have never been supported, educated, or trained in budgeting skills.
Jack (52) was struggling. Monthly payments make his life difficult. Like so many on UC, he takes to borrowing here and there, to get through.
Then, as Jack puts it, “come payday I’m f#*ked”, as the sharks swim in for the kill.
That was not what this meeting was about, we were discussing Jack’s PIP (Personal Independence Payment), which is a long-term benefit if you have difficulties with daily living and/or getting around.
And one of the assessment criteria is the capability to ‘make decisions about money'.
So together with the Citizens Advice Bureau, we work hard to support these PIP applications. We knew the application would almost certainly be turned down (a cynic would think they have a target of high rejections), and most are.
The appeal process is long and hard (not everyone is capable of this). Interestingly another of the criteria for getting PIP is your ability around reading and communicating.
Jack’s appeal (after 6 months) was successful… Hooray.
But DWP didn’t inform him… Boo.
A large back payment was made (as if by magic) into his account… Hooray, but with a note of concern!
Jack finds this pot of gold (6 months of PIP) in his bank and goes straight to the pub. To demonstrate to his new group of ‘friends’ just how poor his budgeting skills really are… Boo doesn’t really do it!
PIP is a progressive benefit designed for people with identified low life skills (e.g. capability to make financial arrangements) who have proved they are not best equipped to deal with daily living in the first place.
So, Department for Work and Pensions, could you please stop making large back payments. Please, it's unhelpful and in a few cases life-threatening.
These back-payments need to become forward-payments, spread out over an agreed period or used for a one-off payment such as a deposit on suitable accommodation. Also, DWP while you’re about it, stop the loan shark’s activity and make benefit payments weekly (supposedly fortnightly payments exist but all our applications have been rejected) for those who need it.
Moving service design forward to incorporate systems thinking, allows us to expand the depth of how we can evolve organisations and design for complexity
1. Systems Thinking
My definition of Systems Thinking for a service organisation is conceptually very simple;
it is a holistic way of looking at the service, its customers, operating environment, its service delivery, and all the elements that go to making this happen.
One key aspect of systems thinking that is easy to grasp, is that systems thinking sees the interactions and communication that occurs between departments. It's about how people interact within an organisation, in response to customer demand. When people start to perceive their organisation through a systems lens, they gain a perspective that leads them to understand how that service can work in a fundamentally different way to traditional mechanistic & reductionist principles that operate today. There are few good paths that lead to learn about Systems Thinking; the best way is to practice it. And looking for how to do this can often ends up creating more confusion than it solves! I hope that this article may help to make some sense of all this.
What is an Organisation when Viewed as a System?
A system isn’t just any old collection of things. A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.
What is a Systems Thinking Lens like?
Systems thinking is a way of seeing a service, from the customers perspective, all the way through the service delivery. It understands everything that goes into that delivery, without the barriers inherent in departmental design. Therefore we can begin to redesign the service from that customer centric perspective, incorporating the staff, managers, behaviours, leadership, and the culture of that organisation.
Complexity and uncertainty are recognised as being different to transactional process design and certainty. Understanding this complexity then allows us to design in different elements to what we would have done. This then allows us to help decision-makers reframe and see their problems to sovle from a new perspective.
Service Design with Systems Thinking = Systemic Design
Design Thinking is based on creating something innovative. This is ideally placed to provide a vehicle for systems thinking concepts to be incorporated.
Below is a diagrammatic way of demonstrating the difference between traditional service design (that begins with the needs of the organisation), and systemic service design (that starts from the customer and what matters to them.)
2. Design Thinking & Systems Thinking
If, Systems Thinking provides the perspective, how to understand it
Design Thinking provides the principles,
and Service Design is the practice.
Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is a way of thinking and working as well as a collection of hands-on methods.
Design thinking is also a set of principles that defines how to design something using iterative techniques, that create emergent designs. The 'customer' is the starting point, and the inherent nature of design thinking is innovative. It is a uniquely human activity.
And for the design of services, the Nesta's triple diamond model is a great place to conceptualise this:
Complexity defined by Grint
Complex problems hold a multitude of other problems within them. They change over time and are affected by aspects outside our control. They have no predictable solution.
Complexity, it messes with our rationality. Let go of that rationality as a cage and allow complexity to become normal.
Understanding complexity, and therefore moving away from my prevailing and rational mindset, has helped me to understand why I often failed to sustain much of what I was trying to achieve in the past, with managing operations and people, implementing change, creating and implementing IT systems. I, like so many others, have looked back and seen the frustration and struggle to ‘get things to stick’ and how I used to blame others for that failure.
Logical services - they can be analysed, and procedures created that can be applied through Digital means
Complex services - their interactions need to be understood, and the subsequent design is based on collaboration and fuzzy data.
The presence of Complexity should radically alter our approach to understanding users, and how we design services. It disrupts our view of how Digital should be applied, and how we deal with knowledge and engage across the whole value chain.
Understanding when to use a particular approach, helps managers to understand why sometimes their efforts are successful or futile.
In both the public and private sectors, managers understanding of management concepts is rooted in mechanistic and scientific management theories. This has evolved over the past centuries through the rise of scientific thinking. However, complexity cannot be successfully dealt with by applying these traditional concepts, and attempts to do so create poor service designs, and great frustration for all working in them. There are many resources now available, at the click of a button, to help us to understand complexity and how to deal with it, so I won't go into details here. But I have found the simplicity of Keith Grint's approach to complexity a very helpful starting point.
4. Service Design
Can we describe basic Service Design as the application of Digital to a Design Thinking approach? If we do, then we have to admit that SD is therefore bounded by Digital. In this article SD is defined as the design of services, using Design Thinking (without the constraint of Digital).
My Experience of Outcomes of Good Service Design
These are some of my Systems Thinking & Change principles, that I use as a foundation to my design approach.
Real learning through fundamental mental shifts are difficult to achieve. This often happens whilst people are connected to the work itself. It hardly happens in a rational environment through teaching or reading. (Ref: Argyris & Schon). Systems thinking is real, and that reality is not possible to directly comprehend through human forms of communication, it should only be experienced. Its understanding lies directly in the human-ness that we are, with regard to our individual world views.
5. Human Learning Systems - A combination for Systemic Design
The HLS framework is an example of a methodology that can be seen combining systems thinking with design thinking. This helps us to frame the Design Council model of systems thinking into a coherent approach for change and design.
Service designers systems thinking workshop...
If you want to know more, then this 1 day workshop will help you as a service designer, to understand some of the systems thinking fundamental that are applicable to redesigning services.
We now delve into the background and theory of Systems and Design Thinking. Recommended for those who wish to know more of the issues I have faced breaking boundaries of what is deemed acceptable.
Getting into the Background and Theory - Using Different Approaches
Systems thinkers can collide because they see the world in different ways, or they can see this as essential. We should examine the different ways they see the world rather than argue about the way the world ‘actually is’. In some circumstances one viewpoint will give you the traction to bring about improvement, in others a different viewpoint is needed. You can make an informed choice of which viewpoint ( and associated systems approaches) to start with but you will never really know until you are engaged in the process of using it. And you should be ready to switch as a project progresses. Best is to have a variety of viewpoints (and associated systems approaches) at your disposal. This ‘second-order’ thinking - concentrating on the nature of the systems approaches and what they can achieve, rather than pinning down what the world is like - is called critical systems thinking, perhaps most well defined by Prof Michael Jackson, OBE.
It is easy to remember theory with the mind; the problem is to remember with the body. The goal is to know & do instinctively. Having the spirit to endure the training & practice is the first step on the road to understanding.
Qualities Required to Learn about Thinking things
Design Thinking has always existed, but the term itself was coined in the 20th century. It became the subject of ‘papers’ and then become increasingly recognised through very practical and successful product development. An interesting and important characteristic about Design Thinking, is the reluctance for those operating in that field to strictly define it from an academic perspective, and critically, to resist attempts to standardise and codify it. According to many practitioners, the day that codification happens will probably be the day it begins to die.
Section by Stefanie di Russo
We have come to realize that we do not have to turn design into a limitation of science, nor do we have to treat design as a mysterious, ineffable art. We recognize that design has its own distinct intellectual culture; its own designerly ‘things to know, ways of knowing them, and ways of finding out about them’ (Nigel Cross 1999, p. 7)
Schön aggressively refuted the idea that design needs to ground itself in science to be taken seriously. Like his peers, he made an attempt to individualise design as a unique practice through cognitive reflections and explanations on its process.
Schön’s main approach on design practice was not focused on analysing the process but rather framing and contextualizing it. He describes the idea of ‘problem setting’ as a crucial component that holds together the entire process. The point of focusing on this was to allow designers to best understand how to approach the problem before they go about processing how to solve it.
Let us search, instead, for an epistemology of practice implicit in the artistic, intuitive processes which some practitioners do bring to situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value conflict (Schön 1982, p. 49)
Learning Systems Thinking? It’s not so Straightforward, lets ask Russ Ackoff
So I want to separate Systems Thinking from systems theory. They are different but yet related. I want separate the two because Theory itself, by definition, is a rational, scientific and reductionist way of looking at anything. Academia primarily engages in theory and research analysis.
As an example, when we use a model to describe something, we are not describing that thing directly. The model is and always will be an artificial construct that we create to help us understand. And often the model is a poor relation to the real thing, in that we have to embellish or move away from the model when applying it. We use models and theories to help us analytically to understand Systems Thinking, and for some this is the ideal route for them. But for others it could also confuse and only teach us about structured constructs and models, if we limit ourselves to this approach. Looking at Systems Thinking through a holistic lens, we would never reduce it to its component parts and then ‘teach’ those.
Ideally, systems theory and practice should inform one another,
Prof Mike Jackson OBE
Navigating the Systems thinking Environment
If you go to the world of systems thinking and cybernetic groups you will find that they are very often antagonistic. Its not necessary to behave in that way, its juvenile.
...We should curate our different modes of thinking, rather than moving towards uniformity.
The splintering of the systems movement into warring factions championing soft systems thinking against hard systems thinking and critical systems thinking against soft systems thinking may provide amusement to academics but is alienating to practitioners.
Prof. MICHAEL C. JACKSON OBE
The Nations Health
In response to health, social, and community problems, we would have health services designed around the complex nature of issues that many of us face. Appropriate state or voluntary group support would be available, to prevent issues escalating to become bigger and more complex.
We would have local communities as a power-house of action.
Health staff would be in jobs that they could perform, and flourish as people.
Demands into the health services would be lower than today, as would be the cost of delivering those services.