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March 27, 2013

Quirk’s new design

Six years ago, the Westminster Government commissioned an enquiry into the whole question of community ownership and management of public assets. Barry Quirk, chief executive of Lewisham Council was appointed to lead the enquiry. To the surprise of many, the Quirk Review came out strongly in favour of communities taking over public assets – the report is widely viewed as being a watershed moment in this debate.  More recently Quirk has been thinking about the future shape of public services.  In his opinion (always worth listening to), we’re lacking in design skills.


Quirk’s new design 

Barry Quirk, Guardian

When Barking & Dagenham council, in east London, wanted to improve its waste services, it turned to a perhaps surprising resource: a design agency.

By doing research and running workshops with local people, the designers were able to tackle some of the causes of major frustration and confusion for residents and the council. More than 70 ideas for improved services came out of the workshops and many have been put into practice, including clearer information about how to dispose of things, new signs to tell people about facilities, and ways to work more closely with local shopkeepers and traders to keep alleyways clear of rubbish. Not only did services improve; the council also made savings of an initial £20,000.

Everyone agrees that public services need to be better, quicker and cheaper. Public sector leaders need a nuanced approach to reshaping the public sector. They need to get into the granular detail of their services; to work out how to make them relevant and discover the best ways of reducing their costs.

There is no simple way to do this, but the Design Commission – an industry-led group that conducts research into policy problems that could benefit from design – has recently concluded a parliamentary inquiry into how design can contribute to renewing public services.

Design is not a panacea for public service reform. But, as our report, published Wednesday, shows, we genuinely believe that public sector leaders need to acquire design skills if they are to stand a reasonable chance of reshaping and refashioning the services for which they are responsible. Design offers a fresh approach to rethinking policy, redrawing professional practice and reshaping service delivery.

Design starts with user experiences, involves tangible prototyping of possible solutions and ends with new ways to deliver value to users. It rests on creativity and leads to innovation. Throughout the UK there are many examples in central government and across local authorities of design-led innovation. But so much more needs to be achieved; here are some pointers.

Great design rests on real discussions about visible, tangible options for change. Central government could do a lot to raise the profile of design-led innovation and promote it as part of the policymaking. The Design Council has done a lot to promote the use of design in industry and across the public sector, but design needs a sponsor inside government.

“Design skills” are insufficiently developed in the public sector. Not enough civil servants or local government professionals know how to add basic design methods to their own portfolio of practice. Neither would they be confident of knowing when and how to buy professional design support. That is why we think there is a real need for training and information.

There is a shortage of professional designers who can work across public services to help lower costs and heighten effectiveness. We need more of them if we are going to use design to address the public service challenge. This means making changes to design teaching while encouraging designers to see the public sector as a potential partner.

Our report has tried to address some of these problems by explaining what we mean by design, why it might be helpful, and by providing directions to other resources. It has toolkits, contact lists of designers and details about training providers. We have tried to knit together what might otherwise seem a fragmented range of practice across disparate service areas.

We have discovered that most of the rest of the world thinks we in the UK are already the experts at this. But what is needed is a major boost in public sector design thinking and practice. After all, the only way a circle can be squared is through design.

• Barry Quirk is chief executive of Lewisham council and co-chair of the Design Commission inquiry