How does Service Design differ between the private and public sector?

I started my Service Design journey in the public sector back in 2011. Surprisingly, the behemoth that is the public sector actually seemed to be ahead of the curve. Or perhaps the people who wanted to see change at a service level, were naturally drawn to public problems that could be solved through design. Either way, that’s where Service Design seemed to be flourishing.

We were tackling issues such as loneliness, depression after retirement, financial vulnerability, housing, child protection. Endeavouring to get better outcomes for people, often who needed them the most, from systems and services that were laden in bureaucracy, legacy and complexity. I learned fast, failed often and tried my best.

After a few years in this space I was keen to experience ‘the other side’. What was it like to design in the private sector? So, with a number of third and private sector projects under my belt, here are few of my observations:

Learn the language

A vital component of any project is learning the language of the organisation you are working with. Acronyms, team names, success measures, systems, products, processes, policies, special jargon that no-one outside that organisation will ever use. At times all we want is to talk in plain English, but like attempting to ask for ‘One beer, please’ when you’re abroad, learning the language shows you are willing to put in the effort, get involved in their ways of working and communicate in a way that everyone understands.

It took me years to understand even a bit of government lingo and I’m still working on trying to sound more ‘commercial’. As a Service Designer you will always be an 'outsider' of sorts, but getting familiar with how your new colleagues communicate really helps in working together.

It doesn’t matter which way the graph goes

In gross simplicity: public sector want the graph to go down and spend less, wherease private sector want it to go up and make more. Then there is the third sector, a dizzying mix of the two. The overall financial goals of the organisation are intrinsic to designing a service that makes sense to the user, is worth it for the organisation and is sustainable. But as a designer it can be hard to know what to prioritise and how much to be influenced by these high-level goals.

What I’ve observed is that by designing a service that delivers a great experience for users, you should start hitting all those KPIs regardless of the direction of that graph. For example, you might be tasked with trying to get better outcomes for children in social care. At the heart of the issue, the families need more face-to-face time with their social workers. So, you design ways to create efficiencies, to allow staff to spend less time filing expenses and writing up notes, to have more time understanding the complex needs of their clients, thus allowing them to make better decisions. 

The outcome is not only a better service for your users but also cost-saving for your public service. This might be seen in reducing the need for temporary bank staff when theirs are tied up doing paperwork, as well as the long term outcomes of reducing need for interventions. Apply the same approach to a car sales company and you’ll probably get the same result, less time filling in forms, more face-to-face time with your customers and you’ll sell more cars.

Ultimately, the end goal of making or saving money doesn’t unpick difficult problems. It doesn’t help map wildly confusing backend systems. It doesn’t buy buy-in. To succeed you need to work as hard, understand as much, engage and encourage constantly.

It’s all highs and lows

Public sector challenges are emotive and often driven by a compassion for humankind. I have found it to be a very collaborative culture, probably driven by this shared vision to help other people. A sense that we are all in it together, there are no ‘winners’ and everyone is struggling. I experienced lots of cross-organisation collaboration, where lessons are shared and learned from and partnerships were welcomed. 

The process is very transparent. But because it’s public money, there is accountability, responsibility, policies, laws, history, red-tape everywhere. It often felt s-l-o-w to make things happen and at times it felt like there was no way through the bureaucracy to create meaningful change. The culture is shifting though. The impact of GDS has 'normalised' the process, legitimising the need to change and use a design process to do so.

And the private sector. Well, if they want, they can Just F**ing Do It. Be more agile, take risks and try something new. It can feel more creative – brands can be who they want to be, talk how they want to talk and look how they want to look. It can be simpler to measure – everyone understands profit. There are often in-house teams who you'll work with who may be more design or digitally ‘mature’ than their civil servant contemporaries. Yes, things might get done, but it can be harder to keep focused on the user, their experience and needs, when profits can be increased by cutting here and trimming there. 

We’re all people. And it’s all people.

For me service design has always been about people. We are driven to understand user needs, wants and wishes to help make any experience better, whether that be booking a flight or finding a foodbank. If you care about people, and strive to understand them, you will make that service better. But it’s also about the people behind the services they deliver. The call centre staff, the taxi drivers, the housing officers and all their respective bosses. 

They all have to understand what you are collectively trying to do, why it might be important to them and how they contribute. If you manage to take people on that journey they'll want to create and maintain the service you have worked together to imagine. Working collaboratively is so important, and although we might work in vastly different organisations trying to deliver very different outcomes, the people within them are remarkably similar. The themes are common. Everyone wants to be understood and listened to, feel like their contribution is worth something, that they are valued, have autonomy and are part of something bigger than themselves.

Writing this article has made me think a lot about the various roles I have had and clients I’ve worked with. There are some universal truths that transcend sector and it is these that are almost addictive, no matter what problem you’re trying to solve: the chemistry of the team, understanding each other’s objectives and languages, embedding yourself in their organisation whilst keeping an objective view, defining the measures of success, an ability to zoom from policy to interface, and a relentless pursuit to create best experiences you can.

For an idea of how Nomensa has worked with clients in both the private and public sectors, take a look at our case studies. If you'd like to discuss how we can help you improve your users' experiences, drop us a line at hello@nomensa.com or call 0117 929 7333.

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