TP05-2P28 – Making Service Design a Solution for Government Program Managers

Authors: Michael Sedelmeyer

Understanding barriers and challenges to government service innovation

With government organisations increasingly responding to challenges by innovating within their services, how do we ensure that citizen-centred design plays a central role in this rising tide of innovation? Clear communication and mutual understanding between service design professionals and the civil servants who manage government programmes is key to ensuring that it occurs.

Innovation in Government Services

Increasing complexity, diminishing budgets, shifting demographics and changing needs and expectations of citizens are pressuring civil servants tasked with managing government programmes to develop new government services and change the ways in which old services are delivered. However, these government programme managers face discouraging barriers to innovation. Not only do citizens often exhibit ambivalence toward their role as innovators, government organisations rarely face direct competition. These factors can preclude a civil servant’s desire to innovate. Additionally, the failure of a new service programme often becomes a newsworthy event, attracting attention from the press and political opponents. Likewise, if a new service programme demonstrates relative success, the lack of a single common measure of success – particularly one as pervasive as profit is in the private sector – makes it difficult to compare outcomes across radically different government services1. These factors all conspire to reinforce risk-averse behaviour and can lead civil servants to overlook (or avoid) service innovation as a means to improve citizen-centred services.

The good news is it does not always have to be this way. There are promising signs that governments are beginning to embrace their role as service innovators. Whether a city government creates an office tasked with supporting innovation activities across its entire organisation, similar to the City of Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics2 or a national government develops an advisory council on government innovation, as a number of governments are beginning to do, these organisations are taking steps toward recognising and legitimising their role as innovators. It is then the mid- and upper-level programme managers within these organisations who will play key roles in coordinating and executing subsequent service innovation efforts.

Riding a Rising Trend of Government Innovation

These changing circumstances raise an important question for those of us who see service design as a powerful tool for enabling citizen-centred services: how can we ensure that the multidisciplinary tools of service design play a central role in this rising tide of government innovation? A relationship built around clear communication and mutual understanding is central to ensuring that this occurs. On one side of this relationship are service design professionals who must understand the needs of government programme managers and decision makers. On the other side are government program managers who must understand the value that service design can bring to their organisations and citizens. The first side of this relationship is important for ensuring service designers speak to the needs, resources and realities of a particular civil servant. The second side is important to make explicit the reasons the civil servant must care about service design.


Addressing a Particular Innovation Environment

To more effectively communicate the value of service design to civil servants, it is important to identify two characteristics of their work environment:

  1. You will want to understand the scope and structure of organisation-wide innovation efforts that have been implemented as well as any particular programmatic themes to their organisation’s innovation efforts. Do they view innovation as something that drives only efficiency or something that also improves quality and experience? Do they view innovation as synonymous with new technologies or do they take a broader view? This will help you position service design within the familiar language and processes to which they are accustomed. It will also help you to identify the context within which to frame service design and, if needed, contrast it with their current definitions of innovation.
  2. You will also want to draw as clear a line as possible between the benefits of service design for a particular civil servant’s programme and the overarching objectives or vision of their organisation’s top leaders. Too often, government leaders mandate an agenda of innovation, but engage in little meaningful or continuous communication with those in their organisation about how to carry out that agenda in a way that aligns with larger organisational goals.


Putting It All Together

Being able to address these characteristics of a civil servant’s environment will also allow you to begin addressing the strategic elements that underlie decisions in the management of government programmes. For any innovation to be considered both feasible and favourable by a programme manager, it must satisfy the following three elements. It must (a) align with the value proposition of their organisation and provide clear benefit for their efforts and resources. It must (b) draw from a sufficient source of legitimacy and support inside and outside their organisation in order to ensure backing for the innovation. And it must (c) be within the operational capacity of their organisation in order to ensure that the innovation can be tested and implemented3.

Therefore, by directly addressing the characteristics of a civil servant’s work environment, you begin building an argument that also helps to legitimise service design as something that is both feasible and favourable to integrate as a core component of their programme’s and their organisation’s wider service innovation efforts.



1 This framework for understanding barriers to government innovation is drawn from Altshuler, A. A. (1997) “Bureaucratic Innovation, Democratic Accountability, and Political Incentives.” In Innovation in American Government: Challenges, Opportunities, and Dilemmas, edited by Alan A Altshuler and Robert D Behn. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

2 An overview of the City of Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and their current municipal innovation projects can be found at

3 This strategic decision model for public sector management is drawn from Moore, M.H. (2000) 'Managing for Value: Organizational Strategy in For-profit, Nonprofit, and Governmental Organizations'. Nonprofit and Volunteer Sector Quarterly, 29 (1), 183–204.

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