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Central government finally recognises that service design goes beyond digital…or does it?

Henrietta Curzon

This week the government released their new Service Standard, a framework to help devise and iterate all public-facing transactional services. This has replaced the Digital Service Standard, with ‘digital’ purposefully being dropped to reflect a new perspective. Having been the Service Design Lead for the Public Transformation Network in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government back in 2013, I‘ve been waiting a long time for this. So, was it worth the wait?

For me there are three key areas where I feel the standard hasn’t gone far enough:

  • Focus on the user – service design should be highly user centred: understanding user needs, defining the problem from the user’s perspective and going beyond traditional service boundaries is key to improving services. However, for the service to work effectively, consideration must also be given to the experience of the service provider and indirect service users, such as relatives. From IMPOWER’s experience of working at the interface between health and social care, the behaviour of both staff and relatives when an individual is being admitted and discharged from hospital is extremely important. They must therefore be involved in this process.
  • Co-design is absent – the language and ethos of the standard follows a model of the public sector doing everything for the user without the user. For example, the guidance around setting up a multi-disciplinary team focuses on bringing together experts in policy, law, delivering services and so on. There is no recognition that people who use services are also experts. Co-design with service users should be a key standard that all public services meet.
  • Tweaking not adapting – although the word ‘digital’ has been dropped, the examples provided remain mainly digitally focused. For instance, the standards around being iterative are good principles for developing services, as the ability to start with small, cheap experiments allows for early failure and learning from that failure to be incorporated into the design. However, all the examples provided are based on online solutions or integrating digital systems. It is not only online tools which can be prototyped – so can non-digital service interactions, processes and experiences. Storytelling sessions and theatrical service simulations are perfect examples of how to demonstrate good practice.

At IMPOWER we understand that frontline public services are complex social systems where people are the key drivers of complexity. These service standards do not recognise this complexity and as such are limiting the level of change that can be achieved. In order to really deliver better outcomes, a more holistic approach to service design needs to be taken.

Written by

Henrietta Curzon

Senior Manager & Insight Lead, IMPOWER



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