A design rethink for government CIOs

Public sector CIOs need to start exploring design-thinking techniques and incorporate relevant elements into ICT projects characterised by “wicked problems."

Albert Einstein was reported to have said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Unfortunately, this applies to many government technology efforts of the last decade and new thinking and approaches are necessary.

One potential approach is human-centred design thinking, a methodology and toolkit popularised by its use at Apple and design firms such as IDEO. Although still an unfamiliar concept in most CIO offices in the public sector, it is now gaining mainstream credence and popularity among private sector decision-makers focused on innovation.

Three factors set design thinking apart: it is highly collaborative/iterative; it is well-suited to helping create technology systems that are adaptable in uncertain environments; and it is mindful of both understood and hidden end-user needs. Agency CIOs need to start exploring design-thinking techniques and incorporate relevant elements into ICT projects characterised by “wicked problems” – those with significantly greater complexity and ambiguity than normal.

Identifying user needs

With scaled-back budgets and more to do than time to do it, agencies tend to make a host of assumptions about user needs when beginning an ICT project: who the user is, what a user wants, why they want it, how they prefer it to be delivered, and when they would use it. Time and again, these assumptions are proved wrong when the system is implemented and things go awry. The costs of these failures can be greater than the time it would have taken to gain a better understanding of true user needs. Let us come out and say it: the “build it and they will come” approach simply does not work.

The strength of design thinking here is that it revolves around empathy, defined as developing a nuanced understanding of user needs based on observation; it is not reliant solely on past analytical case studies or existing quantitative data, which may be of limited availability or siloed. At the conceptual level, design thinking tends to progress as follows: understand the problem, observe users, interpret results, generate ideas, experiment via prototypes, and iteratively test. These stages are accompanied by a number of specific methods and exercises that facilitate progress, often driven by intense collaboration.

Risk profiles a major adoption obstacle

Design thinking is geared toward creating specific solutions for groups with specific needs. At the end of this process, a new “product” is created that is often different from what came before it, or a new way of using existing or commodity services is devised. It is meant to get around the so-called Einstellung effect – the human tendency to try to solve problems by using solutions that worked in the past rather than looking at each problem on its own terms. However, unlike in the private sector, agency CIOs cannot patent what they create; the risk they take is therefore greater.

For this reason, undertaking an innovative and fit-for-purpose technology endeavour without a large body of proof points or quantitative evidence is usually left to other agencies. One solution is that non-governmental institutions that can afford failures in the name of experimentation, such as the World Bank, use design thinking to redesign ICT processes for a variety of situations, environments, and contexts, and they release the results as public goods.

 Key takeaways for design thinking

In Ovum’s examination of design thinking in government ICT, a few interesting observations stand out:

Design thinking in government ICT is particularly applicable in changing workflow for shared services, in co-creation initiatives, and in efforts dealing with open data that involve citizens as well as multiple agencies. It is also well-suited for defense and intelligence technology operations, where end-user experience can mean life or death.

If systems are designed for the extremes of a population or employee pool – the most demanding, the most far-fetched, and the most and least sophisticated – everyone in the middle can usually be captured too.

Radical collaboration is a key component of design thinking. This is useful not only as a tactic, but also as an overall strategy to change culture in the CIO’s office over time.

Small pilots are good places to begin with design thinking: those that solve tough problems for smaller groups of people, where user needs can be more thoroughly understood.

Prototyping is a particularly useful facet of design thinking for agency CIOs, when confronted with a number of competing technology or service-design options. It is the process of testing a variety of solutions to uncover additional problems that only arise during user testing; refining the problem question; and eventually finding the best solution. Prototypes are neither full-scale systems nor pilots; they are simply proof-of-concepts. Costs should be closely watched.

Design thinking is clearly not a panacea for government ICT, and agencies probably incorporate some aspects of its process already. Nonetheless, becoming familiar with its variety of methodologies can help leaders improve outcomes via a focus on end-user needs, collaboration, and iteration – as well as creativity.

Nishant Shah is a New York-based analyst in Ovum’s public sector practice. You can read more posts from him here

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