Human-centered design in the public administration classroom


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Designing public services has become an important issue in the public sector: In countries like Germany, the number of interactions with public administrations seems to be insignificantly low: only about 1,7 or 2,7 times per year, citizens have the need to interact with their local governments. As a result, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of calls for change in the way that services are delivered. Citizens even claim that they trust a paper proof more than an online interaction with government. After all, they have the proof in their hands that they have submitted their files, claims, or paid their dues.

As soon as we start to talk to citizens however, it becomes clear that they are experiencing an extreme media break between their private interactions online, such as online shopping, social networking, etc., and their professional interactions with public administration. There doesn’t seem to be a reason, why they are downloading a form from a government website, print it out at home, fill it in by hand, walk it to a government office, and then watch a frontline worker type in the form electronically.

We also know that computer programs have far advanced in recent years that they are much better in recognizing faces in comparison to human beings, and that files are indeed electronically safer than the one paper copy that is stored in a binder in a physical government office.

This is where one of my latest seminars has started: How can we design public services that citizens actually want to use and trust?

I have designed the seminar using human-centered design approaches and teamed up with four cities in southern Germany who were working on standardizing 40 of their public services. We chose the top four processes for the class. The cities of Konstanz, Ulm, Freiburg, and Friedrichshafen collaborated with my students and I worked on supporting the students’ trips with funding from the University of Konstanz’ Transfer project.

The students learned how to conduct user interviews. During this period, I teamed up with Martin Jordan, Head of Service Design, at the UK Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service Team.

The students learned that users are internal users (public servants who supply the service) and external users (citizens or companies).

In a first step, they interviewed product owners to gain insights on how the process was designed, what happens with the data. They derived process characteristics and a flowchart of the data flow.

Next, they went out to interview users (citizens in each city) and derived a user journey. They found stories that go far beyond the mere application process and tried to get holistic insights about the process as well as exchanges and dependencies with other departments.

Here is a fun post by one of the teams, available on Twitter:

One team had the opportunity to visit one of the first city-level innovation labs in Ulm (Thank you to Stefan Kaufmann for his kindness):

And finally the kicker: The students came up with prototypes for each process.

The student teams, triangulated the different types of data they collected and synthesized their findings into a new version of the process. Some of them designed a prototype with scissors and paper, others built mocks-up using Powerpoint, and one team actually created a website.

Did I mention that they are Bachelor students in public administration? They are not programmers, but they came up with insights that every IT service provider can now use to implement the revised process.

Finally, we presented the findings to the four city partners and any interested stakeholders, including participants from the state-level Ministry of Interior and their IT service providers, local IT consultancies, and most importantly public servants from the city of Konstanz:

What was the impact of this seminar?

  • Proud students, who now know that they are well-equipped for their BA thesis (no small feat).
  • Seemingly happy cooperation partners: Two of the processes were already selected to be implemented including the suggestions of the students. I call this a major success: there is usually no transfer or immediate implementation of student projects.
  • Given the direct implementation of the students’ suggestions: They are making an impact on all citizens in this state.

If I were to do this again, I would improve the following issues:

  • Smaller groups, or more intensive training in team building and conflict management skills. Help the students understand how they can become teams – fast – and how they can make decisions as a team.
  • Find external funding – don’t bother with internal funding and all that it entails (settlement of accounts, etc.). Lobby hard enough so that cities understand the value of providing funds for travel costs – or: stay local.

Overall, it was very much worth it!


2 thoughts on “Human-centered design in the public administration classroom

  1. Ines – I would like to talk with you about your work. I’m also teaching this methodology (through a graduate certificate at U of MN) and am thinking of coming to Europe in 18 months to work on a book. Let’s talk more on email.

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