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Our mission is to contribute to excellence in public service management



Patrice Dutil

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Canadian Government Executive

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/ Canadian Government Executive

// January 2016

Last month, I reported on the new happenings at the MindLab, the Danish govern-

ment’s in-house laboratory for design. Created at the turn of the century, this Copen-

hagen centre has become a catalyst of new thinking in terms of service and program

architecture. It focused on “design” long before it became fashionable in our capitals.

Design is here now, but what is it and is it any different, really, than what done be-

fore? Is it relevant to the public sector? It’s not like previous public sector thinkers

had never thought of end-users or of the efficiency of their enterprises. They did, but

they thought of it secondarily. The first motive was to ensure that government’s needs

were met. If there was room to make a service more convenient, well that was good

too. That’s what got us (and still gets us, in some parts) with having to fill out forms in

triplicate and in re-copying the same information over and over again.

Design thinking inverts the process. It starts with the end-user and challenges the

provider with the task of twisting itself into whatever-it-takes to make the experience

effective, efficient and, yes, pleasing. The private sector has led the way, and a number

of university faculties (in design, but also in management) are pushing the thinking

of students and encouraging them to learn this new way of thinking that goes beyond

data and spreadsheets. The approach blends empathy (understanding customers bet-

ter), creativity (learning to meet the needs of customers better) and, not least, strategiz-

ing to create a competitive edge that will lead to profits in delivering on those needs.

The business sector might have an easier way with this because it can seek (or indeed

create!) whatever customers it likes. The public sector must deal with everyone, and it

must do so efficiently. Cash-strapped governments insist on it. What is missing is the

creativity element. Governments have come a long way in their thinking and the idea

of citizen-centred service is now increasingly asserting itself in the easier, more routine

interfaces between people and the state. Now, it’s time to bring some of that “design”

thinking to the more complicated programs: Think health-care, regulation, community

services, public transportation, to name but a few policy areas.

This is the era of Design thinking. To help CGE and its readers think about “Design”

I’ve enlisted Dr. Peter Jones, adjunct professor of Design at the Ontario College of Art

and Design University, to help out. Jones is captivated by the public sector’s particular

challenges and draws widely for inspiration. He’s convinced that re-designing servic-

es—even the architecture—is essential for serving the population of today and tomor-

row. The very legitimacy of government is its stake, and I tend to agree with him.

Other articles in this month’s issue relate directly to the topic. Craig Szelestowski’s

piece on betting rid of the backlog is a call for design thinking, and my interview with

François Dumont, the Government of Canada’s DM for Public Security also echoes of “de-

sign thinking” to deal with the barrage of cyber-attacks the country must deal with daily.

The public sector has to organize itself to capture the new thinking and make it work.

It needs leadership at all levels that will cultivate the imagination inside government

departments, seek ideas in all sectors of society, and the courage to test and then imple-

ment an new approach. Not least, it will take the convincing of the political class. We’re

all waiting for Godot. The gold medal goes to the first department that creates a “Chief

Design Officer”!

The Era of Design Thinking

(Yes, in the Public Sector)

editor’s note

Patrice Dutil