Imagine: you’re unemployed. You’ve been in and out of jobs, never really feeling valued or a sense of belonging. Responsibilities like rent, bills and groceries mean you have to work, but constantly moving between roles leaves you with uncertainty. Soon, family activities like a pizza or a cinema, decrease. One day, you’re told you can access financial support if you register with the local job centre. Brilliant.

Policies have no impact without service design

Being Italian, I’ve been following what’s happening in my country. The Citizen’s Basic Income is very often in the news as one pillar of the Italian Five Stars Movement economical proposal. The name itself is confusing. They’re not proposing unconditional income for every citizen, but social support for those living below the poverty line.

Access to this support has multiple conditions:

  • at least 18 years old
  • unemployed, or receiving a salary or a pension lower than the poverty line
  • registered to a job centre
  • accepting one of the first three jobs offered
  • working a number of weekly hours in community service and attending training and upskilling courses

The role of job centres within this proposal is crucial. Though currently, they don’t work very well. Only 2.4% of the registered people found a job.

In Italy, there are 552 job centres with 8000 employees that have been helping 2.8 million people looking for a job. That means each job centre has 14 employees helping 5072 people. That’s a big difference. Each operator can help on average as many as 362 people. In other countries the ratio between staff and unemployed customers is much lower: 1 to 24 in the UK, 1 to 70 in France and 1 to 49 in Germany.

Registering with the job centre is easy, but getting in contact with staff is nearly impossible. Staff are overwhelmed with cases so when they do answer, they don’t recall your story or your skills and they don’t truly understand how to help you.

This is a prime example of a policy having no impact because it doesn’t include service design. The needs of the individual haven’t been considered. Services work in a transactional way, rather than taking a design-led, user-centred approach to build relationships that understand people’s needs. The gap between what the policy says, providing social support, and the services that are actually offered leave citizens in the grey area, unable to get the support they actually need and access to what they were promised.

Diagram from the "Designing for Public Services" report by Nesta, IDEO & Design for Future

For more information, read the full Designing for Public Services report.

Focus on supporting people

At FutureGov, we’ve helped local authorities work on similar challenges. Recently, we worked with Hackney Council to improve its employment services.

The initial plan from Hackney Council, based on their own discovery process, was to build a localised online job board. The aim was that a digital product would be easily found and used by residents self-sufficiently, thus improving employment rates. Stepping back from this brief, we spent time understanding the bigger picture of existing services, needs of the service staff and exploring the real needs of Hackney residents.

Our research, that has spanned from best practices research to interviews with staff and residents, unveiled two key insights. First, having a job is not always the main motivator of employment. Motivation is often linked to deeply personal ambitions like disposable income for entertainment or finding a sense of purpose. Secondly, people who struggle to find sustainable employment often use multiple services, like health services or services for those leaving care. They were missing the opportunity to provide for every need because of siloed services because they lacked a joined-up approach to supporting people.

Policy making and service design discussion

Working together with the council through the user-led design process, our research and insight helped establish a new brief. Building on the council’s discovery, we changed the conversation between staff and residents, which traditionally focused on getting people into entry-level jobs, to thinking long-term, helping more people into new or better employment opportunities (including apprenticeships and training).

Together, we developed a working product that provides end-to-end services for users by helping frontline officers to capture better information about their users online and to support. This platform, Hackney Works, is an open-source service that is now operating live across Hackney to deliver employment services — offering a personalised and easy to use support, inspiring residents to think about their aspirations and work towards a sustainable job.

Beyond building this service, we helped the council recognise that it’s not just about creating services to find employment online. A platform alone isn’t going to help. New technology has to be supported by joined-up services, tailored to the individuals’ needs that will help us think more ambitiously about supporting people into the right opportunity.

Screenshot from Hackney Opportunities website

Visit the Hackney Opportunities website for more resident testimonials and information about the local area.

Design-thinking for outcomes

The Citizen’s Basic Income policy in Italy is a good piece of policy, that will likely be implemented poorly. As mentioned, staff are overwhelmed and people aren’t supported in the right way because their needs haven’t been considered. The existing policy, as it’s designed, won’t help to achieve meaningful, sustainable employment for the individual. Policymaking will only have an impact when working alongside a user-centred approach to redesign services understanding the real needs of the people — service managers, staff and customers.

Experimentation in this direction is possible and already being achieved at the local and national scale. In the UK, organisations like Policy Lab, who are using design, data and digital tools for policy innovation across government, and Government Digital Services, who are leading the digital transformation of the UK government, are making impactful design-led policy design at scale. It is our belief at FutureGov that any organisation, of any size, is capable of using these skills to influence innovation because when policymaking and service design work together, impactful change happens.

This post was first published by Agenda for International Development.

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