At FutureGov we help build organisations fit for the future. Working side by side with our clients and partners, we use service design to bring together work focusing on people, infrastructure, communications and technology in ways that deliver high-quality user outcomes and experiences.

We’re a change agency, but we talk a lot about service design. The question to start with is, why service design?

Organising principles

Service design helps us to understand, improve or rethink end to end services, starting with the user.

When thinking about ‘users’ we mean a range of different people. Both citizens and sometimes customers (people that choose to pay for services), and importantly we’re also talking about staff and employees inside organisations. Services can be ‘internal’ and/or ‘external’ facing and we believe applying the same approaches and mindset to how we approach service design can work for all types of services.

Experience has shown us that a ‘service-led’ or ‘service-oriented’ approach is an effective way of organising change and managing priorities inside organisations. There is no one size fits all approach. But, we’ve found that aligning how an organisation works to the services it delivers–using this as an organising principle–is the most effective way to keep a clear focus on user needs, goals and delivering better outcomes.

Over the past few decades, alternative approaches to organising a business might have meant coordinating around technology or business processes. Being technology-oriented is starting with technology and systems. Think Office 365 as a service, rather than starting with the needs and goals of someone who requires tools and software to do their job. While process-oriented organisations optimise products and services around existing operational processes and structures. This will mean traditional components of ‘business as usual’ and optimising for how things have always worked or been structured — it could also be an indicator of a lack of deliberate or conscious choices inside these organisation. Think, traditional management structures for people (HR), and technology (IT). User-focused, design/research and agile mindsets have always struggled to add any substantial value to these traditional, process-driven businesses.

A shift in technology thinking

The spirit of technology is ‘optimisation’. This is what makes technologies cheaper, faster, and most of all, scalable. It’s what’s so attractive about technology as an organising principle. The problem is, this gets detached from delivering the right support to people in the right places. Public services need to be more than cheaper and faster or we’re in danger of optimising for the wrong sets of outcomes.

In contrast, the spirit of being service-oriented is equity. Yes, optimisation is important, as is scale and sustainability, but not at the expense of improved outcomes for everyone. This might mean the flexibility of service models to provide types of support for groups of people with different sets of needs and not a one-size-fits-all model or over-reliance on digital channels. When working on public services this has to be a priority. A service-oriented approach is a way of being user-centred in this way or staying ‘user-led’. It means providing services that use the right technology solutions to deliver better outcomes. Making this shift means putting user needs and goals at the centre of the vision, culture and operations of the organisation. Then, making sure everyone owns and advocates for it, so the user needs to drive technology and decisions.

A ‘service-oriented’ approach recognises that we’re working in a new era of (digital) technology and this gives us a fundamental platform to build from. This way decisions about what is the best solution for users of services and technology decisions become intertwined. A shift from enterprise tech (tech-led) to digital tech (service-led).

Taking a service-oriented approach

A service-oriented taxonomy, credit: based on work developed by Kate Tarling — A common language to understand services

This service-oriented taxonomy is based on work developed by Kate Tarling in "A common language to understand services".

The important thing is to start with a ‘service-oriented’ view. This helps us clearly see everything we need to understand, design, improve or maintain.

Looking up, we have the context for our services. We should be positioned close to the real experiences of the people that will use our services and we need to understand the wider context and circumstances–the places where services are used.

Looking down, simple models like this can be used to understand how larger services are made up of smaller services (sub-services) and products, followed by the types of activities and capabilities that exist or need to exist to support them, all built on a foundation of technology and data.

This is service design working through questions that need to be answered in every part of how a service is built, scaled and maintained. It doesn’t discount technology, data or processes–these are all important components. But we don’t start here. Instead, we start with what really needs to happen around people’s needs or goals within a service. This way we can design entire organisations towards meeting those needs. If we start at the bottom of this ‘stack’ with data or technology, then we’re a long way removed from the people we’re designing and running services for.

Start by defining top-level services

To work in this way you first need to understand and define what your services are, both externally and internally to your organisation. This can take time, and we’ve often run dedicated discovery projects to better understand the services that exist within an organisation before going any further. A good way to consider this, returning to the first principles, is to begin thinking around how people access your services. For example, think about the Google search terms that people will use (and think of good services as verbs). Meet service users where they are by using an accessible and common language. It’s important not to make people work to understand your existing language, processes and structures in how you start to define and name your services.

Once you’ve started to understand top-level services in this way, you can work differently to rethink how your organisation owns and operates its services. This could mean re-organising around the services you provide to fully understand and provide the right tools and internal capabilities to support them. This process will also highlight whether you have the right roles, teams and responsibilities in the organisation to support your service offer.

The overall goal is to move to a more user-focused delivery cycle. We’re seeing the successes of this approach with some of our biggest transformation programmes and partners. Starting with a clear view of top-level services, it’s possible to support new ways of working, culture and behaviours across an organisation. All of this brings together both a service-oriented approach to designing future, more cost-effective and sustainable organisations, as well as the ambition to deliver significant future service improvements and better outcomes.

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