Public servant as a designer

I have been working for the government since 2005. We have now come to a point where we are moving from working groups, spreadsheets, data from the past to understanding the complex interconnected eco-systems. In this blog, I try to make some insights how design thinking could be applied to our governance.

Burden from the past

Finland’s public administration is built to a world which is linear, clear and predictable. We have ministries and their controlled bureaus and everybody knows what is their individual mission and responsibility. It is told that it was necessary to build Finland’s public administration this way so that Russians could not come here to bring their own governance. We are quite far from the everyday life and challenges of the citizen. The traditional way of working does not resonate the real, post-industrial world.

From numeric, logical models to emotional insights and experimental models

Design thinking (DT) gives you freedom to break down the models that are constructed in our minds and in our programme development plans for five-years. It is a toolkit for any innovation process and it combines design approach and more traditional rational problem solving. In the chart below you can see the differences in main characteristics between DT and traditional working way.

Characteristics of a design thinking manager Characteristics of the traditional thinking manager
intensive observation and wondering, challenging stereotypical perception immediate perception and quick interpretation of a situation
emotional and rational at the same time, subjective mainly rational and objective
abductive and inventive analytical, deductive and inductive
failure is part of the process looking for “correct” answers
comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainly lead by organizing and planning
empathic and human-driven, deep understanding of people’s needs and dreams customer-driven, deep understanding about what clients would like to have for their social status
principally collaborative principally individual

One of the main advantages of DT is the iterative movement between abstract and the particular. The process moves between concrete and the system-wide perspective. Designers produce models and prototypes instead of abstract statements and calculations. So, as we plan, we have the prototype and our customers in our reach all the time. We get instant feedback from the customers/ stakeholders instead of at the very end of the process when it is difficult to correct the mistakes.

In complex world, stupid questions are the essence

There are several myths that should be broken free when we come to work together between ministries and agencies (modified from Designing for Growth, page 16: “six things managers know…that are dead wrong”).

Blogi kuva 1

Above is a little glimpse how design thinking and system-wide perspective is changing the way we work together. It is not easy to find the right balance between DT and the traditional model and there is a time and a place for every combination in the public sector.

Riikka Pellikka


Liedtka, Jeanne & Ogilvie, Tim 2011. Designing for growth: a design thinking tool kit for managers, New York: Columbia University Press.

Tschimmel, Katja 2012. Design Thinking as an effective Toolkit for Innovation. In: Proceedings of the XXIII ISPIM Conference: Action for Innovation: Innovating from Experience. Barcelona.

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