Users as Co-designers in Public Services

Too often the approach in the development of public services has been “This system has now been built for you, welcome, please use it”. Lately it has become obvious that to make services sustainable and attractive, this has to be changed. Hence, service design is increasingly applied also in the development of public services. In designing public services, it is the citizens who are the users group and need  to be engaged in the co-creation.

Picture: Jakob Trischler`s presentation

Why and how users should be involved in public service design? This question was explored by Assistant Professor Jakob Trischler from the CTF Service Research Center (Karlstad, Sweden) on the 21 May 2021.

A key note from Jakob Trischer was that, contrary to popular belief, it is not only companies that are a source of innovation. Users are also an important source of innovation. According to a study Assistant Professor Trischler referred to, around 5-10 % of the population in western countries are innovating regularly. Yet, innovation policies are often very producer-centric: resources and funding go to companies far more often than to citizens as innovators of public services.  

Secondly, users often innovate even before companies. In many cases, it is the users that first perceive a need and invent possible solutions to that. Later on, companies commercialize the innovation, a process which always takes some time. Some great examples given in the presentation of Jakob Trischler included a 20-year-old Indian high school student Anang Tadar, who invented in 2017 the G4B: special glasses for the blind. He created this device after a blind woman came to him asking for directions. Another inspiring example was about a British couple Naveed and Samiya Parvez, who founded their own company Andiamo, in order to produce and commercialize 3D printed customized orthosis. They set out to invent this device because their son Diamo had cerebral palsy and was quadriplegic, but the gadgets available for his well-being were not adequate and effective.

These two examples are from Patient Innovation which is a nonprofit, international platform and social network where solutions, treatments and devices developed by patients or caregivers from all over the world can be shared and improved in a collaborative way.

A third, and perhaps strongest, argument for the involvement of users in the design of public services was that users have access to “use knowledge”. They know what are the user needs, and have first-hand user experiences from the existing services. In the public sector, a user is most likely in contact with several service providers, not only one. A hospital patient probably uses also normal health care facilities, services for disabled persons, home help services, social services etc. The challenge is to understand the system surrounding the user`s  activities.

Picture: Banksy

Essentially, to promote co-creation of public services you need to allow users to be active in the provision of knowledge and innovation.

Carrot or stick?

The role and position of the user changes when we move from private services to public. In the public sphere the right of the user to get the service is highlighted, whereas in private services it is more about the availability of that service.

The motivation to participate and give one`s time to improving public services through service design comes generally from different sources: financial rewards, enjoyment, feeling of connection with others, personal reputation improvement and status. In short, there are personal, social, hedonic and cognitive benefits. According to one questionnaire done among library users who participated in a library innovation process, the main satisfaction came from getting their voices heard and needs fulfilled.

There are different types of users: ordinary users (uses the service a few times only), active users (more involved and more knowledgeable about the topic), and heavy-users who even try to create services for themselves. Some ordinary users might be very active and motivated to participate, whereas some heavy-users might be reluctant and suspicious. Just think about rehabilitation services for alcoholics or drug addicts, to put an example. Even though an addict might be a heavy-user of this kind of services, it does not automatically mean he/she insists in playing an active part in the development of those services.

When it comes to public services users can also include companies. How should the service designer treat and involve these very different groups of users? Could there be a risk of combining active users and low-engaged users in co-design activities?

It is a fact that active and highly motivated people tend to take over the discussion and promote their own needs over the others. On the other hand, there are also extreme users who have low level of engagement and motivation to participate. How to involve them? Jakob Trischler`s advice was to actively use local networks to find this group of people, connect with them, raise their awareness, and incentivize before the start of the co-creation process. During the process, it is important to continue informing, activating, and preparing this group, and make sure the process is well facilitated and inclusive to all. This will help in reaching expected outcomes: new ideas that help improve services for all users, as well as capacity to drive for change.

Users will need correct tools to participate in user-innovation. Using digital platforms has become a common method in getting users` feedback and engaging them in the service design. In many instances going digital helps the designers and facilitators, but not always the users. Within public services, there is big chunk of users who don`t feel comfortable using digital channels. On the other hand, it has been shown now during the pandemic that the participation of more timid users has been increased in digital settings, especially in politics.

In any case, a personal, targeted selection process of participants is needed to avoid self-selection and dominance of the most active users.

Ultimately, service design is a creative, human-centered and iterative approach to service innovation.  With the appropriate space, motivation and tools, users can engage in and even take over innovation activities. As public services belong to all of us and are ultimately paid by tax payers, it is only fair that that the users are the main designers of the services they use.

Laura Ekholm

For more information:

Patient Innovation. https://patient-innovation.com/

Trischler, J., Dietrich, T., & Rundle-Thiele, S. 2019. Co-Design: from Expert to User-driven Ideas in Public Service Design. Public Management Review, 21(11), 1595-1619.

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