The public service has failed to adapt to the current emphasis on fiscal restraint, the current climate of evolving technological, economic, jurisdictional and social problems, and to calls for increased citizen participation and transparency. This failure is due, in part, to the use of old-problem solving methodologies and a tendency to disproportionately react to problems of today at the risk of being unprepared for the future. The public service risks becoming irrelevant as public trust and pride in the public service erodes.
Restoring the public’s trust requires an acknowledgement that the public service is failing to meet the evolving expectations of citizens, and of failing to adapt to better meet them. Author Susan Delacourt, in her book Shopping for Votes, argues that the new generation of “consumer citizens” is concerned with its own well-being, is cynical about government interaction, and is disengaged. As current public service methodologies do not account for this evolution, consumer citizens doubt the ability of the public service to meet individual needs.
This disconnect arises from the practice of designing services to meet organizational needs rather than user needs. Imagine a business that billed for a service that did not meet expectations, and the consumer’s response: a demand for a refund and taking future business to a competitor. Citizens don’t have the same freedom of choice for public services as they do with private services.
Human-centered design is one method that provides an excellent framework to begin addressing the complicated task of restoring trust, confidence and pride in the public service. This concept is based on the belief that an understanding of the hopes, needs and aspirations of your users provides the context and awareness to inspire creativity and innovation when designing solutions. With a clear and articulate model for understanding the needs of citizens, by designing to meet these needs, and involving citizens in this process, we can begin the process of restoring confidence and building trust. We can use this approach to develop a deeper understanding of the people we serve and the communities for which we design, and as a result we can create and deliver better solutions.
A public servant might use human-centred design by acknowledging that the needs of the user are not always the same as the needs of the organization. Imagine walking into a Tim Hortons and asking a citizen what problems they are facing and how they would address them. This is an example of using a human-centered design technique to empathize with your average user and is helpful when designing a policy, program or service.
Let’s apply a human-centred design approach to the future of the public service. This will involve engaging Canadians on what it means to be a public servant, discussing what the public service of the future will be and how we can change to meet the needs of our users. A human-centered design approach means exploring taboo subjects and addressing the elephants in the room.
Restoring pride, trust and confidence in the public service demands honest engagement between the public service and citizens about the future of the public service. To accomplish this, we must be willing to include in the conversation all Canadians: citizens, academics, think tanks, politicians and others. We need to incorporate concepts like human-centered design into standard processes when developing services, programs or policies.
Our failure to address declining pride, trust and confidence in the public service is done so at our own peril and to the detriment of those we serve.