In the December 2015 issue of Canadian Government Executive, I reported on the new happenings at the MindLab, the Danish government’s in-house laboratory for design. Created at the turn of the century, this Copenhagen centre has become a catalyst of new thinking in terms of service and program architecture. It focused on “design” long before it became fashionable in our capitals.

Design is here now, but what is it and is it any different, really, than what was done before? Is it relevant to the public sector? It’s not like previous public sector thinkers had never thought of end-users or of the efficiency of their enterprises. They did, but they thought of it secondarily. The first motive was to ensure that government’s needs were met. If there was room to make a service more convenient, well that was good too. That’s what got us (and still gets us, in some parts) with having to fill out forms in triplicate and in re-copying the same information over and over again).

Design thinking inverts the process. It starts with the end-user and challenges the provider with the task of twisting itself into whatever-it-takes to make the experience effective, efficient and, yes, pleasing. The private sector has led the way, and a number of university faculties (in design, but also in management) are pushing the thinking of students and encouraging them to learn this new way of thinking that goes beyond data and spreadsheets. The approach blends empathy (understanding customers better), creativity (learning to meet the needs of customers better) and, not least, strategizing to create a competitive edge that will lead to profits in delivering on those needs.

The business sector might have an easier way with this because it can seek (or indeed create!) whatever customers it likes. The public sector must deal with everyone, and it must do so efficiently. Cash-strapped governments insist in on it. What is missing is the creativity element. Governments have come a long way in their thinking and the idea of citizen-centred service is now increasingly asserting itself in the easier, more routine interfaces between people and the state. Now, it’s time to bring some of that “design” thinking to the more complicated programs: Think health-care, regulation, community services, public transportation, to name but a few policy areas.

This is the era of Design thinking. To help CGE and its readers think about “Design” I’ve enlisted Dr. Peter Jones, adjunct professor of Design at the Ontario College of Art and Design University, to help out. Jones is captivated by the public sector’s particular challenges and draws widely for inspiration. He’s convinced that re-designing services—even the architecture—is essential for serving the population of today and tomorrow. The very legitimacy of government is its stake, and I tend to agree with him.

Other articles in the January issue relate directly to the topic. Craig Szelestowski’s piece on betting rid of the backlog is a call for design thinking, and my interview with François Dumont, the Government of Canada’s DM for Public Security also echoes of “design thinking” to deal with the barrage of cyber-attacks the country must deal with daily.

The public sector has to organize itself to capture the new thinking and make it work. It needs leadership at all levels that will cultivate the imagination inside government departments, seek ideas in all sectors of society, and the courage to test and then implement a new approach. Not least, it will take the convincing of the political class. We’re all waiting for Godot. The gold medal goes to the first department that creates a “Chief Design Officer”!

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