Jesper Christiansen: “Applying human-centered design to public problems”

idea-lunch-jesper3As part of the GovLab’s regular Ideas Luncheon Series (see posts on previous speakers like Panos Ipeirotis, John Tolva and Brian Behlendorf), Jesper Christiansen of the Danish Government Innovation Unit – The MindLab – spoke at our January 22 Ideas Lunch

Jesper is Research Manager at MindLab, currently directing research and reflection across  multiple innovation projects underway there. An overarching theme of these projects is the human-centered design (HCD) approach that MindLab takes to transforming policy development and public service systems.

First developed in user-interface design and human-computer interaction, the core of HCD is listening to the needs and perspectives of the user. When applied to the design of software products, emphasizing the needs of users has been shown to lead to improvements in usability. HCD has also been applied to the design of physical objects and extended to the promotion of innovative solutions.

From these private sector origins, HCD is increasingly being embraced in public sector and non-profit settings. In policy development and public service design, HCD is a structured process that helps public servants understand the needs of the people and communities they are designing for, create innovative approaches to respond to these needs and deliver solutions and services designed to address the specific contexts of users. 

The HCD movement in policy development and service delivery is a reflection of the observation in many western societies that a disconnect exists between what is requested by the citizenry and what the public service system has to offer. In addition to trying to get policy and service delivery right, human-centered design seeks to reconnect the citizen with the state.

As a cross-ministerial and inter-governmental innovation unit which involves citizens and businesses in creating new solutions for society, the MindLab has adopted HCD as a central methodology for their work. In the MindLab model, HCD is a systematic process of creating new solutions with people, rather than for them. The approach at MindLab provides for a broader scope for participation, allows for new mode of knowledge (e.g., qualitative, first-hand), explores different kinds of processes (e.g., design-driven, iterative) and facilitates new kinds of human-centered public service systems. 

Jesper’s central example of the use of HCD in public service delivery reform focused on an ambitious effort initiated by the Danish Employment Minister to transform the country’s employment system – a cornerstone of their social welfare system and significant component of the government’s overall fiscal outlays. Jesper referred to the management of this system as a “gyroscope problem” – i.e., a system that is trying to accomplish many different things – e.g., employment insurance, re-employment, welfare, disability, health care – some of which may conflict with each other in their implementation. An additional challenge was that – while citizens can be stabilized within such a system, and helped when in crisis – there appeared to be little capacity for achieving long-term sustainable change in the circumstances of clients.

To counter these challenges, a holistic case management approach was developed where rehabilitation team across levels of government and across ministries and departments were struck to help clients achieve sustainable changed states. MindLab’s role in this context was to assist and support the implementation process by illustrating what it takes to make and drive such systemic change as well as illuminating the practical implications and difficulties involved in such change. The development of this revised approach was the result of an human-centered design process that included a mapping of the client’s journey through the social welfare service system, including taking civil servants into the field to experience the system from the client perspective, as well as the collecting of evidence from the field and bringing it back into public service planning and implementation processes. This effort to connect civil servants with the experience of citizens has also served in-part to build professional empathy – i.e., the capacity of public servants to closely relate to the clients they seek to help.  

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