Ben Holliday

Human-centred design, organisations, power and control

Shortly after publishing my blog post about different types of design focus, I shared a tweet/quote from last week’s Techfestival in Copenhagen (via. James Cattell who was at the event):

“Human-centred design scares [some organisations], because their entire model is based on concentration of power and hierarchy.”

My initial reaction to this? This is what government is like most of the time.

Having thought about this over the past week, here is some of my thinking to explore what this means.

User-centred design in government

User-centred design is easier for government departments to accept because it’s containable. It can be prevented from making anything more than a surface-level impact to how government and policy actually works.

I experienced this first hand in my previous role setting up and running user-centred teams at the Department for Work & Pensions (UK Government). It was an important step for the department to invest and embed user-centred design and research as an approach to service delivery (especially around digital products/transformation programmes). But, the bigger challenge was always policy, and more importantly the mindsets and culture this shaped around the operation and delivery of front line services. The design of service interactions was user-centred. It’s much harder to make the argument that policy and service delivery was always person, or human-centred in how things worked in reality to support people with difficult, complex needs and circumstances.

Singular service models

The design of user journeys and service pathways can be user-focused, even when service models for policy are acting as a form of power and control over people at an institutional level.

The best example I can think of here is the ‘conditionally’ attached to when and how people can access a service (or policy). This is the way that government intends you to do something and whether you’re entitled to access a pathway for support or a type of service. This isn’t usually something you get to control as a citizen (outside of your right to vote for who governs and represents you in a democracy).

Conditionality means that you match a set of criteria, then follow and obey the rules, or the support and access to the services you need will no longer be available to you.

The way I’m starting to think about this is that power and control exerted through a service model is singular, just like a user experience. These are the constraints that people feel and experience directly as individuals when dealing with an organisation, and as the result of a service or set of interactions. 

The choices that we make, and how we standardise patterns and processes at a user interaction level within a service, are a mechanism of control that we need to recognise. If your organisation designs and operates with singular, conditional service pathways, then you have the power to leave people individually isolated. They can be stuck or excluded from a goal or outcome by design (intentional or unintentional).

In government, existing approaches to designing policy and services in areas like welfare feels singular in this way. The alternative here is how we might design more flexible, connected service models–giving people access to a wider set of options and support.

This is a more relational approach that should also be capable of supporting different types of change across a system (like the housing, health or social care systems).  It needs an asset-based, more locally-focussed approach to empower front line staff delivering services to meet people’s needs and expectations with positive long term outcomes as a result.

User-centred policy design

In this way, I think that ‘user-centred policy design’ is an oxymoron (even though I think the government teams setting up this way have the right intentions to design better policy for people).

Policy has to be human-centred to have meaningful impact in people’s lives and the places they live. This should be the role of Government–helping people to have things like a safe, secure place to live, access to good health care, a job etc.

Designing for people is ultimately more about people’s lives, and how individual needs exist together in a place. The types of outcomes I’m talking about here should connect people to the local place where they live in a meaningful way as well.

It’s then about understanding the role that other people have in meeting these needs. This means thinking about the health professionals, carers, and the cared for. The job seeker and the work coach. The employee and their relationship with an employer.

The role that policy plays in shaping these relationships, and in meeting the needs of staff, and front line service delivery inside our public-facing organisations is essential. To make it more human, policy should be seen as organisation design, not just user-centred design.

A service-oriented approach changes the dynamics of power and control in government

I don’t think this will be a popular message, but it feels important. To deliver 21st Century models of government and services there will need to be a shift in the dynamics of power and control.

Human or person-centred design reasserts power and control back to people at the front line of services. The outcomes it supports should open up and maintain a more viable set of options and support for people and their communities. If anything, it’s mutually conditional in the value it creates for the staff providing this front line support and their roles as part of a service.

Human is when your organisation chooses to concede or re-evaluate the power it has in the world and over people’s lives. This is more than a good mission statement, it’s a fundamental shift in what we value most.

As a final thought, I regularly see questions and then comments like these (this example is also from Twitter) – “Who is designing an empathic, human centred immigration system, that can ensure correct outcomes achieved?” – As Mark responded, this isn’t the focus or direction (call it a user need if you like) for the Home Office (UK) – and I could have picked out any large government department/example here). The question is still, why not? And, what would take to shift this focus in government? That will definitely require more than the political, policy and user-centred (gov)design approaches that we have right now in the UK. My guess is that local government will be the first to step up to the challenge.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.