Crafting public services for the people

Exploring the significance of service design for policymakers.

Policy and governance are ultimately services that deliver utility to citizens, whether it is by streamlining processes, overhauling fossilised systems inherited from earlier regimes or imagining innovative ideas that help people lead their lives ever better. Governments of countries as large as the United States of America and as small as Singapore, as affluent as New Zealand and as impoverished as Cambodia, have seized technology and design to craft interaction and improve provision of services. Yet, India despite the claims of being the IT Superpower  seems to miss the boat in using innovative techniques and ideas to better the lives of one sixth of humanity.

Nuts and bolts

In an earlier piece, I have argued that the India story is about Indians and that “by the people” is perhaps the only way for India to cast off the moribund colonial mindset that our rulers still swear by. The colonial mindset or its Hindi equivalent of mai-baap assumes that the rulers best know what the subjects need. It assumes that providing a civil service is a favour that is being bestowed and creating a system that caters to supplicants, not equal partners. Whether NREGA, applying for a passport or drivers license or buying a new SIM card, one is often left asking why the forms ask for redundant questions. This is a symptom of a situation where policy and governance initiatives are still crafted and imagined, fulfilling the needs of the service providers and seldom of the people at the demand side.

Compared to the old system of queuing up to buy a railway ticket, IRCTS is a significant improvement. ATMs have revolutionised customer interaction with banks. There are cash machines that accept deposits at all hours and credit the money instantaneously. Most organisations that plan for the future focus on improving transactional efficiency- the PAN card and the Aadhar card are good examples. However, efficiency is inward looking and what is really required is effectiveness. This is what service design can help with.

The Australian Public Service was perhaps the first Westminster style open democracy to think of citizens as customers and consumers– with needs, demands, expectations and preferences that needed to be met by the government. The genesis of this market-based thinking was the path breaking Coombs Report of 1976, which subsequently evolved into the New Public Management (NPM) doctrine. The Australian Public Service has been using service design principles to continuously create delightful public interaction. So what exactly is service design? A relatively new discipline, Service Design is defined as“the activity of planning and organising people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between the service provider and customers. The purpose of service design methodologies is to design according to the needs of customers or participants, so that the service is user-friendly, competitive and relevant to the customers.”

Understanding ‘needs’ is vital. Take the example of Aadhar. Citizens are pestered almost daily for different identity documents by a plethora of organisations. For a bank KYC, one needs a document that proves  your identity and another that testifies your address. Aadhar is now a powerful identity document. And while there is talk of linking it to receiving cash subsidies directly, its linkage with the financial system can open up many opportunities to make life simpler and more efficient. Aadhar data can be used to help us buy property, open an account in any city and perhaps link payment accounts to help transact. Nobody is thinking of the various needs, of the multiple pain points that can be removed or the opportunities that may be unlocked by understanding how different users experience the service.

Another vital trait of service design is simplicity. Think of the immigration cards that we fill in at Indian airports. Who needs all that information? What use is it put to? What can be reduced? Will it help our immigration become faster? Will that save paper and printing expenses? Will that help in reducing storage costs? How can we use data to stop criminal activity quickly and enhance the comfort of the vast majority of law-abiding citizens? Two good examples of simplicity are from the United Kingdom-onidea around government holidays and one very useful chart for VAT rates.

Lest one believes this is a rarified, largely theoretical concept, there are examples from Singapore, where behavioural insights, a core element of service design thinking is being used to improve user experience. Denmark, too, has created Mindlab, a cross-governmental innovation unit which draws citizens and businesses to enhance public policy and services.

So how does one go about doing this? The UK government has taken a considerable lead in creating a service design culture to overhaul its interaction with citizens. Given that almost 90 percent of the UK is online, there is a focus on creating digital services. Their approach has a set of ten guiding principles. We should borrow liberally from these  to create our own manifesto for overhauling public services. Most tasks that citizens need to accomplish have linkages to other activities. Yet most service providers focus on the element they are responsible for, with scant regard for what happens before or after. The service design approach, on the other hand, looks at the end goal that needs to be accomplished by the user, usually a series of interdependent tasks and interactions, each of which can be improved, perhaps re-imagined and completely overhauled, resulting in high quality and highly satisfying experiences.

India needs imagination on a grand scale with rapid implementation across sectors. There is much to learn from elsewhere. Instead of dissipating energy by conducting amateur stings on corrupt officers in the hope of exposing petty wrongs, I believe our nation will be served better by directing the same energy towards positive improvement. Service design is a way to harness energy and ability, to catalytically transform our society. Our public policy thinking has been limited to ideology rather than strategy, our governance focuses on grand ideas with scant regard for implementation and of course, addressing the needs of the creators rather than the intended beneficiaries. Adoption of service design, one believes, will create a whole new way of thinking and transforming, speeding up change, moving from think-tanks to creating doing-think-tanks. As Indians move to electing a new government, is it too much to hope for fundamental transformation in how citizens are served by public services? I think not.

Photo: Douglas Heriot