FutureGov: Transforming how Governments Innovate Service through Design

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We spoke with Donagh Ó hArgáin, FutureGov’s Design Strategist, about their current and future social innovation practices.  FutureGov (@FutureGov)is located in London, UK, was founded by Dominic Campbell (@dominiccampbell) and Carrie Bishop (@carriebish). They describe themselves as a ‘DO’ consultancy in social innovation, helping to shape the future of government. Donagh has transferred his skills from architecture into a social innovation context, seeing his main role as a translator between all other parties involved in innovating services in a social government setting.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation and we will feature the full story in our book.

Can you tell us about FutureGov?
Our directors Dominic Campbell and Carrie Bishop were both on a programme called the ‘National Graduate Development Programme for Local Government’ in the UK that was set up to bring new blood into local government. The programme is a talent management programme for graduates who have the potential to become the future leaders of local government. This is achieved by placing graduates in different departments within a local authority in order to provide them with a range of different experiences. During their training, Dominic and Carrie observed how slow the public service is in enacting changes and recognised the need for innovation. They believe that by combining technology with good design can facilitate better and more sustainable change in the context of local government and the public service. As a result, FutureGov was born.

FutureGov could have been set up as a consultancy that is focused on advisory activities rather than implementation. However, both Dominic and Carrie recognised the need to be involved in the implementation of innovation and as a result, FutureGov is set up as ‘Doing’ consultancy in social innovation, as opposed to a ‘Thinking’ consultancy. We began by putting on events, hack days, unconferences to bring people together around certain themes. Using this approach, lead to the development of ‘Patchwork’ project which came about as a response to the ‘Baby P’ tragedy and highlighted serious failings in UK’s child protection services. These failings showed there was a lack of coordinated thinking across agencies working with children. As a result, FutureGov set up a working group across agencies to find ways to improve coordination and sharing of information. With the support from NESTA and a technology partner, we worked on a technological solution to join up the teams supporting the family in order to enable earlier interventions and better outcomes for the families.

When we began developing the Patchwork prototype, we realised that although we could do some of the work in-house, we needed a team comprising of consultants, designers and technologist to bring our vision into reality. In the last year, we have grown from an organisation of 4 people in 2010 to our current staff as around 20. We are not all full time, but it has grown a lot in the past year. We are very flexible in our response to projects, and the staff team grows and contracts, depending on what type of project we are working on.

Can you tell us about your current practices at FutureGov?
Although FutureGov started out advising councils on how to use social media, our practices has changed to focus more on advising public services on the use of web technology for social innovation and change. As a result of wanting to be a ‘doing’ consultancy, we began to focus in more detail on the design process as well as building our own technology and working with partners to implement tools on the ground.

Personally, I feel that my role in FutureGov is a translator. As a designer, I have worked in architecture design and service provision. I also understand the business side of things and have the ability to translate ideas and concepts to different people. Although I’m not keen on this term, the ‘T-shaped designer’, it does describe the role of someone being able to act as a translater between science and business. I think being able to speak different languages and having travelled are really valuable in developing the ability to bridge the different disciplines and find common ground in discussions.

How does design fit into your social innovation practice?
Design is core to our offer. Design is the vehicle that allows change to happen, while technology is the cog acting as the facilitator.  The intention is to use a design skill set, that is common across different areas of design such as the ability to provide creative responds to ethnographic research using intuition and experience. So it’s not about allowing a design practitioner to take a pen, you are the pen in a way; design is crucial to everything that we do here.

Co-design, doing ‘with’ not ‘to’, is central to how we work.  We gain deep insight into the problems we’re trying to solve, partly through our own experience working in local government, and partly through a design process that involves people throughout.  This way of involving people is also important for making change happen, and stick.

What do you think are the current drivers of change in design?
Social media and the ability to be able to galvanise communities and create networks based on social technology. In the early stages of FutureGov, the company would have been based around offering social media consulting in the context of social government. The current driver that is shaping our practice at FutureGov, is adopting agile processes from technology development in change management projects, and using design. An example of our process involves going through iterations and not spending a lot of money on resources, exploring how to collaborate better and facilitate different conversation across different agencies. The current financial context confirms what FutureGov believes, that the public sector can be more resourceful and the way that the government is using their resources is currently not effective across the board. How we can take from other areas, especially technology and computer processes to devise better approaches?

What excites you about design at the moment?
Personally, I think what excites me the most at the moment is the ability to prototype and conceive new environments offline and online. It is a new way of doing things that are none committal, so the whole notion of prototyping has been exploded with the conception of the 3D printer. When I have worked with a 3D printer in the past, you can make a model that is three centimetre deep and three centimetre tall, and cost £10,000. Now you can achieve this with a lot less design restrictions and cost involved. It also enables a way of working that is open source and collaborative that can be easily translated into the public sector. I think we are going to see some really interesting things emerge.  Being able to prototype in that way has lots of possibilities, as you don’t have to spend a lot to do that.

One other thing that currently interests me and I believe can really inform us is how Japan is using biological concepts to prototype expected growth in the area of transportation planning. This illustrates a convergence of science and design which I have yet to see happen here. It has been bubbling under the surface for a long time, but I think with opportunities provided by the likes of a 3D printer, we will start to see opportunities in design which will be quite exciting. For example in the context of food production, not using science to test things out but using design to design the science changes the interaction between the disciplines into a two-way dialogue.

What do you think the future of practices in design and why?
One thing that is interesting in our organisation is that we are co-located around the country and meet virtually maybe once a week. Everything we do, is in the cloud, I have at least one Skype conversation per day with a colleague. This way of working is a mixture of co-location and remote location. We work in a collaborative work space where we have opportunities not only to co-work, but to work with other people. I think design practices are going to be a lot more fluid. Its going to be much more collaborative based, much more cloud based.  People are doing one day a week with John here, and then one day a week with Mary.

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