Design Thinking for Government Services: What happens when the past limits our vision of the future?


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One Laptop Per Child Trials as of mid 2008
View OLPC Trial Schools as of mid 2008 in a larger map

Truly innovative companies, according to Roger Martin, author of “The Design of Business”, are those that have managed to balance the “reliability” of analytical thinking with the “validity” of abductive thinking. Basically, these two concepts try to differentiate two ways to deal with innovation. We can either: (a) use statistics, trends, quantitative surveys, and historical data to produce reliable results; or (b) develop a deep understanding of the basic needs of end users for the specific problem that needs to be tackled and propose a valid solution that would satisfy these needs. The author makes a very good case for validity, which is usually forgotten by companies that prefer reliable results that keep most companies’ top executives and stock analysts at ease.

This call for a change on how to tackle innovation has originally been directed to businesses1, and takes the concept of design thinking (that is, borrowing the thinking process of designers) to services and companies in general. However, I believe it should also be applied to governments, more specifically on how governments should take advantage of ICTs to improve service provision internally (within government entities) and to citizens.

Most governments that introduce ICTs in their service delivery structure have basically applied technology to the exact same workflow they had before, replacing papers with emails and signatures with digital certificates. But ICTs in general – and broadband in particular – do not just improve the efficiency of governments. They have the potential to transform how governments work, redefining their relationship with citizens and expanding the array of services and transactions that could be provided and implemented.

This, however, is a very risky proposition for governments. And if most private companies rely on analytical thinking due to their overall aversion to risk, governments in most developing countries have a much less functional innovation system (in many cases, equivalent to a “copy-paste” function to be applied to “best practices” in other countries).

So what is design thinking for governments anyway? It is not that much different than its private sector equivalent. It is about going back to the basics. And I mean the basics, trying to understand what citizens need from their governments (yes, that far back) and then answering the question: how could governments (hopefully, leveraging the new set of technologies and devices that exist today – and their spread among the general population) be able to satisfy these needs? Then, it is all about building prototypes, testing, trial and error, and of course a good set of evaluation and feedback mechanisms2.

For governments, as well as for companies, the main challenge is twofold: on one hand, governments watching their public expenses are generally risk averse, and consequently they hardly take any risk to implement services that could fail, more so services that are not requested explicitly by citizens, without any case study, previous experience, and/or statistical analysis to rely on. In some countries, such an adventurous enterprise could even get people in jail.

On the other hand, those governments where new services (truly new services) are allowed to be tried out don’t necessarily know when to stop. Fear to admit failure or lack of supervision lead to an unnecessary draining of public resources that create a bad precedent, funding initiatives that never take off.

In both cases, most governments do not have the right internal mechanisms to allow for the testing of new services and ideas. They either don’t allow any innovative project to be implemented, or don’t provide any incentives (usually by punishing all failures), or allow failures to continue endlessly. Failures should be acknowledged rapidly, and then changed based on feedback from end users to be tried again – and again.

There are only a handful of examples I can think of (Mr. Martin’s book brings several from the private sector) where design thinking is making a break-through. The first one that comes to mind is of course the idea of giving laptops to all school-aged students. Not a very innovative idea nowadays, huh? Try proposing it before Nicholas Negroponte did, back in January 2005. The concept has now multiple projects around the world (see map above). Is it in experimental stage? It should be indeed. No one can claim (yet) that there is a successful “best practice” that could be applied to every country. Moreover, governments that are implementing such programs should be ready to detect needs for improvement and not be afraid of changing the approach if they believe it is not working.

Another example,, is a brand new way of approaching citizens launched on June 2010 and championed by the Governor of the State of Nuevo Leon in Mexico. is based on a social network platform rather than on a transactional portal (which they already have), and aims at becoming the preferred communications channel between every citizen and the State Government. Citizens can suggest infrastructure projects for the State (the project that receives the most votes is supposed to be funded by the State), and they can follow up all activities the Governor and main officials have carried out.

Programs intended to test new services need to be tried on a relevant scale and in the right environment. Giving laptops to kids in one classroom in one public school (or many “randomly selected” classrooms for that matter) without changing the curricula, without providing Internet and/or without training teachers, probably will not yield the best results. Monitoring and evaluation frameworks need to be established (unlike commercial products, the success of a public program does not translate into an increase in sales and stock price!).

But the one laptop per child (or any of its variations) does not longer represent a huge leap of faith. Many countries are implementing it (Uruguay has been the first country to do it at a national scale), albeit with results yet to be shown. However, for those other projects out there that could be implemented on health, education, banking, etc. many policymakers might think: “If we only need one (brave/crazy) government to take the risk, then we’ll pass and wait.” After all, the laptop concept was not proposed by one government, but by a visionary educator from MIT, with the support of United Nations and the World Economic Forum.

And this is, in essence, the basic difference with the private sector application of design thinking. Whereas in the private sector, at least in most cases, a successful design-thinking process will provide a new product that will come with a quasi monopolistic position related to patents and first-mover advantage (think iPod); in the case of government services it has all the characteristics of a public good problem, where very few will incur the cost (and risks) alone while benefiting all. Innovative leaders that are willing to do it should be reminded of the risks - and then supported.

As hard as it is to break through the lens of reliability in the private sector to introduce the concept of design thinking, it is even harder to do so in the public sector. High risk, high rewards that may be granted to future officials that did not take the risks and, on top of that, potential free-riding from other countries. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a global institution that would take this proposition and incur into those risks, forgiving failures, and assuming the costs of creating such public good(s)?


If only such an institution existed...


Hey! Wait a minute…



1 There are quite a number of books on design thinking. The ones I have been able to read are: (1) Brown, Tim, “Change by Design”; (2) Lockwood, Thomas, “Design Thinking”; and of course (3) Martin, Roger L., “The Design of Business”.

2 I apologize to any designer reading this post as this is a gross simplification of the design process. For those interested in this topic, IDEO has developed the "Human Centered Design Toolkit"


Join the Conversation

Tina George
October 04, 2010

You make some excellent points, Arturo. It would be phenomenally motivating if we could have a design lab right here at the Bank to test innovative services and ideas that might have the potential to become public goods, absorbing the costs of innovating (within boundaries), and celebrating successful failures.


October 04, 2010

Hi Arturo,

Design Thinking for government services is exactly what I'm trying to do!
Thank you very much for your post. I'm pretty encouraged:)
As you mentioned, I understand that it's not easy to introduce innovative services into government services. So I'm thinking of offering some instructive courses about design thinking for the workers.


Arturo Muente-Kunigami
September 29, 2010

Hi Jay,

Thanks for your comment.

You are right that short-term thinking is part of the issue. It is just that there are not many incentives out there for policymakers to be "first-movers" in many areas.

And it is true that new services should leverage on the information that can now be collected. It is not only about "digitizing" current workflows, ICTs are so disruptive that many services should probably be re-designed from scratch.



September 20, 2010

I agree with your point. ICT's workflows can change the way how a government get information and even the way it acts and the perception that citizens have about the state. Good services are not in dispute with new tech. In contrast, new tech leads society to new paradigms of efficiency. The general behavior in public policies is the herd mentality that only thinks in short terms, and this is a very wrong solution.

Arturo Muente-Kunigami
October 09, 2010

Hi Tina,

Thanks for your comment. What a great idea. There are some interesting and innovating ideas in the Bank, but they are not that well disseminated and seem to be the exception rather than the norm.

Evoke ( is one that comes to mind (you can check several posts on it on the Edutech blog -, or CAPRA ( but that's all I can think of.

Your point on failures is also huge. It is ok to fail, as long as we learn from these experiences. Edutech actually had a post on the FailFair which took place in DC around July / August.

Anyway, let's try to put together a proposal on a Design Lab!



Arturo Muente-Kunigami
October 09, 2010

Dear Yuki,

Congratulations! I am sure such a course will open many opportunities to create new and better services at your office.

If you are interested in reading material, I recommend the following books:

- Tim Brown, "Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation", HarperCollins, 2009
- Roger Martin, "The Design of Business", Harvard Business Press, 2009
- Thomas Lockwood (editor), "Design Thinking", Allworth Press, 2009

Here is another book I've seen but haven't gone through:
- Roberto Verganti, "Design-driven innovation", Harvard Business Press, 2009

Note that all these books have been published last year...

Good luck and let us know how it goes!



Doctor Michel ODIKA
January 15, 2011

First of all, information and communication technologies (ICT) remain essential in improving resource use and service supply. However, the relationship between ICT and governance is a powerful but nuanced one. For instance, governance reforms (1) need to be informed, not just by performing ICT, but also by basic data and strategic information obtained through a stark departure from traditional views on the architecture and the scope of conventional information systems. How to do that depends on context and background. Why?

The paradigm shift required to make ICT instrumental to governance reforms is to focus on what is effective and efficient in building a critical mass of capacity for positive change. Unfortunately, regardless of whether or not they are controlled by the public sector or by the business world, many, if not most, information systems in low- and high-income countries can be characterized as closed administrative structures through which there is limited flow of data on resource allocation for service delivery. They are often only used to a limited extent by a limited number of top officials at national and global level when formulating policy reforms, while little use is made of critical and strategic information that could be extracted from other tools and sources – e.g. opinion surveys, NGOs, professional associations, academic institutions, research centres, etc. -, many of which are located outside the public sector and (sometimes) far away from the business world…
Now more than ever, from a policy point of view, the crucial information is that which allows identification of the operational and systemic constraints. In this context, the multiplication of information needs and users implies that the way information is generated, shared and processed also has to evolve. This critically depends on transparency (availability and accessibility), for example, by making pertinent information readily accessible via the Internet (2).

Today, governance reforms call for open and collaborative models, such as “Malaria Observatories” (3,4), to ensure that all the best sources of data are tapped and information flows quickly to those who can translate it into appropriate action. Once established, these state/non-state multi-stakeholder networks can play a key role in complementing and improving routine information systems, by directly linking the production and dissemination of intelligence on specific issues to the sharing of best practices. Generally speaking, these innovative structures reflect the increasing value given to cross-agency work: they thus institutionalize the linkages between local governance and country-wide policy-making…

There is need for making information and communication technologies (ICT) instrumental to governance reforms. Unfortunately, the institutional capacities to meet this ambitious requirement are typically weak in countries classified as low-income. However, even in countries with well-resourced information systems and sophisticated communication networks, there is still need for far-reaching improvements and groundbreaking innovations in terms of architecture, scope, multisectoral response and multidimensional approach…

Doctor Michel ODIKA (Congo-Brazzaville)

1. Governance reforms: balanced approaches to be found (
2. Site internet pour le Ministère de la Santé (…)
3. Advocacy for a Malaria Observatory in Congo-Brazzaville (…)
4. Observatoire du Paludisme: capital au service d’un idéal (…)

Niti Bhan
January 20, 2013

The discipline of human centered design planning offers rigorous methods based approach to identifying the problems to be solved and framing them correctly prior to the design and development of solutions. Without that, we're back to the spaghetti on the wall trial and error approach.