Published on Digital Development

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"



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