Global Observer

What's the next big thing in public services? Citizens.

What's the next big thing in public services? Citizens.

Posting in Government | From Issue 13 March 10 & 17, 2014

MELBOURNE -- As distrust in government grows, citizen-centered designers are moving into the public arena.

MELBOURNE -- "It was Friday, July 15, 2011," Loren O'Keeffe states without faltering, pinpointing the day her then-24-year-old brother Dan went (and remains) missing from their home in Geelong, a regional town on the outskirts of Melbourne. When the 29-year-old turned to the police for help they said only missing cases that are deemed suspicious (thus criminal) by police are allocated search resources. 

O'Keeffe decided to take matters into her own hands, with her efforts culminating in the establishment of Missing Persons Advocacy Network (MPAN), a non-profit organization that offers an actionable how-to kit that enables anyone to conduct their own missing persons search.

"The idea was born from my own frustration that there was no direction or practical advice given to me when my brother went missing," O'Keeffe says of MPAN's Missing Persons Guide, which was recently digitalized from its original hardcopy format. "My hope is that my experience from running my own campaign can offer comfort [to others] through the provision of simple, basic, practical advice that will in turn alleviate stress and expedite crucial processes in a context where time is of the essence."

The guide is the first of its kind to provide free advice, information and tips to the general public, giving them a step-by-step handbook based on how long a person has been missing, from immediate steps to a month later. The guide, a go-to for anything and everything related to finding a loved one, details how to conduct a national search, create posters (even giving you the design templates), set up a hotline, carry out a ground search, liaise with the media, use social media, work with police and get help from the general public. 

The digital guide is the outcome of O'Keeffe's collaboration with Studio Thick, an organization that calls its work service or citizen-centered design. Often dubbed "practical innovation," the premise behind service design is to transition to smarter, more human services and has taken off in Melbourne in recent years, reflected in the number of members in the Service Design Network Melbourne (a service design network), currently at almost 500 individuals, compared to 25 members when it was established in 2010.

Service design allows complex systems to be examined in their entirety with all of the needs and wants of users and service providers taken into account. 

Studio Thick's co-director Damon O'Sullivan explains the key difference is about getting the model right from the start. "Most large services have just grown bit-by-bit to be what they are today; service design is a chance to hold the whole service up to the light and re-imagine every single part of the journey and make it a win/win from the onset," he says. 

Studio Thick is representative of a small number of "impact" design studios that look at the service they can deliver, rather than talk about themselves or what process they represent. 

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Loren O'Keeffe preparing for another media interview
 
Available online since November 2013, MPAN has been accessed 6,000 times by users in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany. Statistics are modest but the market is niche and since launch, O'Keeffe has had regular enquiries asking to replicate the model. According to the Australian Federal Police, over 35,000 Australians are reported missing annually. The MPAN guide has proven so effective that the police are now directing the public to the site. While O'Keeffe is in search of sponsorship and government funding, the maintenance of the guide is covered by publicly raised funds. 

O’Keeffe’s experience exemplifies the findings of a 2013 report from public relations firm Edelman, highlighting growing distrust among the global public in their government. In Australia, trust dropped from 53 per cent in 2009 to 39 per cent in 2013. 

The MPAN guide is an anomaly in a city often referred to as a "nanny state" due to its regulatory processes and often-crippling bureaucracy. But MPAN, along with a growing number of other modest projects, signals a gradual shift in public service design which moves away from traditional models of assuming what people need towards, instead, offering services that encourage public participation.

"Our expectations of services are increasing; we expect our government to be citizen-centric, our health care to be patient-centric and our education to be student-centric," O'Sullivan explains of the growing market opportunity. "Better digital platforms and technology have meant all of this is possible now."

Another player in this space is CoDesignStudio, a community-oriented design studio that has applied the concept to a physical environment in their recent project Headspace, a youth mental-health centre. Hugh Adamson, a CoDesignStudio cofounder, says the high youth visitation rate and the rapid expansion from six to 15 collocated services after only three months is a great indicator of the studio's design impact. 

Adamson explains that CoDesign blurred the line between service design and architecture by prioritizing the process over the built form.

"To this extent we are integrating the service, i.e. rehabilitation of youth, into the process of designing a building," Adamson explains. "We have designed a process that contributes to the rehabilitation of youth, while producing a piece of architecture as another equally important outcome. It is neither strictly service design or architecture, but an integrated hybrid with aspects of each."
 
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Mapping the user journey
Elsewhere, Melbourne's Huddle has recently launched Smart Blocks, a collaboration with the Australian government. This action-oriented site helps apartment owners and renters implement energy efficiency in their shared property with templates and a step-by-step guide to help cut out the paperwork. 

Before creating the site, the Melbourne studio conducted design research among the user group which included in-depth interviews and mapping the user journey, to gain insight into community-style apartments, and the needs and expectations of owners and managers. They then used this information to develop prototypes, which they tested with the users before launching the service.

"Customer response to the service has been extremely positive,” Huddle's Director Inge van der Poel says. “People could see that the studio had integrated their perspectives and expectations into the design of the service. Co-creation is all part of the citizen-centric way of thinking."

All three studios are examples of designers that have placed public good at the heart of their practice.

"Most businesses have a good purpose at their heart,” O'Sullivan says. "If we can help them act better, and enable change rather than just talking about it -- then we have achieved our goal.”

Photos: MPAN (main), Thick Studio.

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Lieu Thi Pham

Correspondent (Melbourne)

Lieu Thi Pham is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She has contributed to The Age, Associated Newspapers, Melbourne University Magazine, the Big Issue, Dazed and Confused, Indesign Group, Time Out, SOMA and Niche Media. She holds degrees from the University of Melbourne and RMIT University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure