News and Comment

The Council of the Future – Making all of us into designers

Tuesday 13 February 2018


Participation in design is one of the ways that councils of the future can really empower people, but how?

Every council wants to be empowering. They want to empower their staff to be innovative and to make decisions; they want to empower their community groups to make more impact; they want to empower residents to be more resilient in their own lives. And you can’t argue with any of that. The problem is, it’s not always obvious what empowerment looks like. You can write it in your strategy, you can commit to it in your vision, but unless we know what it means to work in an empowering way, it’s a message that can be more frustrating to supposed beneficiaries than it is, well, empowering. It’s also a problem, not openly discussed, that the citizens who feel most empowered can also be most difficult for councils – at least where empowerment is expressed through campaigning and exposing apparent service and system failures. Embracing those residents as an asset, rather than fending them off as a liability, itself demands skill and energy – but can yield big rewards.

So if councils of the future really are going to be hard-wired to ‘empower’, they will have to be much better at engaging their staff and their citizens in conversations about how services are designed and how results are achieved. That won’t just happen through one-off, time-limited research and engagement projects (which we tell ourselves are co-productive and participatory, but too often remain painfully transactional). Instead, more people will be involved in helping to design and redesign what more council teams do, more of the time. And how can they do that? Here are some ideas in brief:

1) Train more officers to think like designers – and to bring a range of people into design conversations

There will always be aspects of design processes which are technical and subject-specific, demanding a level of expertise and experience that most people – in councils and out in communities – don’t have. But there are many design decisions that councils take which certainly could benefit from wider involvement – and that means making design thinking a much more familiar part of what it means to be a council officer, at all levels. In practical terms that will mean officers being armed to ask useful, design-focused questions when an idea is raised, an opportunity identified or a challenge posed. It will mean organising meetings and convening cross-team (and cross-agency) partnerships which do collaborative design work in real time. And it will mean creating a working environment which seeks out and values disruption as a means of generating new design ideas, rather than valuing consensus and continuity

2) Less consultation and more conversation: engage citizens in different ways

Co-design is a phrase council engagement teams are using more, supporting their colleagues to work with small groups of service users around specific design challenges. This is fantastic. But the council of the future will need to create many more routes for doing this, with many more of their staff equipped to start, host and learn from those sorts of conversations – rather than resorting to the more traditional, transactional consultation approach where WE have the plans and YOU tell us what you think so that WE can go away and make some decisions. That means staff being ready to design different sorts of meetings and workshops, to ask different sorts of questions of citizens and service users, and to have the resource and space to test things out with those citizens. We see so many officers who are eager to work in this way, but who find themselves in parts of the organisation which doesn’t expect it and so doesn’t make space for it – so those new approaches are never able to take root.

3) Inform those conversations by showing people the data

We can’t expect staff and residents to take part in impactful design conversations if they don’t know what the main challenges are, the factors that influence them and the impacts they have. This is the data that helps councils to decide what issues most need to be addressed, what is most and least likely to work, and what the relative costs and benefits may be. Councils need to be able to put this data into the public domain – and just as important, to make it readily available and easily accessible.

4) Connect people up

For a community to feel empowered, there needs to be a community to start with – that is, people need to feel that collectively they are more than just a boundary on a map. The council of the future will be effective as a convenor of community – joining the dots between organisations and neighbours to bring them into the same space (online or actual) so they can have good conversations about the things that matter to them. Those won’t be design conversations straight away, but they will forge the connections that surface common interests and, in time, result in groups of people willing and able to think together about how things happen and how new approaches could work.

So in the council of the future, in most service areas, councillors and officers will be much more accustomed to involving colleagues and citizens in thinking through the design and redesign of activity, and not just through one-off, disconnected consultation and engagement exercises. There will be challenges – keeping those conversations focused and manageable, being aware of sensitivities and rivalries in communities, and avoiding the trap of hearing some voices over others. But these are skills that can be learnt and there are tools that can be deployed – tools which staff, trained to think and act as designers, will be confident to use. Only when all of us feel we have some role in designing the world around us can we really feel empowered to effect change.

If you would like to talk to us about how to involve staff and citizens in reshaping services please contact Rob Francis: