The Housing Services team at Barking & Dagenham Council are part-way through the Design Councils Public Services by Design me


We caught up with Group Manager Sue Devitt to find out why the organisation got involved and how they’ve found the programme so far.

Challenges facing public service providers

Like many other public service providers, our organisation is facing significant challenges at the moment. The combination of spending cuts, economic turmoil and challenging savings targets means we are under considerable pressure to do more with less. In addition, the  localism agenda means we are looking for new ways to proactively involve our customers and users in co-designing products and services.

Given this context we know we need to do things differently. We cannot rely on old-fashioned ways of thinking and working when the world around us is changing so dramatically. We want to be an innovative organisation that keeps users at the heart of what we do, which is why we applied to the Public Services by Design programme.

Design in the public sector

Lots of people have asked me what “design thinking” really means and whether it’s relevant to public service provision. I think design is about a process, not a product. It’s about being free in your thinking, not being constrained by traditional limitations. The mentoring programme helps take us out of our day-to-day thought processes and challenges us to approach problems differently.

Public Services by Design has given us a framework within which we can explore new ways to involve front-line staff and users in co-designing services. The programme cuts across the silos you may find in the public sector. It’s neither top down nor bottom up; it’s a genuinely collaborative way of working. We are finding that staff who had initially been sceptical have become excited as they realise that they will be involved in designing as well as delivering the services.

Design is, by nature, a customer-focused process. Learning to think like this will help us deliver the services our users need as efficiently as possible, and our mentor is keeping us focused on this the whole way through the programme.

The mentor

The mentoring is one of the best things about the Public Services by Design programme. Our mentor understands the sector and the challenges we are facing, but also brings experience from a broad selection of organisations. It is crucial that we get objective feedback, and he also keeps us focused on the measurable outcomes we need to achieve. Having support and advice throughout the commissioning and procurement of design work is also invaluable. He has opened our eyes to what’s out there and what’s possible.

Creating a transferable model

We are working with our Design Council mentor on a place-based housing and environmental services project. This is part of our commitment to improve collaboration between services. For example, rather than sending out separate teams from housing, cleaning and grounds maintenance, we will be able to take a holistic view of what the place needs and build a team that meets these needs.

This project will help us deliver services more efficiently and effectively. It is also designed to increase the satisfaction of the local residents by involving them in designing and delivering the services they need for themselves through sustainable community initiatives.

More important still is the way we are developing a transferable model of working that can be rolled out by other service delivery teams in other areas of the borough. We are learning new skills and techniques that will benefit the whole organisation. Our plan is to use the design methods we have learnt through Public Services by Design when we roll out the place-based model across the borough.

Ethnographic research techniques

The programme has taught us that it is far too easy for public service providers to make assumptions about what their users want or need. It has challenged these assumptions, and when we commissioned some ethnographic research some of the findings were surprising.

Thanks to new research techniques we were able to hear from people who wouldn’t normally engage with the Council. The design company managing the research recorded voxpop interviews with the local community, which allowed them to present the findings in a powerful visual way. By approaching people as they went about their daily lives, for instance talking to them at the school gate, at the market or outside their mosque or church, we were able to broaden the range of residents involved and the variety of issues discussed.

The findings from this research told us what really mattered to the local residents in that particular locality.  We then took this to the next stage by running drop-in sessions in the local area that encouraged residents and front line staff to work together to improve services.  This has been a real example of co-designing solutions, and is as much about the pride and ownership residents take in their local area as about the services we provide.  Involving front-line staff in the sessions also really helped generate ideas and allowed the whole team to understand the realities of day to day service delivery.


Through these research projects over 70 ideas emerged to help us improve our services. With support from our mentor, we continue to work with residents and frontline staff to consider which are the best ideas and which ones we should prototype.

For instance, a number of residents told us that they didn’t fully understand the rubbish collection process and how to appropriately dispose of unwanted items. Many of them are frustrated that large items end up left on the street, but what we didn’t realise is that when council staff remove these items other people think this is how the process is meant to work. So we are working on a new awareness scheme to address these misunderstandings.

We are working with the local community, private landlords and council staff to change behaviour in a sustainable way. This is very different from the traditional ways of working, which would probably have involved less direct engagement with stakeholders.

By discussing these ideas with a variety of people at such an early stage, and prototyping those projects we think will work, we are confident we will save time and money and ensure that only viable and effective ideas receive investment.

Design at the heart of the organisation

The Public Services by Design programme has focused throughout on the need to involve the whole team in learning new ways of thinking and working, so that we can continue to use them once the mentoring finishes. The staff  have been trained in the ethnographic research techniques. They have also learnt other new skills that are already being put into practice in other areas of service delivery. This is one of the reasons the programme is such a good investment and so cost-effective.

The programme has definitely changed the way we think and made a positive impact on our organisation. There may be other public service providers who think being innovative is too risky, or perhaps imagine they don’t have the budget to access this type of high quality mentoring and support. By applying for the next Public Services by Design programme they can make this possible.