Photo by Bing Hui Yau on Unsplash

Horsemen & super-powers

How to maximise the impact of design in government

30 April 2021 marks the end of a 20-year career in the Singapore Public Service, after 7 different postings across policy, service delivery and governance approaches. I had the immense privilege of serving the Singapore design industry over the past 4 plus years, first as the Executive Director of the DesignSingapore Council, then as the Design Ambassador to Europe and North America, based in Paris – possibly the only such role in the world.

I have learnt a great deal about the design industry. The sheer breadth of what is considered design and how it affects our lives is mind-boggling – everything from how we use everyday products like a hair dryer, how we access key services like healthcare and education, how we buy things online, how spaces make us feel, how we express ourselves through what we wear. Design is simply everywhere. 

As my next mission in life, I am going to return to the reason why I fell in love with design in the first place – because of its power to transform government and the public sector, and the impact that can have on citizens. 

Design’s Transformational Super Power

I first came across Design Thinking when I was tasked to develop public sector innovation and service approaches in the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009. I spent my first few months into the new role understanding the approaches, which I will tongue-in-cheekily summarise as: (1) every officer should come up with at least one new idea a year; (2) pick up the phone in 3 rings and answer emails in 2 days. 

To help you understand the context, the Singapore public service had a longstanding reputation of efficiency. We were at the forefront of e-government services, and had undergone decades-long of process improvement methods such as Six Sigma and Kaizen. There was very little efficiency gains left to be squeezed out of the system. We also referenced heavily from private sector management frameworks and principles, for example, the prevailing language of public service delivery at that time was “delighting your customers”. 

But there was one problem: as government, we don’t choose our customers. The act of governing is about seeking the best compromise, you cannot make everyone happy. Certain frameworks and principles, in my view, were out of context or rather had to be heavily caveated in use. 

Something was missing, but I didn’t know what. 

The a-ha moment came when I was invited to tour a new service centre a Ministry had just opened, which they had designed with IDEO. While others on the same tour probably saw a very lovely space, I saw something completely different. I saw transformed civil servants. 

The civil servants who gave the tour were ex- colleagues whom I worked with in a previous posting. I could only describe ourselves, as a sum, as your “typical civil servants”. We wrote rules, sometimes deliberately opaque to prevent people from “gaming the system”, and implementing those rules often required convoluted processes. We were afraid of getting “feedback” from the public, because they invariably were complaints. 

Except now during this visit, these same ex-colleagues were saying things like: “we want to be transparent about our processes”, and “we want people to feel guided in meeting their goals”, and “we need to trust our customers if we want them to trust us”, or “we need to talk to the public to understand their experience from their eyes”.

Same people on the outside; completely different way of thinking on the inside. I asked myself: what happened to them?

Design happened to them. 

I learnt that they used the design thinking process to conceptualise the service centre, thinking from people’s needs first and space second. They learnt to listen to peoples’ stories, search for meaning behind those experiences, and came to view their customers as partners in achieving the same goals, not as adversaries. Most of all, they learnt to let go of fear, the same fear I see holding back so many well-intentioned attempts at change and innovation. 

Right then and there, I saw that in order to transform public sector outcomes, we need to first transform our public officers. Design is not just about the outcomes, although they are important. Design is a mindset; a way of thinking and behaving around problems that puts people first. 

I had found my answer. I was convinced that we needed to implement design-thinking in the public sector. My team tried many things: we commissioned a series of experiments using design thinking in 4 policy areas, to very limited or even no success (more on that later). We wrote a manifesto which was shared with public sector leadership about how to become a citizen-centred public sector. We visited MindLab in Denmark and NESTA in the UK, and in 2011 set up Singapore public sector’s first very own in-house design lab, and hired designers into the public service. Back then, very few people have heard of design thinking. We had to do a lot of education and awareness-raising. 

It felt fantastic, it felt revolutionary. We felt like a small, rag-tag group of people trying to change the world through design. But we fell short of the impact we’d thought we would achieve. 


The 4 Horsemen of Design Death in Government

The problem is that “improved user experience”, the Super-Power of design thinking, alone is insufficient for many of the wicked and complex problems that governments face. 

In business, if you can improve your customers’ experience over the competitor, identify and serve previously unmet needs, or refine existing offers for new markets with new behaviours, then the market will reward you. Improving user experience is a strong premise for innovation. This premise further rests on 3 grounds on which businesses function: one, as long as the new idea has commercial value, you go for it. Two, having proven your business case, you can assemble teams, make new hires, invest in technology and start development. Three, the moment the idea stops making money, you can discontinue it. In other words, design thinking depended on an unambiguous goal (profit), a tabula rasa for implementation, and a clear exit strategy.

But governments deal in a very different space. After one decade of observing countless design projects in government, I have discerned a clear pattern why design thinking does not work the same way for governments as it does for business. I call this the 4 Horsemen of Design Death: Trade-offs, Disruption, Committees, and Grandfathering (not what you think it means).

First, on goals. Governments deal in the space of multiple and sometimes conflicting policy objectives. Would climate-friendly policies increase business costs and reduce competitiveness? Would stronger social safety networks reduce motivation to work? Is “levelling the playing field” the right approach towards improving social mobility? A business can hone into a target market and decide whose experience they want to improve. But for governments who must rightfully serve all, whose experience do you seek to improve, especially if it might mean that one group wins and another loses? The first Horseman of Design Death is Trade-offs, the key reason why our policy experiments using design thinking did not quite pan out. After all, policy is the art of navigating trade-offs.

Then let’s look at implementation. Governments operate with legacy systems in policies, technology, HR, finance and procurement. A new idea, or even worse, a disruptive idea does not carry the same connotation as in the business world. There is nothing cool about disruption in government. You are not disrupting the competition, you are only disrupting yourself, and as well as the key essential services that millions of people have come to depend on. You do not want to be known as the government who said, “We are disrupting schools tomorrow!”. Stability is prized above all else. Disruption is the second Horseman of Design Death.

Implementation also depends on other stakeholders willing to change how they do things. These could be other departments, other agencies, or non-governmental players or simply the public. The project team does not have direct control of the stakeholders, but can only seek to influence and persuade, usually through Committees – the third Horseman of Design Death. They suck up time and energy, are usually outside the core work of the secretariat, and sprout like mushrooms but are notoriously hard to close down. They may not be as scary as Trade-offs or Disruption, but just the mention of it will be enough to elicit a collective groan from civil servants. 

Finally, let’s look at exit. Business can pull products, services or teams out of market. But a government can’t simply shut down an aid programme, an IT system, or an agency overnight because “it didn’t quite work out”. I have been involved in closing off government programmes before, and it actually takes longer than setting new ones up. Meet the final Horseman of Design death: Grandfathering. It means to transition a set of people under old rules and processes while implementing new systems for new rules. The greatest fear of civil servants in implementing a policy change is the nightmare of managing a spaghetti tangle of rules, processes and systems for different sets of people. You’d be surprised at how many seemingly minor exceptions have to be managed through manual processes. Grandfathering means that even as a civil servant is considering a new programme, he is already thinking about how he would have to carry the can even long after it fails.

Hence the clarion call of Design, of the “improved user experience”, simply does not carry the same pull in government. And this is not because we don’t care about people’s experiences, but because there are other important things at stake. Valiant teams have tried design thinking but stumbled at implementation of ideas. One of the key refrains is: “The idea is great, but we just can’t implement it”. At other times, design doesn’t even get its foot through the front door. With all the risks associated with change and unclear benefits, the desire to improve user experience just doesn’t make the priority list. Only for very exceptional and visionary leaders, it does. It is not surprising that I often hear management’s response to design thinking being “we don’t have the bandwidth today, maybe later”, which invariably means never.

Design Alone is Not Enough

I still believe in the transformational power of design. I strongly believe that it can create impactful outcomes for citizens, and that it can help the public service become more responsive and resilient. I’m not saying that the 4 Horsemen cannot be defeated, but that certain other conditions have to be in place.

First, there has to be a really clear, rational and justifiable case for why a government prioritises the needs or experiences of some users, especially if it involves a trade-off against another. The most compelling cases I’ve seen are those that say: improving the experience for this group now will help us hedge against these problematic but undeniable long-term trends. Demographic shifts, climate change, technology breakthrough, social attitudes are all examples of forces affecting the government’s operating environment, which are impossible to influence or reverse. Businesses call these market studies; in government we call it futures thinking – the research and study of long-term drivers and forces, critical uncertainties, and potential scenarios.

When I directed the Land Transport Authority’s transformation efforts, the CEO at that time explained that design was critical because Singapore was short on land and we cannot continue building roads for cars. Public transport simply could not compete against the sex appeal and status of cars and hence needed to be loveable, not just cheap and accessible. In another example, the Defence Science and Technology Agency invested heavily in design innovation capabilities in its engineers because Singapore’s declining citizen population meant that there will be fewer National Servicemen in the future, and hence any technology has to be intuitive to use. GovTech’s LifeSG was conceived to address Singapore’s declining population, aiming to support young adults’ coming-of-age and navigating parenthood. When design supports long-term thinking, it has the greatest change of defeating the Horseman of Trade-Off. It may even make Grandfathering bearable, and Disruption worth considering.

Second, a designer in government must see his job not as designing one single beautiful solution, but for a set of solutions across different parts of the system. This inevitably involves compromises to the original design ideas. Perhaps while each individual solution might not be as sexy or revolutionary as desired, but they together form a coherent set of interventions to tip the system towards a new state. In other words, design thinking meets systems thinking. IDEO.Org’s Theory of Change model is very relevant for this.

A good designer in government is a systems designer. He or she must understand the critical stakeholders in the delivery system, which piece of the puzzle they each hold, their inherent motivations, and what will spur collective action. The job of designer in government is as much about the quality of conversations as quality of solutions. The key tools of a designer here are reflecting aspirations (why is this important to the collective us?), finding common ground amidst different perspectives, search for exceptions (people who are already managing the problem in new effective ways), and helping stakeholders navigate one another. This holds true whether we are talking about balancing trade-offs or coordinating implementation across agencies. 

As challenges get more complex, the alliance-building aspect of a designer will only get more important, and this is not just restricted to government. The recent Emerging Stronger Taskforces Alliances for Action are perfect examples of alliance-building conversations at industry or even cross-sectoral scale. The topics covered by the Alliances on the future of robotics, smart commerce, ed-tech, sustainability (to name a few) were the perfect foil for design, and indeed designers were involved in some of the innovation sprints. However, the designer is not only just designing a solution or service to grow new markets, but also a business case that represents a new form of organising relationships or supply chains. If designers lack the systems mindset, even the most exciting commercial ideas could not be implemented in this alliance context.

Approaching Complex Challenges with Design

There are many instances where design thinking delivers an important impact to public sector outcomes. I find that design works best when it is applied to a contained moment of interaction between the government and the public. There are many great examples in Singapore of this: HDB Service Centre at Toa Payoh, MOM’s Employment Pass Service Centre, Khoo Teck Phuat hospital, and even the Family Courts have all used design thinking to create a supportive environment for users. The most important outcome from design is relational; we are not just making essential services more efficient, but also providing assurance and improving trust between government and citizens along the way. This trust credit is the source of strength of our social fabric, it allows us as a nation to rally together during tough times like Covid. This alone makes design extremely important for governments. 

But in order for design to have a true impact on wicked complex problems that governments have to solve - climate change, helping small businesses stay competitive, improving social services, preserving arts and heritage, transforming industries, re-invigorating communities - then design has to be used in lockstep with Futures Thinking and Systems Thinking. 

The diagram below shows how design, represented in the green circle “Humans”, answers different questions in relation to Future and Systems. While we can pursue each domain as a separate line of enquiry, eventually we have to bring the answers together to gain clarity to the complex problem at hand. 

In addition, we should use the tools of design – deep human understanding, storytelling, ideation – to support Future and Systems. Good conversations are the channels through which we build collective intelligence and drive collective action. This is a fundamentally different dynamic from Committees: “I want to achieve this goal so please change what you are doing”. The dynamic is “what do we understand about this challenge? what are we trying to achieve together?”. This is essential for managing complexity.

In short:-

  1. Knowing what questions design can and cannot answer;
  2. Using tools of design for conversations 

This is the key towards designing the future.

Let me give an example. Having established that Singapore is short on land and cannot continue building more roads for cars (Future), the key to getting people on public transport was accessibility, reliability and the emotional connection (Future Experience). LTA adopted design thinking in the conceptualization of Punggol North MRT station, during which designers heard from commuters that they saw MRT stations not merely as transit points but as community spaces (Humans). Designers also identified that the 3 key community stakeholders in the Punggol Digital District– digital businesses, the student community from SIT and residents – would benefit from serendipitous interaction that can lead to talent-spotting and exchange of ideas (Emergent Behaviours). Punggol North station was thus the first MRT station deliberately designed to invite people to hang out in the station. Designing for hold instead of flow was a break with the existing templates, and required the support of land planning and security agencies, who bought into the vision of an MRT station as a community space (Collective Action). 

A question I frequently get as a Design Ambassador is: “What is your favourite example of design in Singapore?”. My answer always surprises people. 

Tax collection.

To me, IRAS is a perfect example of hitting the bulls-eye between Future, Systems and Humans. What initiated IRAS’ digital push for e-filing way back in the 1990s was actually a very central realization of Humans – that the vast majority of people actually wanted to pay taxes, they didn’t want to run a-foul of the tax authority. Hence IRAS set out to make it as humanly easy as possible to pay taxes, which involved key stakeholders like employers submitting income information back-end to IRAS so that tax-payers do not have to even declare their income statement (Systems). Why? Because as a small country, fiscal discipline will always be an important factor for our survival (Future). 

When I describe to a room full of international audience that all I have to do is to click once to file my taxes (or even not, should I choose so!), I become the envy of the room.

IRAS may not have thought of what they were doing back in 1990s as design, but it is essentially a very human-centred mindset, coupled by a clear eye of the future and a formidable systems approach. When civil servants embark on complex challenges, be they called design thinking, digital transformation, or community engagement, they must make sure they are always addressing the whys and hows of Future, Systems and Humans.

Epilogue: From The Front Row

In coming to an end of a 20-year career in the public service – a rich, rewarding, messy-at-times experience – I spent a lot of time soul-searching on what I wanted to do next. My ikigai.

I had enjoyed a front row seat to the evolution of design thinking in the Singapore government for over a decade. From the first a-ha moment of my ex-colleagues’ mindset transformation to setting up the government’s first in-house design team in 2011 that still exists today, I estimate today that there might be 30+ in-house design capabilities spread across the Singapore government. They call themselves different names like Customer Experience or Digital Transformation, but the design thinking mindset is core to their way of working. Some have even hired professional designers. Public service leaders are also much more exposed to and supportive of design thinking. 

In speaking with many of my public sector colleagues, I know they need support to overcome the 4 Horsemen. I highly suspect that they are going through the same emotional journey as I went through years ago: starting off fully inspired by the power of design, and then becoming deflated bit by bit along the way when the impact did not live up to the potential. 

My new purpose is to help others overcome the learning curve of how to use design to its fullest impact in government. Frameworks and tools are just the surface – my mission is to build a design muscle memory for approaching complex problems. Design is not something that you do; it is the way that you think and behave. I want to be the coach, the cheerleader, the spiritual support to those who choose to walk the design journey like I did.

I have stood on the shoulders of giants who came before me: Peter Ho, who taught me everything I know about complexity and futures foresight, and whom to this date remains the most intellectually curious person I’ve met; Lim Soo Hoon and Lionel Yeo who supported me in bringing design into government; Beh Swan Gin who tireless advocates for design and gave me the opportunity to make a difference; Tim Brown, Paul Bennett and Andrea Kershaw from IDEO who I am fortunate to count as my mentors in design. There are countless others who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, too many to name, and that includes all my teams in PSD, LTA and DesignSingapore Council, my colleagues in the public sector and my friends in the design industry. 

Now I hope to pay it forward.