• Opinion
  • February 28, 2019
  • 11 minutes
  • 2

Silicon government, human-centred

Opinion: How we hacked public sector challenges with tech and human-centred design


This piece was written by Gloria Chua, product designer at Government Digital Services Singapore, and Tebello Qhotsokoane, a Research and Policy Officer at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School. For more like this, see our digital government newsfeed.

Ezra Klein, founder of Vox.com and American journalist, recently compared the Washington D.C political circuit and the Silicon Valley technology bubble: “D.C…. is shaped by people watching solvable problems prove impossible to solve. Silicon Valley is shaped by people watching impossible problems prove possible to solve.”

To marry the worlds of policy and technology might therefore seem paradoxical.

How does one use technology’s fast-paced methods in an environment more used to being guided by deep analysis and the complexities of a wider political economy?

In December 2018, the Pathways Commission at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government invited 30 young government and social sector representatives from South Africa to explore this intersection at the Young Civil Servant Policy Hackathon.

In one day, we introduced them to fundamentals of human-centred design, tackling problems that included:

  • Digitising access to legal aid in Namibia
  • Minimising substance abuse among youth in South Africa
  • Tracking hospital and health centre performance for better decision-making in Lesotho

Why “hack” public service challenges with human-centred design?

In theory, governments and social sectors have adequate tools to deliver human-centred policies; they engage citizens via formal polls, surveys and focus group discussions.

In practice, however, these tools fall short. Often, they abstract the end user into a statistic or an objective, preventing the policymaker from engaging with these users in an empathetic way.

Similarly, it is easy to think of technology as a panacea. When we think of tech on such a scale, we tend to forget the individual citizens who are affected by technological change.

At its core, human-centred design is about foregrounding the end user. It celebrates the individual, not the group the individual represents; it embraces the messy outliers, not just common trends. By putting these tools in the policymakers’ hands, they can deliver public-centred technological interventions that are more effective.

So, what is human-centred design?

Human-centred design provides policy makers with a direct way to tackle wicked problems by surfacing the social, emotional and structural reasons behind users’ behaviours. It creates tighter iterative loops between research and design, allowing for recurrent discovery and refining of solutions.

The human-centred design process, popularised by IDEO and Stanford’s d.school, draws inspiration from ethnography, human-computer interaction and industrial design. While there is no fixed design process, the following are core activities in any design process.

During the Commission’s policy hackathon, we introduced these principles and applied them to the real life problems participants brought from their work.

What did we take away from the day?

1. Emotions are more important than you think.

Emphasising user delight is not new in the private sector, but is not yet a primary consideration in the public sector. Yet, emotions can be a powerful and unexpected lever when designing for sticky solutions.

A good example of this is IDEO’s work in increasing the uptake of HIV prevention products among women in South Africa. These drugs had proven to be highly effective in fighting HIV, but women were not taking them. IDEO spoke to them and realised that the medicine-like packaging was stigmatising and even potentially led to domestic violence from partners.

The team’s solution was to re-package the drug with a fresh brand, much like cosmetics. This branding made the drugs discreet, allowing the women to take them without arousing their partners’ suspicion.

Conversely, one of our groups experienced how an emotional response could hamper a well-intentioned idea. To tackle the issue of gathering performance data automatically in hospitals, the team suggested installing “robots” that recorded and processed interactions in the hospitals.

Eager, they quickly modelled their solution with cardboard and pipe cleaners, inviting others to give feedback. While many agreed with automating the data collection process, a physical “robot” made people feel uncomfortable. It was clear that an alternative solution was needed to combat their visceral concern of a data-collecting entity that potentially violated their privacy.

2. Build fast to learn fast.

Though the robot was ditched, having a physical model of it brought emotions to the surface. Perhaps without this scrappy prototype (which the participants built in no more than 30 minutes), it would have been a lot more expensive to learn about potential barriers to adopting this idea.

This act of quick prototyping often provides an inexpensive method to learn fast and fail quickly. It goes a long way in illustrating ideas, aligning visions and spurring key questions that may otherwise not be realised.

Digital solutions can benefit from rapid prototyping and iteration as well. For instance, one team was tackling the issue of providing legal aid. They settled on an SMS application system to help individuals living far away from the capital apply for legal aid. They started with the question that they were the most unsure of — what might the “conversation” between the SMS app and the farmer look like?

The team wrote questions and responses on paper, and had someone role-play the mobile phone asking the question. The quick and easy (and free!) prototype allowed the team to ask further questions — if it was an SMS system, how can the legal aid office trust self-reported data around income? Even within a snappy 30-minute exercise, a quick, non-digital prototype for a digital solution pushed what was simply an idea much further.

3. Sync tech with human structures.

Maria Ramos, a Pathways commissioner, noted that even though technology was a powerful tool, it is merely that: a tool. At its worst, technology ends up amplifying many existing human problems, like how biased AI algorithms simply reflect the biases of the real-world data on which they were trained.

On the flip side, technology can also be in sync with human dynamics in useful ways. In thinking about how to provide legal aid to those living in the most remote parts of Namibia, one of the hackathon teams built their solution on top of the ubiquitous spaza shops that exist across the country.

Instead of a solution that required all individuals to be literate, they suggested using spaza shops as regional hubs where individuals could go to apply for aid. This solution was sensitive to the actual needs of the beneficiaries of legal aid, as well as the social importance of spaza shops as the proverbial watering hole in the neighbourhood.

Another stellar example is Go-Jek, a $5-billion ride-hailing and logistics company based in Indonesia, which took a hyperlocal approach in developing its business.

Unlike US-based Uber or Lyft, Go-Jek used motorbike taxis, which are very common in Indonesia, as its main mode of transport. It allowed users to pay in cash, a must-have in a majority-unbanked country. While technology is core in achieving operational efficiency, Go-Jek’s sensitivity to the human structures and dynamics on the ground were arguably key to its success.

Therefore, perhaps instead of asking the question, “how can we use technology to drive innovation?” it might be wise to stick with the user’s needs, with technology as an enabler and nothing more.

Policy hackathon participants testing a prototype SMS system to help individuals living remotely apply for legal aid. (Picture Credit: Pathways for Prosperity Commission)

Where do we go from here?

The above takeaways are mindset changes that will take time to develop for civil servants and people working in the social sectors. Running policy hackathons can create ripple effects, but the real work is only beginning.

A human-centred design approach is one of many tools in creating and delivering public services. Complementing it with a traditional policy toolkit can result in effective and delightful policy and technology outcomes for your citizens. — Gloria Chua & Tebello Qhotsokoane

A version of this piece was first published by the Blavatnik School.

(Picture credit: Pexels)


Leave a Reply

to leave a comment.
Master the skills you need for the public service.

Discover inspiring resources, tools and policies.