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Finding the flex in complex public sector systems. Co-designing for services through systemic interventions

Format: Papers, RSD6, Topic: Policy & Governance

Heidi Dolven and Adrian Paulsen

This proposed case study offers insight into the use of design across public sector silos toward solving complex issues in regard to joint ownership, administration and policy delivery between ministries, directorates, and regional and municipal service delivery. The approach demands horizontal and vertical innovation across these varying levels of government and administrative silos toward a reduction in bureaucracy and improved service provision.

In this case study, we have worked on improving the process of recalling, retrieving and keeping the right to retain your driving license. As it involves three different sectors and several layers of national, regional and local government, the findings have great relevance to others working toward solving similar complex issues across public sector silos and administrative levels. We have been given a mandate to innovate or improve the full set of tools in public administration—from laws and regulations to financing structures, digitization of work processes, or simply changing forms. The work contributes to the current discourse on design for public sector service by offering insight into ongoing design practice in real-life case studies.

Due to bureaucratic systems, current public service provision is time-consuming for both service providers and citizens. Leading to an increased focus on cutting bureaucracy as well as solving systemic and wicked problems in public sector service management. The Agency for Public Management and eGovernment and The Norwegian Center for Design and Architecture administers the fund for public sector innovation through design (Stimuleringsordningen) on behalf of the Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation. Within the program, this case study has been lifted as the most complex and ‘wicked’ of the public sector challenges to be solved through the use of design in combination with change management, KPI development, planning and realization. We are working with Rambøll Consulting on this particular case.

Failings in current service provision might be perceived as merely inconvenient for individual citizens in interaction with the service system, however on a national level it has great impact in regards efficiency and societal costs. Conventional approaches have not resulted in solving these systemic challenges. The case presented offers considerable potential for redesigning the current service toward making the processes more user-friendly and resource-efficient and preparing the driver’s licence system for potential disruptive scenarios, including self-driving cars. This case creates new knowledge on the use of design in solving cross-sectoral challenges that, with growing bureaucracy, have developed a complexity which is increasingly hard to solve.

Jocelyn Bailey and Peter Lloyd (2016) argue that design practices challenge important structures and culture in policy-making within the UK Government. This case addresses some of the challenges identified by Bailey and Lloyd to develop approaches that are more mindful of existing structures, culture, and expectations for analyzing, developing solutions, and decision-making. The paper contributes to theory and practice by offering insight into the approach. We would like to share our design process through a critical review of our framework and results.

The four directorates which had joined forces did not have a common understanding of the challenges. Hence, it was crucial to create the right environment to allow open conversation, creativity, and exploration of the challenges. These types of settings have been referred to as ‘authorizing environments’ (Bason, 2013; Christiansen, 2014) and ‘public innovation places’ (Selloni, Staszowski, Bason, Schneider, & Findeiss, 2013), and as such, recognize the importance of the physical and social space needed for public sector innovation. Finally, it has been shown that the governance model of many public services is shifting from largely designing around the delivery of services for people towards to designing to enable a better co-production of services with people (Mulgan, 2012, p. 20). With this in mind we have had an explicit aim of co-creating with the project group and developing new knowledge together across bureaucracy and design.

The project was initiated around five main hypotheses on what would be keys to successful change.

  1. Identify plasticity* (*where change might occur) within the system, made visible through a systemic understanding of the structures, service flow, and dependencies mapped. The inner workings of the public sector can be counterintuitive, and a thorough understanding of the systemic context is crucial.
  2. Dual-language project leadership, applying design-led project leadership for precise communication and translation. The project team included design practitioners who also have long experience of direct employment within the public sector and on several administrative levels. This offered a level of ‘hybrid subjectivity’ (Aitkin, 2008, cited in De Propris & Mwaura, 2013, p.4) and acted as a key factor in knowing when and how to use design in order to solve challenges, as well as being able to use bureaucratic terms and logic as the basis when doing sensemaking with design tools.
  3. The third key is finding the right level of diagnosis, experimentation, and creation of effective interventions that are shared between the sectors/actors involved.
    Understanding that the socio-economic framework differs from sector to sector causes conflicting points of view when it comes to prioritizing changes. It is vital to create some common perspectives, a culture for accepting opposing views, and a willingness to compromise when necessary.
  4. The fourth key is bringing in Foresight methodology for the group to develop common ground. The topics are far enough ahead, not owned by a specific sector, with universal, holistic drivers that challenge all partners. This final key has already delivered great value by creating a space where current disagreements and past conflicts can be put aside.
  5. The fifth key is to combine our systemic design approach with the quantitative approach of “Gevinstrealisering” (KPI development, planning and realization) that Rambøll as a means to provide scale and prioritize points of potential.


  1. Bailey, J., & Lloyd, P. (2016). The introduction of design to policymaking: Policy Lab and the UK government.
  2. Bason, C. (2013). Design-led innovation in governments. Stanford Social Innovation Review.
  3. Christiansen, J. (2014). The irrealities of public innovation. University of Aarhus . University of Aarhus.
  4. De Propris, L., & Mwaura, S. (2013). Demystifying cultural intermediaries: Who are they, what do they do
    and where can they be found in England?
  5. Mulgan, G. (2012). Government with people: The outlines of a relational state. In G. Cooke & R. Muir (Eds.),
    The relational state: How recognising the importance of human relationships could revolutionise the role of the state (pp. 20–34). Institute for Public Policy Research.
  6. Selloni, D., Staszowski, E., Bason, C., Schneider, A., & Findeiss, A. (2013). Gov innovation labs: Constellation 1.0. New York City. Retrieved from




Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2017
Title: Finding the flex in complex public sector systems. Co-designing for services through systemic interventions
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 12 October 2017
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