Three Good Reasons for Turning to Design
in Germany’s Public Policy

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The idea of citizen involvement is as old as the concept of democracy itself. But instead of collaborating with public representatives, civic initiatives are working more and more against the governmental sector. This is also reflected in a German word that has been recently coined: “Wutbürger” (literally: “enraged citizen”).

There are current instances that demonstrate how citizens’ initiatives and action groups in Germany are able to overturn or to at least slow down decisions that have been taken by municipalities or state government. These cases can mostly be found in the area of construction and large infrastructure projects.

However, in practice, many such citizen initiatives are not successful at all: In 2014 only 15 % of all initiatives were successful (compared to 29 % of all successful initiatives since 1946). Accordingly, the ranking of possibilities for practicing direct democracy in Germanys’ federal states presents a less than positive picture. Only one federal state gets rated “good” while two federal states are ranked as “satisfactory.” The other states are rated “sufficient” and “defective” in their ability to implement citizen’s initiatives.

Experts explain that people are becoming increasingly upset if politicians hand over a master plan without including the citizens’ knowledge and needs. This might be the reason why the “Wutbürger” came into being. Ministries and the German Federal Chancellery provide websites and online tools to encourage citizen participation. However, these offerings are often perceived as mere PR strategies. Such a perception results in people leaving unions and political parties and not participating in elections. Is there an alternative to this trend?

Public Sector Design

A design-driven approach to public decisions could be a solution to this development. Design processes are dedicated to developing empathy for the user and could bridge the gap between the citizen and the government domain. Due to an inherent co-working approach, decision-makers, experts in certain fields, and citizens should develop holistic solutions.

It is, of course, an experiment. Are citizens and civic initiatives meant to co-create policies, to shape the public sphere? Let’s take a look at a few best practices and arguments that speak for it.

Public Sector Design: 3 Good Reasons

In some countries representatives of government institutions have already started to engage with design professionals in order to create user-friendly services and products. They do this together with users (in this case, citizens).

1.Best Practices and Visible Outputs

Currently, the refugee shelter crisis is one of the most urgent and complex social problems facing Europe. In Austria, the European Forum Alpbach organized a networking meeting for mayors in just two weeks to address this situation. One hundred mayors attended the workshop. Mayors known for their innovative approaches to dealing with refugees and providing shelter in a fast and unbureaucratic way could learn from each other and at the same time give inspiration to other mayors. The result was a 60-page document that provides advice for helping traumatized individuals.

In Singapore, the Ministry of Manpower redesigned the Process of Employment Pass Application with the help of IDEO.

UNICEF is using empathy-driven design approaches in Nicaragua to better understand children’s situations and enhance policies. The aim is to inspire “policy-makers to design solutions that respect the rights, values and aspirations of the children they [are] trying to serve.” The focus on empathy, inherent to design, may be a pathway to creating policies that better serve those who they were created for.

In this respect, Germany could draw on several best practices from other European countries. In 2014, twenty-five EU member states included design in their national policy. The Danish government has installed its own innovation unit, MindLab. MindLab is a cross-government innovation unit that involves citizens and businesses in creating new solutions for society. In this concept there is also a physical space—a neutral zone for inspiring creativity, innovation and collaboration—where designers work together with citizens.

Other important European examples of public bodies promoting design are SITRA in Finland with its Helsinki Design Lab, the Design Council in the UK and Region 27 in France. Most of them operate in the administrative ambit with great success. The role of design in political decision making however is still rather small, as Jesper Christiansen from MindLab recently put it in a talk at the conference “Politics for Tomorrow.”

For more examples of government policies and programs where design and innovation are clearly linked, see the Library of Case Studies on the “See” platform.

2. A Validated Concept

The idea of design in public services is not a new kid on the block. Actually it is older than one would imagine. And it has proved to have a positive impact. Thirty-five years ago the US Congress passed the Paper Reduction Act into law. Government agencies were required to reduce paperwork for people using their services. The Internal Revenue Service hired a design agency, which rolled out a project that today would be called a design thinking project.

More than ten years ago the Australian Taxation Office began developing its own internal design capabilities. And eleven years ago, the United States Postal Service turned to design researchers to transform one of its core documents (you can find both cases in Sabine Jungingers article on human-centered design in organizations).

During the 2000 presidential election in Palm Beach County, Florida, a confusing “butterfly ballot” design for punch-card voting equipment made it easy to miscast votes for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, which were intended for Al Gore. Subsequently, Marcia Lausen, a graphic designer, helped launch a project to redesign the political process. Her book, Design for Democracy, has been given to 600 members of Congress and election officials across the U.S.

3. Profit

For readers interested in revenues, design projects in the public sphere not only serve a somewhat romantic ideal of participation, but they also seem to pay off.

The following examples are taken from Anna Whicher:

  • In Denmark 60% of people in assisted living accommodations had poor nutrition. The Good Kitchen involved rethinking food services for senior citizens in the Holstebro Municipality. Implementing a design intervention resulted in a 22% increase in customer satisfaction and a 78% increase in the sales of healthy meals.
  • A cost saving of 90%. The Make It Work project for Sunderland City Council in the UK focused on getting the long-term unemployed back to work. Following a design intervention of €240,000, 275 people found work. This reduced the cost of getting an individual back to work from €83,000 to below €7,000.
  • From an initial investment of €9,000 in training, efficiency savings of €492,000 have been calculated by the Housing Option Services provided by Lewisham Council in London.

Nicolás Rebolledo, from the newly established GobLab in Chile, also mentioned, that the GobLab’s solutions are cheaper than traditional government approaches (this is why they were actually established and financed by the government). Furthermore, it turned out that solutions by the GobLab can be created and implemented more quickly than such traditional measures.

Design Thinking in Germanys’ Public Sector

In the corporate context several German companies have already introduced design thinking to their organizations. At the same time, while the public sector still seems hesitant about embracing design thinking, there are some exciting projects currently on the horizon.

The Global Diplomacy Lab, founded at the beginning of 2015, is focusing on new ways of designing the field of diplomacy. Together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs open situation rooms will be created where experts can bring up new ideas for current problems in their field. They are establishing trends for the future of diplomacy.

Institutions such as the Anne Frank Center, Mercator Foundation or the Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (Federal Agency for Civic Education) are partly working with design approaches.

But until recently design thinking was more a one-off project, as could be witnessed during the development of the new German identity card in 2010. Another well-known project in the social realm is the online map Wheelmap, which enables people to share information about wheelchair accessible places. Launched in 2010, users have mapped some 500,000 locations across the world.

Putting the “political” back into the “zoon politikon”

But let us now return to the “Wutbürger.” Design approaches seem to allow us to transform the “Wutbürger” into an active “zoon politikon” (Aristotle’s and Plato’s word for humans as social and political beings). Sabine Junginger writes:

“It is necessary to co-design, co-develop, co-create and co-produce to understand problems not only from the view of the public organization or the lawmakers but also from the view of the everyday citizen. The promise is for policies to become more relevant, more efficient and more effective from intent through implementation.”

Junginger concludes:We may also find that there are areas where people are not averse to being nudged – as long as they know and are aware that they are.”

It can be assumed that if the “Wutbürger” is informed and understands what action needs to be taken, the chance is much greater that he or she will comply with social obligations as well as carry out the decisions that have been self-influenced.

According to Aristotle, personal virtue is only realized by a “zoon politikon” when justice and injustice can be actively visualized and made concrete through interaction with others. In order for this to happen the “zoon politikon” needs to be involved and informed. As shown above, design approaches bear the promise of putting the “political” back into the “zoon politikon.”

Trusting the citizen

Of course creating human-centered democracy means overcoming established hierarchies. Such a development might be a threat to some groups of people who fear it might shift the established balance of power.

If citizens are regarded as a danger to democratic processes any design approach is likely to fail. Thus, adopting design approaches in the social sphere requires one important characteristic of representatives in the public domain: trust in its citizens.


Image Sources

  • Citizens’ Initiative: flickr | CC BY 4.0

The Authors

Eva Köppen

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