Design thinking in the Public Sector

Why use Design Thinking in the Public Sector?

Design Thinking has become a popular tool for creating innovative, user centric solutions over the last 20 years. If you aren’t familiar with Design Thinking we would recommend starting here, here, here, or here. There are many different definitions of Design Thinking, but for our purposes in this article we will use the IDEO definition:

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

– Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO

In other words, Design Thinking puts humans at the center of a product, solution or service. Most companies today are either using, or trying to use Design Thinking to create relevant products for their clients.

But what about the public sector? If Design Thinking is a “human-centered approach to innovation” could it be used for creating public policy? or public services ? Should it? In any case, citizens have no choice but to use public goods and services therefore is innovation really needed?

Examples from the public sector

A growing number of governments and public sector institutions seem to think so:

  1. According to the New Zealand Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet,
  2. the Australian Taxation Office, Design Thinking absolutely has a role.
  3. The government of cambodia has used Design Thinking to promote toilet use and hand washing in rural villages,
  4. The Danish government leveraged Design Thinking to create a food delivery service for the elderly.
  5. Public Libraries in Chicago (US) and Aarhus (DK) have even put together a toolkit for using Design Thinking in libraries.
  6. The US Tax Service even used design thinking to redesign their tax forms 40 years ago as a way to reduce errors (ever wonder where EZ in the 1040EZ form came from?).

There are lot of reasons to use Design Thinking in the public sector, but we would like to focus on 3 key reasons.

It reduces risk.

When public servants co-create, services, solutions and policies with their constituents and quickly test them, it allows for a “fail fast and iterate” approach. the Government of Canada used Design Thinking to offer a better employment experience in the Federal Public Service for persons with disabilities. How? By co-creating a first approved prototype out of Legos in 2 days. The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School explains that this kind of iterative approach “eliminates the risk of wasting time on the wrong problems” and saves significantly on up front costs.

It improves service delivery and removes barriers to access.

The Singaporean government used Design Thinking to rethink the end to end experience of applying for work passes to Singapore. Why? In the end anyone that wants to work in Singapore must apply for a work pass so is it really worth it?  They thought so. Singapore wants (needs?) to attract top talent and applying for a work pass is one of their first with the Singaporean public sector. Singapore certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on the top talent globally and therefore it makes sense to co-create a human centric process.

Finally, what if it doesn’t work?

What will happen if they don’t use our product, service, or adhere to the new policy?  For the Canadian government it would have meant that those with disabilities have a poor employment experience. In Singapore it would meant that top talent goes elsewhere and that existing foreign talent works illegally. Clearly, the stakes are just as high in the public sector if not higher. At the same time resources are also very limited in the public sector. Budgets are smaller and human resources are usually in short supply. The public sector can’t afford to waste time on projects that that don’t solve concrete problems.

We agree with Policy Options when they say:

“For governments, the citizen is at the centre of everything. For design thinkers, the user is at the centre of the design process. It is therefore only natural that governments have started embracing design thinking when shaping programs and services.”


At the same time, Design thinking isn’t without risk.  The Department of the Prime Minister of New Zealand highlights the following limitations that should be considered:

  • First, much of the public sector doesn’t have the skills and experience to lead these initiatives internally.
  • Secondly, it takes time. Sometimes more time than that which is available.
  • Third, Design Thinking is iterative requiring a certain level of financial flexibility.
  • Fourth, Design Thinking will cut across teams, agences and people groups (its intended to!). What will happen if a politician is seen collaborating with an opposing political party? Will a sub-contractor work with a competitor in another government agency?

In the end, Design Thinking is a powerful tool for unlocking innovation. It is well established in the private sector and is beginning to take shape in the public sector as well. Although the potential benefits are significant, the effort and requirements to get there are as well. To go further, here are some of the tools we have found helpful for using Design Thinking in the public sector: